November 9, 2011
Sometimes the simplest things can make the biggest difference. In her debut book, 1,000 Mitzvahs, author Linda Cohen gives the rest of us a path to follow if we want to regularly help out others. A mother of two children, ages 10 and 13, she also teaches parents how to promote but not force the idea of giving to their offspring.
Cohen, 43, of Portland, Ore., manages to not sound preachy in her book, released on Nov. 1 by Seal Press, and aptly subtitled “How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire, and Change Your Life.” She set a goal of performing 1,000 mitzvahs after her father died of lung cancer at age 70 in 2006. It took her more than two years to meet her goal, and in her book, she clearly describes each mitzvah, no matter how big or small.
Cohen, who has been both a professional and lay leader in the Jewish community, also is open about mitzvahs that go well and those that are much tougher to do. In her case, giving blood does not fall neatly into her comfort zone. Cohen, who blogged about each mitzvah, did not set out to write a book about her tribute to her father, Peter Rabow. Rather, she was hunting for a way to heal herself. In the process, the debut author who confesses she is an “overactive suburban Mom,” found a way to slow her hectic life.
I recently interviewed Cohen by phone about her book. Below are excerpts from our chat:
Q: Mitzvahs? Shouldn’t it be mitzvot?
A: “Americans say mitzvahs. Mitzvot is the Hebrew plural. And I remember when I first named my blog it was 1,000 Mitzvahs. I have told people, ‘This is just the American way to say it.’ I also use the word mitzvot, they’re exchangeable.’’
Q: What role did the mitzvah project play in dealing with the loss of your father?
A: “The idea of doing these acts of kindness got me out of my own head in terms of feeling sad and feeling grieved and started me thinking about how I can give back. When you do that, you still receive. It physically makes you feel better. That project, by blogging about it, it was also one of the healing aspects of writing.”
Q: You write at one point about tiring of composing condolence notes as part of a mitzvah for your synagogue. There was something, you said, about seeing the “deaths” list in your inbox. Why did it become such a tough task?
A: “I’m just a type A personality. I like to finish things. It was more like this ongoing heavy task that I couldn’t finish because people were always dying, and people always needed to have these condolences. It was really like, ‘I’m a Mom, and I’m busy,’ and was never able to finish that check. It was kind of a funny example. It was like, ‘Can I stop doing this?’ ’’
Q: Some of the acts of goodness you describe are so simple, like changing a roll of toilet paper, letting a driver in, opening a door for someone. It sounds like common courtesy, and yet I wonder if these things are commonly done anymore. We live in an increasingly high-tech world where it’s easy to bury ourselves in our IPhones, Droids, I Pads, etc. Talk about this tension between technology and life.
A: “My project started at a time when I had to get off the superhighway of 24-7 answering cell phones, being at the computer, and not paying attention to people. It’s where a lot of us live our lives. There was no way I could be in that space, and I had to be quiet. I was journaling. I was writing and going to synagogue. It was always about connecting. The word mitzvah comes from the root of the word…connection. It’s that idea about connecting with other human being even if it’s over a very minor thing like letting someone in in traffic.”
Q: How has doing this project changed you?
A: “It’s made me much more grateful for life in general, good and bad. It’s made me more aware of how much giving is out there and somewhat disappointed in what gets covered in media. We are led to believe that our world is filled with bad news. I think when you focus on the good news, there is a lot of good happening. I kind of hope I can spread a little of that and give people permission to turn off the bad stuff.”
Q: And yet?
A: “I wondered when I wrote this book, who’s really going to read this book? I had fears about calling changing the roll of toilet paper a mitzvah. I know to religious folks that could be a little bit of a hot button. The reception I’ve gotten so far has been amazing, has been so positive, so gratifying that people really resonate with that. … I hope the idea gets copied and shared. I’m probably not going to make a million dollars off of that book. That is so fine by me.”
Q: Are people now dubbing you the do-good lady as a result of this book?
A: “Mitzvah lady. Mitzvah Mama. Susie Sunshine was my old nickname.”