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.
15 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Bettys”
Thank you, Susan, for this eloquent tribute to Betty, loved by so many of us. When I first met Betty and Joe (at their housewarming a few blocks from where you and Rabbi Lapin were living) I realized I had never met anyone like them. Betty’s warmth and enthusiasm were so authentic, yet I was used to people in late middle age having settled into a certain type of grudging acceptance of life’s disappointments. Betty would have none of that. The impact of her positivity and mindful gratitude is a gift I have carried forward always. It is also why, among so many other people from our Venice community, I chose to write about them in my memoir, The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith.
Thank you Susan for this Proverbs 31 woman and a life well lived.
My Mother enjoyed many bagel brunches in the 90`s at “The Shul On The Beach”. A wonderful place to connect to our Jewish roots ~ thanks.
Shavua Tov Esther–
So nice to hear that your mother enjoyed her experiences at the synagogue we founded in Venice, CA.
Sorry to hear of all of your loss in losing your dear Mrs. Cahn. I know different people like that whom I will be so very sorry to lose when the day comes, and so much more aware of my own glaring shortcomings that do not measure up to these saintly examples. So glad that you memorialized Mrs. Cahn so deservingly! Wish her cousin had followed Mrs. Cahn’s path. Ruth and Orpah…? Happy Thanksgiving as well to you all!
This eulogy really is so beautiful and spot on!! I had the privilege of meeting and getting to know Betty and Joe Cahn in 1987… Her cheerful nature and warmth inspired me.. I have never met her cousin, Betty Friedan, but grew up in the generation that was highly impacted by her “teachings” which has contributed to the many divorces , shacking up mentality and countless other things which has added to the deterioration of our society… of course there are many other factors as well.. To put it simply, Betty Cahn was the consummate “woman of valor” and it has been an honor to have known her and her sweet husband Joe, OBM
Thank you for your personal recollection, Julie.
I am catholic but I love you and your husband’s musings. I used to listen to your husband on the KSFO radio station. I have all of your cd’s which have some fascinating material that gives a unique perspective on the bible that I love. This story about Betty was very touching. Keep up the good work!
Ah, the good old KSFO days. There are quite a few people here who remember those sows. Thank you for your kind words.
Count me also among those who used to listen to the KSFO show. I still miss it! I also feel the same as the others here who appreciated such a moving and insightful Musing. It made me wish I’d had a chance to meet Joe and Betty.
Susan, Your testimony for Betty Cahn’s thoughtful and intentional life was a delight to read. Thank you for sharing her story with your readers. Thank you also for highlighting the important contrast between her and her cousin Betty Friedan’s legacies. Gratefully, LJ
Such a beautiful article. I am RC but I think your “musings” are precious. Thank you.
Thank you, Stephanie. I think having wise mentors in our lives is a blessing that people of all (or no) faith can appreciate.
As a second generation reformed Jew (I did go to religious school from ages 7-13 to learn about my heritage), who goes to synagogue on High Holy days only, and does not keep kosher (except for avoiding certain foods during Pesach), I still consider myself an authentic Jew. The person you describe above was a practicing Orthodox Jew (Also authentic).
Mrs. A., I would never suggest that someone wasn’t an authentic Jew because of what they did or did not practice. What I said was that Mr. Cahn “largely ignorant of the full scope of what that meant.” He would be the first to admit that he knew very little about his religious heritage. He did know that he was Jewish, and being a Southerner of a certain generation, he knew that he wanted to marry a Jewish woman. He was delighted to discover more about his heritage.
Mrs. A. – I went back and I think you are referring to this sentence: “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.” Again, an authentic Jewish lifestyle is worlds apart from saying someone is or isn’t an authentic Jew. Someone may eat non-kosher food, gossip endlessly or do countless things that are not allowed by the Torah. That doesn’t change whether or not they are Jewish. We all sin – however saying that the sin is a sign of what God wants from us doesn’t fly. We can break the laws and we can even argue about what the laws are, but we don’t get to remake them according to our desires.
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