Some people impact the world by appearing on a public stage; others impact the world through the quiet example of how they live. This week, I along with hundreds of others, bid farewell to a diminutive giant of a woman whose everyday behavior inspired those privileged to know her to become better versions of themselves.
Betty Cahn and her husband, Joe grew up knowing that they were Jewish but, especially for Joe as a fifth-generation Reform Jew, largely ignorant of the full scope of what that meant. After Mr. Cahn’s service as an officer in the US Navy during World War II, he and his wife followed a trajectory similar to that of thousands of their peers, including raising their two children. However, at a time when most of their contemporaries began looking forward to retirement, Mr. and Mrs. Cahn were introduced to Torah Judaism. Invited by a friend to a class given by my father-in-law, they attended and loved it. “Coincidentally”, at the same time their grown son developed a newfound interest in his faith. Within a short time, Mr. and Mrs. Cahn stopped by the synagogue on the beach in Venice, California, that my husband founded together with Michael Medved. The Cahns added my husband’s weekly Bible class to their schedule and Mrs. Cahn joined my class for women as well. Within a short time, they were not only our students but our neighbors as they embraced Sabbath observance, keeping kosher and many other features of an authentic Jewish lifestyle.
Our synagogue at that time was composed largely of singles and young couples. To an outside observer, the Cahns would have seemed an anomaly, decades older than almost everyone else. That observer would have missed Mr. and Mrs. Cahn’s youthful quest for knowledge, their excitement as they embraced each new day and their gracious personalities that quickly made them popular guests and hosts for Sabbath meals. To the great benefit of the young marrieds in our community, including my husband and me, they set an example of a couple who, after decades of marriage, were passionately in love with each other, with life and with their religious faith.
Mrs. Cahn (only in the past few years did I begin to call her Betty) was one of the most upbeat, optimistic and grateful women I have ever met. Whether she was facing a medical crisis or a family disappointment, she always chose to focus on what she had rather than on what she didn’t. Forming a special relationship with our daughter Rena from the time Rena was seven, I would be hard-pressed to think of anyone who could have been a better role model for a young girl.
Mrs. Cahn had a cousin, also named Betty. This Betty was in many ways her polar opposite, achieving fame through being discontented and writing a book about it, The Feminine Mystique. Cousin Betty Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women, setting in motion a movement that in many ways has upended and uprooted lives as dramatically as Mr. and Mrs. Cahn uprooted their own, but in a diametrically different direction. In later years, Ms. Friedan herself bemoaned some of the extremes that her movement birthed. While gentle would be one of the first adjectives used to describe Betty Cahn, abrasive was often used for the other Betty.
Betty Cahn’s name did not feature in newspapers and her face did not appear in magazines as did her cousin’s. Yet both women left a legacy. As she advanced into her tenth decade her vision and hearing diminished, but her smile and warmth did not. When she died this past week, her son, grandchildren and great-grandchildren lost an important person in their lives. Yet, many others also shed tears and escorted her to her final resting place in Jerusalem, next to her beloved Joe. Her zest for life, appreciation of her husband and marriage, and her delight at the gift granted her of the Torah and a relationship with her Creator, set up ripples that continue to expand through the lives of those of us who were privileged to call her our friend.