An Interview with Doris Cohen
by Gail F. Nalven and Patricia S. Rudden
This year Doris Siegel Cohen is being honored with induction into the Hunter College Alumni Hall of Fame, a very select group highlighting achievement and service. We spent several delightful hours with Doris at Hunter College, learning more about her life, her achievements and her remarkable career.
We asked Doris about her background, and she started with some Hunter College memories, noting that her husband was an alumnus of Brooklyn College. “Oh, a mixed marriage. I told him that!” Her sister, nine years older, went to Hunter as well, and so, says Doris, “of course I went to Hunter. I’m happy I went to Hunter. It had the best music department of any of the four city colleges” (City College, Hunter College, Brooklyn College and Queens College, at that time). She pointed out that her Hunter legacy continues with her five-year-old great-grandson Theo, who currently attends the Hunter Campus Schools.
Her parents came to New York from Russia in 1923. A sister was born during a stop in Bucharest, and a brother was born in Winnipeg, and “I’m the only Yankee in the family,” Doris told us. She was born in Williamsburg and raised in Crown Heights from the age of two. “And that was a great neighborhood,” she said. “It was a middle-class Jewish ghetto, and I was surrounded by high achievers.”
“I give my parents credit for everything!” Doris repeated this theme throughout our visit. Doris’s parents treated all their children the same and had the same expectations for them. Doris, along with her sister and brother, went to Talmud Torah two hours after school each day and on Sunday mornings for four hours. Her parents felt that their children “had to have a Hebrew education . . . . My father took me to synagogue from the time I sat on his lap.” Along the way, she learned trope and started teaching Bar Mitzvah kids.
Doris grew up in a musical household. Her brother played the piano and her sister played the violin. They were always singing and playing music.
At the age of thirteen, things changed for Doris. At the insistence of her teacher and her mother, she took the test for the prestigious High School of Music & Art. It was “one of the best experiences. It was like going to Harvard or Yale.” Everyday she would travel by subway from Brooklyn to the school in uptown Manhattan to study voice and piano. Doris was always “rushing out of school” and graduated at 16.
Around the same time, her mother arranged for her to sing in the Lowe’s Hollywood Star contest. During that time, most movie theaters showed a double feature with a stage show between movies. When Doris’s mother heard about the contest, she signed her up. Doris won the contest for the entire borough with “Italian Street Song” by Victor Herbert, made famous by singing film star Jeannette MacDonald , which became her standard song as she toured around the movie theaters. One day she noticed that the program for the stage show between movies listed her as Dora Segale. Having an Italian name was supposed to increase a singer’s prestige through identification with the opera scene.
“My mother was always volunteering me every place,” Doris told us. And it was around the same time that her mother volunteered Doris to sing at the Menorah Home for the Aged. Although her parents spoke English, her language at home was Yiddish. She had a huge Yiddish repertoire and she loved to sing Yiddish songs, and “taught myself a lot before I even had voice lessons. The more experience you get singing, the better.”
Doris moved on to Hunter College. “That’s what you did. My sister went to Hunter, I went to Hunter. At that time the city colleges had the best music schools . . . . When I did come in, I was exempt from a lot of music classes . . . .I wanted to get out of school and keep singing, but I also want to have the proper credentials.” In addition to majoring in music, Doris minored in drama and philosophy. “And I did fencing. It was good for movement.” (Pat and Doris then reminisced about their mutual experiences doing fencing at Hunter.) She graduated at age twenty and married Arnold Cohen, the Brooklyn College boy. They were together for fifty-seven years until his death twelve years ago. She had planned to be an opera singer, but “I met my husband too soon.” Later, she earned a masters in music education from Queens College.
After her triumphs touring the stages at Loew’s theatres, her mother urged her father to take her up to WEVD, a radio station in New York City that was named for progressive figure Eugene V. Debs and had much Yiddish programming, calling itself, “The station that speaks your language!” This led to Doris singing regularly during the Forward Hour, with a thirty-piece orchestra, and eventually to having her own show. The conductor referred her to her first voice teacher, Olga Eisner, with whom she studied on full scholarship from age 16 at Eisner’s Carnegie Hall studio. She also coached with Hans Bruch, the vocal coach at the Metropolitan Opera.
Sholom Secunda, composer for the Yiddish theatre and of other popular and liturgical music, was “a major part of my life.” She worked with Secunda for many years and catalogued his papers after his death. Along with digitizer Neil Bindelglass, she created the Secunda Archive at the Bobst Library at NYU.
She met Secunda as a result of singing at a function for the ILGWU, her father’s union. Her father asked that his daughter be added to the program and was told she’d sing if there was time. Well, there was time, and after the event an agent named Ralph Singer approached Doris and invited her to stop by his office at Bettman & Pransky, a major agency at the time. The WEVD conductor she was working with advised her not to go: “He said, they’re a bunch of crooks.” Clearly, he wanted to keep his starlet. So she didn’t go, but then a few months later she did go, and Singer ended up introducing her to Secunda, bringing her into an office and telling her to wait. While she was sitting there, she saw a briefcase with “S.Secunda” engraved on it, “and I started to palpitate. This is like Leonard Bernstein in my house!” He asked her to sing but she wanted to prepare, so she came back the next day and sang for him. “He was a terrible accompanist!” But he asked Doris to sing at a wedding with Richard Tucker. “I told him, sure! The rest is a major history.” This was the beginning of her formal cantorial career.
After holding several High Holiday and interim positions in a few synagogues, she landed a job at Temple Israel of Canarsie, where she served for 28 years. And it was close to the beginning of this long period that she saw the ad in Jewish Week posted by Cantor Deborah Katchko, looking for other women who felt alone in their cantorate. She was among the first to answer the ad, and the meeting that resulted became the Women Cantors’ Network. Doris has been here from the very beginning, and served as our second president.
Although she is now officially retired, Doris still works more than many of us, coaching, teaching, and doing various kinds of cantorial work, in addition to some other enterprises she has going. She revels in the life of her city and walks everywhere. “I am a New Yorker,” she says with pride. “I love my city, and I love to walk because there’s always so much to see.” We both expressed approval of walking as a form of exercise, and Doris replied, “I don’t do it for exercise! I just walk!” And of course she still sings.
“There wasn’t a time that I stopped singing, ever. I did it ‘My Way’!”
More about Doris can be found here:
- Pesach recording: http://tinyurl.com/lobon9u
- May 13, 1986, Cantor’s Assembly Conference Interview, http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/interviews/106/.
- Sholom Secunda Archive: http://dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/fales/secunda/