January 18, 2008
The Bloods, the Crips and the rabbi
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Part of the unequal distribution of criticism lies in Hier's assumption of responsibility for some of the Center's most controversial and daring decisions, such as the Jerusalem project.
Neither is Cooper involved with the sometimes contentious affairs of the Center-affiliated Yeshiva of Los Angeles, nor with such community frictions as complaints by some in the Armenian community that the Museum of Tolerance has neglected to properly commemorate the genocide of their people.
But beyond these factors lie differences in personality.
Cooper can be blunt and tough, but there is a saving aura of good fellowship and humor about him that seems to take the edge off any confrontation.
Physically, too, the two men differ, with the lean, sharp-featured Hier a contrast to his round-faced, stocky colleague.
Cooper himself will not brook any criticism of Hier. "Moish [Marvin] is an unbelievably visionary and courageous man," said Cooper, who repeatedly recalled some of Hier's pointed comments and unorthodox style during a two-hour interview.
For instance, there was the time in 1991 when Duke Snider and Don Newcombe came to Hier's office. The two baseball greats said they had tried to persuade the Tournament of Roses committee to accept a float honoring Jackie Robinson, a Pasadena hometown hero and the man who broke the major league color barrier, but had been turned down.
As Cooper tells it, Hier picked up the phone, called the committee, but was told that no more entries were being accepted. Five minutes later, John Van de Kamp, the outgoing state attorney general and a member of the committee, phoned Hier.
Van de Kamp, who was well aware that Hier could unleash a blizzard of protest letters and unfavorable media stories in an instant, begged Hier to hold off any action for the night.
Next morning, a committee functionary called to inform Hier that the Jackie Robinson float had been approved, but because it was entered past the deadline, it would be the last float in the parade.
Hier, realizing that the last floats were frequently shut out of national television coverage, asked, "So you want us to go to the back of the bus?"
On New Year's Day, the float took its place in the middle of the parade.
For all their mutual admiration, the working relationship between Hier and Cooper is not always placid.
"We have disagreements every day of the week," said Cooper. "We are talmudic that way, but we're open with each other."
Apparently the only irreconcilable differences between the two men is that Lower East Sider Hier is an ardent Yankees fan, while Flatbusher Cooper has transferred his loyalty, and frustrations, from the Dodgers to the Mets.
Even in this frequently contentious community, it takes hard digging to find somebody who will speak ill of Cooper or who dislikes the man. One prospect was Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Los Angeles, who has had some sharp exchanges with Jewish leaders over the years.
Al-Marayati hasn't met with Cooper for some time, but worked with him when Muslim, Jewish and other religious leaders drew up a code of ethics aiming at respectful interaction.
Al-Marayati said his discussions with Cooper "were cordial, and there were no confrontations."
The one hint that Cooper may have some human failings came from Mohammed Khan, a Pakistani American and Muslim activist for interfaith relations, who was Cooper's traveling companion on trips to the Sudan and Israel.
After describing "the rabbi" as "dedicated, a tireless worker and a great teacher," Khan allowed that Cooper, like most everyone else, "tends to picture other communities in broad brush strokes. The rabbi is very visionary and sophisticated, but he, like all of us, could sometimes go deeper in analyzing another community."
How does this explain his reputation? For one, he said, he is in step with Hier's guiding rule never to attack another Jew or Jewish organization in public.
"I realized early on that when your work is in the public domain, not everyone is going to pat you on the back," he said. "It's not that I don't care if someone criticizes my views, but I don't take it in a personal way."
Cooper recalls that when he was traveling in the Soviet Union, some in his group got quite upset with the KGB agents who were their constant shadows.
"Relax," Cooper counseled at the time, "they're just doing their jobs."
Cooper was asked about the differences in negotiating with high dignitaries abroad on one hand, and local gang members on the other.
"I feel much more intense when I'm dealing with people in my own community, because the consequences of what you do are much more immediate," he answered.
Simon Wiesenthal, Rabbi Cooper and Rabbi Hier with a megillah at Dachau on Purim 1983. Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center
Like many American Jews of a certain age, Cooper was born in Brooklyn, the grandson of Polish immigrants on both sides, and when he calls up his childhood memories, he paints a picture of a different universe.
His paternal grandfather, whose last name was changed by a helpful Ellis Island functionary from Krupinsky to Cooper, was a veteran of the czar's army, a big, muscular man who worked in a slaughterhouse.
The maternal grandparents ran a kosher restaurant in the early 1900s, and when his grandfather died, Cooper requested two mementoes.
One was a set of kiddush cups, which Abe and Roz Cooper use every Shabbat. The other was a curious set of instruments, consisting of a beaker and two thermometers.
"I discovered that my grandfather regularly made some bathtub wine and schnapps, just enough to make a little extra money to tide the family over," Cooper said.