A seed, nourished by nutrient-rich soil, fueled by the sun, and moistened by the rain, will germinate, grow, and flower. If all those conditions are right (and even if they’re not ideal), that seed will produce abundant fruit.
Over 40 years ago, the seed of my potential was planted in the fertile soil of the Oberlin experience, and even though Oberlin’s weather is not particularly sunny, and it rains a little too much, the metaphor is apt. What fruit did my Oberlin experience bear? An annual harvest of wide flung seeds and fertile gardens.
I joined Tank Co-Op in 1968 (for ambiance, think Janis Joplin). At Tank, I learned, along with so much else, the joys of making granola from scratch. And I consumed vast quantities of it. In my senior year, Oberlin’s co-ops published a cookbook that included a yummy granola recipe which, after graduation, through law school, and ever since, I have been revising and making my own. At 60, my metabolism has slowed down (even though I like to think I have not), so I now include fewer high-calorie nuts, and don’t glom it by the handful as I once did. But perfecting and sharing this recipe is one of my ongoing objectives, a life-work. My co-op experience made this possible. That experience was also the impetus for me to become a vegetarian. For the most recent iteration of this recipe (and some laughs), click here.
Second, Oberlin made it possible for me to improve as an amateur French horn player. At the tender age of 9, I began playing the horn, taking lessons at the Preparatory Department of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where I grew up. Even though I was a College, not a Conservatory student, Oberlin offered ample opportunities for me to progress as a horn player, especially in ensembles with very talented student musicians, a new experience for me. At one memorable Oberlin rehearsal, the conductor looked right at me and said: “Play like - ice!” No conductor had ever given me such guidance. My music instruction at Oberlin pushed me to the next level, well beyond just playing notes.
On graduating, I decided that I had no time for playing the horn. It was buried deep in my closet, while I buried myself deep in my studies at Cornell Law School. But a few years after I started practicing law in 1973, I realized that making music was missing from my life. I dusted off my horn, engaged my embouchure, and blew. AAARRGHHHH! A year of lessons later, I mobilized a woodwind quintet, dubbed “Prevailing Winds.” We’ve been concertizing for almost thirty years together.
What does this have to do with the shofar, the animal horn blown during services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? The embouchure for shofar-blowing is very much like that for blowing the horn (see the photo). Twenty years ago, when my Reform congregation needed a shofar blower, I volunteered, and have been the congregation’s official shofar blower ever since. The shofar is a universal Jewish “alarm clock for the soul,” jolting Jews to self-reflection and repentance. Not just any sound will do. My horn lessons at Oberlin attuned me to transcend merely blowing blasts, instead creating a sound that is soul-awakening.
Third, many professors at Oberlin, especially Bob Longsworth, taught me about mentoring. Mentoring goes well beyond mere teaching - as the etymology of “mentor” reveals. (Mentor was Odysseus’ friend, entrusted with the education of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus while Odysseus battled the Trojans and had his excellent adventures en route home.) Along with teaching Old English, Longsworth taught me the history of the English language and etymology. In so doing, to his everlasting credit, he taught me the benefits of imparting knowledge to the next generation, and the personal satisfaction of mentoring.
Professor Longsworth’s tilling of the soil produced a fruit that is particularly delicious to me: in 2003, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. published my book, Dubious Doublets, about words that are unexpectedly, and often delightfully, related in their etymology. In my law practice, the inspiration of Oberlin professors has spawned a fruitful career as a mentor. In the context of the law, my firm, Cohen and Wolf, P.C., has grown from a dozen lawyers in 1973, when I joined it right out of law school, to over 50, many in the Litigation Group, which I chair. As much as I enjoy trying cases, I find great fulfillment in mentoring our associates, and teaching Yale Law School students about litigation. What law student who is an aspiring trial lawyer wouldn’t want to take “Advanced Civil Litigation?”
Oberlin presented such a rich environment for multifaceted self-discovery that my college experience instilled in me the awareness that exploration in multiple and divergent directions is the path to intellectual and personal fulfillment. My own harvest brims over. Each Oberlin grad has his or her own cornucopia. This one just happens to be mine.