You didn’t have to be an orphan to grow up in the orphanage housed in Daughters of Miriam in Clifton, but it’s fair to say that you did have to be unlucky.
The orphanage, originally in Paterson, opened in 1921 and moved to Clifton in 1927, where it shared its building, then state-of-the-art new, with what then was called an old-age home. By 1935, when 6-year-old Sid Cohen moved there, it was a haven for children whose parents, for a range of reasons, couldn’t take care of them.
Mr. Cohen, who now lives in Wayne, was born in Paterson in 1929 to Harry and Miriam Cohen, both of whom were born near Lodz, Poland. They were drawn to Paterson because it was the “textile city,” a place where people with sewing skills could make a living. The Cohens did well for themselves until Harry died. “My mother, who was called Mary in this country, had rheumatism — they call it arthritis now — and she couldn’t take care of me,” Mr. Cohen said. He had many relatives in Paterson — his father had come over with five brothers — and the family made a decision.
Sid would do best in an orphanage.
“My sister, Rose, was nine years older than me — she was born overseas — and she quit high school to help support my mother,” Mr. Cohen said. But she couldn’t take care of her little brother too. “We were very poor,” he added. “If that happened today, our family would be on welfare for sure.”
So little Sid went to Daughters of Miriam.
His family did not abandon him. “When we were under 13, our parents were allowed to visit every Sunday, and they could bring us things. After 13, you were allowed to take the bus right into Paterson and stay with your parents until 6 o’clock.
“My mother would come every Sunday.”
He does not remember what it was like when he first was left in the orphanage — “I was only 6!” — but “I adjusted,” he said.
Life in the orphanage was highly regulated. “It was very disciplined. You had to go to bed on time. You were punished if you did things wrong. You had to mop floors.” The children who lived in the orphanage went to public school in Clifton.
There were between 30 and 40 children, more or less evenly divided between boys and girls, he said; by the end of his time there, as the Daughters of Miriam moved out of the orphanage business to concentrate more on rehab, the numbers shrank.
“The building was shaped like a U,” Mr. Cohen said. “Boys lived on one side, and girls on the other. When you were under 13, you lived in a dormitory, and the elderly men had either one or two in a room. The boys and men were on one side of the U, and the gals and older women on the other.” Each group, boys and men, women and girls, had their own showers, he added.
“We lived in a dormitory — there were about 15 guys about my age,” Mr. Cohen said. “When you hit 13, you would move into one of the rooms where the seniors used to live. The men who used to live there had died, and they didn’t bring new ones in. They were looking ahead. They wanted to make it into only a rehab center for senior citizens, as it is today — it is recognized nationally and internationally.
“The superintendent lived in the center of the U,” he continued. Most of the time he was there, that superintendent was Lillian Nochonson, “who controlled everything. Eventually she married Rabbi Dr. Solomon Geld, who was one of the originators of Daughters of Miriam as it is today.”
Rabbi Geld, who was born in Lvov, Poland, was instrumental in improving care of the elderly and in making Daughters of Miriam the seminal force in elder care that it became.
But life in an orphanage is not the same as life in a house, and he and Ms. Nochonson added some darkness. In general, they were not affectionate. More specifically, “they adopted one of the children from the home,” Mr. Cohen said. “His name was Gary.” That boy — Gary Kaplan, renamed Gary Geld — was gifted musically, as was clear from the time he was very young. He was given a musical education that included Juilliard; he went on to compose the scores to Broadway shows including “Purlie” and “Shenandoah.” But Gary had a sister, Norma Kaplan, who was not talented and was not adopted.
Later, the Gelds divorced, and Dr. Geld remarried.
Mr. Cohen became bar mitzvah at Daughters of Miriam, under Dr. Geld’s tutelage; he remembers that “my mother, my sister, my uncle — they all came.” All the boys became bar mitzvah, he added.
All but one of the children at the orphanage were Jewish, Mr. Cohen said, but one of them, Morris Cerullo, whose mother was Jewish (hence the Morris) but whose father was Catholic (therefore Cerullo), left both traditions. “He is now a television evangelist,” Mr. Cohen said (and the internet elaborates — there is an image of Mr. Cerullo in which he is draped in a tallit, his arms raised in Pentecostal prayer).
Meanwhile, Mr. Cohen’s sister, Rose, married; “her husband, Abe Gordon, was a butcher who came from a well-known Paterson kosher butcher, Gordon and Jacobs.” They moved first to an apartment in Paterson and then to a house in Fair Lawn. Children had to leave the orphanage when they were 18, but the Gordons were able to take Mr. Cohen out when he was 16, and he finished high school in Paterson.
After he graduated from high school, Mr. Cohen worked for pharmaceutical wholesalers, selling to pharmacies. He never was able to stop working long enough to go to college during the day, but when he was almost 30, he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and English literature from Rutgers University College’s branch in Paterson, going to night school. Next, he earned a master’s degree in psychology and sociology from the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, again at night.
Mr. Cohen constantly reinvented himself; eventually, after many experiences and with a great deal of well-earned understanding of himself and the world, he bought and ran a résumé and career-planning firm. “I had a diverse career,” he said modestly.
Mr. Cohen never married; he had a house in Westwood for 30 years after he left his sister’s house in Fair Lawn, and now he lives in a huge, open, light-filled new apartment in Wayne. His sister died, but he is close to his nieces and nephews and their children. He stays in touch with many of the people with whom he grew up in Daughters of Miriam.
Many of them have gone on to have successful, even impressive careers. Much of that, Mr. Cohen said, can be traced directly to the discipline with which they grew up. Failure was not an option.
There is one last question to ask Mr. Cohen about life in an orphanage. Was there any love there?
He hesitated, and then answered firmly. “No,” he said. “No, there was no love. We were well taken care of, but there was no love.”