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  • Introduction
  • Carole Kessner (bio) and Ann Shapiro (bio)

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When Sarah Blacher Cohen died in November 2008, a profound sadness went through the community of colleagues and friends who knew and worked with her in the field of Jewish American literature. Despite the crippling effects of Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a degenerative congenital disease that eventually left her confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak above a whisper, Sarah had remained indefatigable. Nothing would ever be quite the same without Sarah, who contributed until the very end as scholar, teacher, playwright, and editor, all the while supporting each of us in our own academic endeavors.

American Jewish literature as a recognized academic field has been in existence for barely thirty-five years. Sarah Blacher Cohen must be honored as one of its earliest champions. Over the years Sarah contributed to the discipline in a profusion of genres, from scholarly to popular, from essay to drama, and despite the slow progression of her disability, always with wit and comic humor. Sarah wrote or edited seven books of her own, and also wrote and produced several plays with her longtime collaborator, Joanne B. Koch. At her death she was working on a scholarly book on Cynthia Ozick and a personal memoir, tentatively titled "A Memoir of a Junk Dealer's Daughter." Recognized as a major voice in her field, she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Muscular Dystrophy Society, served as media consultant to the National Endowment for the Humanities, and worked as a humor consultant for the Library of Congress.

The contributors to this volume all knew Sarah and were eager to honor her. [End Page 1] What better legacy than to continue the work that she valued so passionately. The selections reflect Sarah's wide interests. Most are scholarly essays about American Jewish literature, reflecting her interests as professor at SUNY Albany and editor of the Modern Jewish Literature and Culture series at SUNY Press. But there are also plays, fiction, memoir, and poetry, all of which were of great importance to her. While contributors, with two important exceptions, were not specifically asked to write about Sarah herself, poets Miriyam Glazer and Myra Sklarew were moved to express their memories in poetry. In addition, we asked Rabbi Julie Pelc, Sarah's niece, and also her very close friend, Cynthia Ozick, for their extraordinary tributes, read at Sarah's funeral.

The contributors echo gratitude for her friendship and professional support as well as lasting admiration for her courage. Gila Safran-Naveh poignantly speaks for many of us in recalling Sarah's influence:

Her humor could literally flow though the phone wires. She was to me a teacher, a role model, a generous friend, an inspired and passionate fighter. Most importantly, she was … the quintessential survivor. I shall always cherish Sarah's memory, her gargantuan laughter in the face of adversity, her generous embrace of all people, her fiery tongue, and most of all, her luminous spirit.

Others add their own memories. Myra Sklarew reflects, "I will be grateful to the end of my days for knowing Sarah, who encouraged so many of us. How she had the strength to live her several lives and, at the same time, see to so many others is a great mystery." Elaine Safer remembers Sarah as "the most courageous person I have ever known," who helped her see "the comic aspects of our daily lives." Vicki Aarons explains, "Sarah was tremendously important to me as both a friend and colleague. She read voraciously and was always attuned to new voices in American Jewish literature. … She had a sharp eye for subtlety and wit, her own cleverness always a match for any one of the writers she so loved." Norma Rosen remembers that when Norma's book was published by SUNY Press, Sarah made "a wonderful publisher's party at her home, with good guests, good food, and a Russian violinist." Janet Burstein recalls Sarah's "warm, friendly interest" in her work and her importance as a role model: "she shows us what it means to stay engaged, creative—despite everything the aging body will do to suffocate...


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