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Chana Berniker Cox ’63

March 2, 2019, in Oregon.

Chana aspired to be a Renaissance woman, and her work and her life were intrinsically interdisciplinary. According to her son, author Richard Harvester, she was aware that her legacy “might be accompanied by her name, or it might simply work its way into the ideas of others. But it would ripple from her, changing the world she touched.”

Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, Chana spoke Yiddish as her first language. Her father was a secular communist from a prestigious rabbinic family who owned a factory. Chana described her mother as a Jewish peasant—a prophet in her own way—who was visited by the recently deceased. More than anything else, the family prized intelligence. It was better than beauty, better than goodness; nothing mattered more.

As communists, the family fled Detroit during the McCarthy era, eventually settling in Windsor, Ontario. In high school, Chana went on a speaking tour, saw a bit of North America, and when it came time to pick a college, chose one far away from Windsor. Reed’s approach to liberal arts appealed to her increasingly catholic interests. After earning a degree in mathematics, she went on to earn a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University. She was a scholar of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the 17th-century polymath often referred to as the last universal genius.

The man she would marry, Rodney Cox, had studied at Willamette University while Chana was a Reed, but they didn’t meet until they were both working on their PhDs at Columbia.

“My mom taught at Columbia,” said Harvester. “But her path was not one of a simple narrow career choice. She wouldn’t specialize and then specialize some more. That wasn’t the kind of person she was, certainly not after meeting my father.”

While they were still working on their doctorates, Chana and Rodney moved to Idaho, living in the Salmon River wilderness with his uncle, Sylvan Hart, one of the last mountain men in the western United States, who was known as Buckskin Bill. Chana wrote about this in her book A River Went Out of Eden (1992).

“Life there was tough, extremely tough,” Harvester said. “As I’ve always seen it, they were trying to build their own world. They were two contrarian people, stepping back from a world that was changing at what seemed like breakneck speed; building something slower, and different, in the backwoods. My father brought the passion and my mother the intellect. Their time in Idaho came to a close with the great tragedy in the story of my family: the death of my eldest brother Jeremiah. He was killed in an accident and they left the same day.”

After leaving Idaho, Chana organized explorations in the Canadian Arctic. Following some particularly lean times, she returned to academia. “She wasn’t on the tenure track,” Harvester explained. “She was already far too old for that. But she wasn’t the kind of person you fired either.”

Chana became a senior lecturer at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. She taught the first-year course, Exploration and Discovery, as well as courses in intellectual history, political science, economics, and classics. In addition to teaching full time, she wrote plays and books, including a history of liberalism titled Liberty: God’s Gift to Humanity (2006); Reflections on the Logic of the Good (2007), a critique of Plato’s Republic; and the fictional thriller Inungilak (2013). She spoke about her desire to leave a legacy of ideas in her play Academic Overture. Another play, Pharaoh, King of Egypt, was produced in Portland as an interfaith effort by Augustana Lutheran Church and Lewis and Clark College.

In addition to raising their own children, Chana and Rodney provided a home and parenting for dozens of troubled children through the years. Using their vision, they taught the children how to make a new reality by simple force of will. “They saw hope in people that those people did not see in themselves,” said one of the men raised by them.

“If you want to honor my mother, don’t buy flowers,” wrote Harvester. “Buy or borrow one of her books, read it and build what you learn into your own understanding of the world. In that way she can be a Renaissance Woman whose legacy is ideas that will continue to trickle and flow through the world she has left behind.” Chana is survived by her children, Nechama, Isaian, Joseph (who writes as Richard Harvester), and Benjamin

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2020

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