Buzzy & Elisha
Inspiringly loving couple Buzzy Cohen, music exec and the 2017 winner of Jeopardy’s Tournament of Champions, and Elisha Levin, a marketing and communications pro and rabbi’s daughter, showed us around their sunny, retro home in Los Angeles and divulged the stories behind their names, worked through their Jewish identities openly, and shared wise advice about love, parenting, the traveling everyone should do in their 20s, and the best pastrami in the country.
What are the stories behind your names?
Elisha: My full name is Elisha Beth Levin. I was legally born with the name Sheila. I was named after my dad’s sister who died as an infant. In a very beautiful and loving way, he wanted to honor her. Within a few months, my mom realized that she had a baby named after an infant who passed away, so they rearranged the letters, and that is why I’m E-L-I-S-H-A.
Buzzy: I’m Austin David Cohen. Austin is from Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man. My sister’s name is Lindsay, like Lindsay Wagner, The Bionic Woman. My parents were very into ’70s and ’80s TV sci-fi.
David was my great-grandfather, my mom’s dad’s dad, who died when my grandfather was very young. When my mom was pregnant, they needed a nickname for me. My dad started calling me Bozo, and my mom said, “Let’s not do that.” They came up with Buzzy, which was the nickname of a guy that my dad had gone to high school with.
When I was born, they asked my dad what my name was – I was born Cesarean, so my mom was out – and he said, “Buzzy.” My mom was like, “No, no, no.” My great-grandmother came to see me, and my mom thought, “All right, this is it. She’s going to decide and everyone’s going to fall in line. There’s no way that this kid’s going to be Buzzy.” My great-grandmother spent some time with me, and she said, “Austin’s much too big a name for such a little person. I’m gonna call him Buzzy.” So, I’ve been Buzzy for my whole life.
What advice would you give your teenage self?
Buzzy: I was not very good with the ladies, and that was cause for a lot of angst for me. I would tell myself to relax about that. I went to a preppy, WASPy school with people named Bif and Missy and numbers after their names, so, being a Jewy, nerdy guy wasn’t exactly the sexiest thing. I got to college, and a friend of mine said,
“Nerdy Jewish guys is what college is all about.”
Elisha: I was kind. But, through adulthood, you connect more to people’s sadness, people’s loneliness, and I think back to this one time in middle school. There was this girl, Julie, who was a Russian immigrant. I remember teasing her a little. It was a one-time thing, but it still haunts me. I would love to go back to my middle school self and say,
“It’s not important to be part of the group making fun. It’s important to be the person who defends.”
How did Judaism play a role in your upbringing?
Elisha: My father is an atheist, progressive, Conservative rabbi. I went to a private Jewish day school. My mother also deeply connects to Judaism, but, after years of being a rebbetzin, after they divorced, I think she needed a break from all that.
My dad grew up Orthodox in Brooklyn, went to Yeshiva, and he’s Ashkenazic. My mom is Sephardic. Back in the day, that was a very big deal and difference. Her upbringing was more laid back. With her, we could eat bacon, we could eat shrimp – out of the house – and she went to Reform temple.
From my father, I gained a very deep sense of moral injustice, questioning authority and what’s been told to you, protests and activism. With my mom, I was in places where I was often the only Jew. We didn’t have Christmas in the home, but she also got that I lived in this world where I was seeing my friends have these things, and I needed to connect to that, too.
I think part of Jewish identity is feeling other and different.
They both felt that it was important to stay alert to what’s going on around you in the world, to use your voice. My mom was a lawyer, and she has a real sense of connection to who you are as a public citizen.
Buzzy: My mom didn’t have a religious Jewish upbringing. That was partially because my grandfather, her father, when his dad died, felt like they weren’t supported by the synagogue in their community. They were thinking, “We just lost our breadwinner, and you want me to pay every year to be a part of this?” My grandfather never had a bar mitzvah. My mom never had a bat mitzvah. My dad’s family, on the other hand, was much more a part of the community. My dad had a pretty religious upbringing.
We went to a Conservative synagogue that was very small. We called it Conservadox.
It was sort of like feminist Orthodox.
It was a lot of people who kept kosher, but women were reading from the Torah. I had a bar mitzvah, my sister had a bat mitzvah. My dad used to do morning minyans on Wednesdays. They don’t read the Torah on Wednesdays, so it’s hard to get people to go. After my bar mitzvah, I would go with him sometimes. I have very fond feelings for most of it.
When I was a teenager, I started doing Buddhist meditation, and I was very into that. There was this kooky teacher at my high school. His classroom had all couches in it. There were no desks. He taught meditation and wrote books about spirituality. My mom was a little worried, because my parents grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, and they saw their friends become Moonies and Hare Krishnas. They let me do it, but they checked him out.
How does Judaism fit into your lives now?
Buzzy: I went to Brazil and found this tradition, Umbanda, which is totally different. It’s an Afro-Brazilian spiritual tradition. It’s nature-based, but there’s also a lot of drumming, and dancing, and singing, and channeling spirits. On a day-to-day basis, that’s the thing I’m most engaged with.
Elisha: We just joined IKAR, which we both have connected to. We know a lot of people who go there. I think the rabbi, Sharon, is one of the most incredibly insightful and passionate people intersecting religion and activism right now. That’s what opened the door for me.
Buzzy: One of the issues that I have with a lot of progressive Judaism is that they’re trying to make it kinda Jesus camp-y. If you want that, go to a drum circle. If you want the gospel-y thing, we live in a world where you get to choose your own adventure. Go to the place that is part of that tradition as opposed to slapping it on top of Hinei Ma Tov or something.
What I like about IKAR is they’re really engaging with the more traditional parts of Judaism. They’re not turning it into a rock concert. Now that I’m older, I want it to be a little arcane and like what I grew up with. We didn’t like some of the shuls that were more like, “Everyone stand up, we’re going to say these prayers, everyone sit down.” I like that they help you find ways to engage with it, but I also like that they’re doing the liturgy. I like the cantor. It’s as if Jarvis Cocker were a cantor.
Do you have a personal mantra?
Elisha: We had a very difficult year two years ago. A lot of stuff was going on for each of us personally, together, our family, everything, and I really connected to accepting the things that I can’t change – the Serenity Prayer.
At a Buddhist retreat I went on, up on the wall was an old saying. A grandfather told his grandson, “There are two wolves inside of us. One of them is all the good stuff – kindness and love and generosity. The other one is all the bad stuff – avarice and jealousy – and they’re fighting.” The grandson asks, “Which one wins?” The grandfather responds, “The one that you feed.” I thought that was really cool.
What is the best decision you’ve ever made?
Buzzy: Marrying Elisha.
Elisha: It’s so cliché, but it’s so true.
Buzzy: Before marrying you, coming out here to be with you was a big one for me. I was very New York, had a great, well set up life there. I’m really happy. Not just our marriage and our kid and our life, but, career-wise, I would be in a totally different place. If I hadn’t met you, so much wouldn’t have happened.
Elisha: The other great decision of my life was twice I’ve picked up a backpack and traveled around the world. I really connect to the need for pause and break and combining it with traveling the world. Your 20s is the only time that you’ll be willing to do it on a shoestring budget. It’s truly one of the highlights of my life, aside from Buzzy and the birth of our daughter.
What is your daughter’s name? How did you choose it?
Buzzy: I was looking through names of plants and flowers. Lucerne is the French name of alfalfa, but it has a really pretty purple flower. My grandfather on my dad’s side was Louie, so there was that L connection. He was a character. Really fun and sweet and funny, a great guy. He set the tenor for my dad and me and our sense of humor, what it is to be part of a family in a community, all that stuff. We call her Louie a lot.
Elisha: His family has really adopted the new Louie Cohen. It’s cute.
Her middle name is Rae. She’s named after my grandma Rae. She was one of the most beloved members of our entire family. She was the epitome of the loving grandmother. All the grandkids think that we were her favorite, because she was so present and so loving that she made every person feel that way.
What has surprised you most about being parents?
Buzzy: Every day has surprises. I tell new parents, especially dads, that I didn’t really have a strong connection right away. My off-color jokes, speaking of Papa Louie: if there’s a fire, I’m looking for the dog, ’cause the dog and I have a history. I don’t know her. And, there’s not a lot for you to do at first.
Elisha: She was kind of a blob in the beginning. Some people connect to the blob.
Buzzy: I didn’t.
Once they start interacting and doing stuff is when, now, we’re best buds. She is her own person.
You think, “She’s going to be a little version of me or a little version of Elisha.” She’s not really a little version of either of us.
That’s really fun, and it can also be challenging. We’re looking at schools and Elisha and I think, “Oh, let’s find the progressive one.”
Elisha: But we already know who she’s going to be. We see her in the front of the classroom taking notes on the lecture, raising her hand all the time. Of course, there’s so much we don’t know, but much of their personality is formed so young.
Buzzy: When she was two years old, she would go around the house closing cabinets.
Elisha: You envision that this person is going to look like you, act like you. I don’t know why we do that, but we do. It’s remarkable how much they are their own people.
The other thing that’s surprising is how fun it is to have a little buddy.
I’m not the parent who’s going to say, when she’s 16, “Come on over, kids, we’re all gonna drink together.”
I recognize the parental nature of the relationship, but it is so incredibly fun, especially now in the three-, four-year-old stage, to just hang out with my friend. There are many times where it’s, “I’ve told you ten times to go brush your teeth,” but, overall, we really like this person.
Favorite place on earth?
Buzzy: It’s a big place, but I’ll say Brazil. There’s a retreat center for the Umbanda group that I’m part of. I think about that place a lot. It’s just so pretty.
Elisha: Home. I feel more connected to the present than I have in I-don’t-know-how-long. I’m just savoring what is right now. I feel good being in this house, how warm it is.
Buzzy: I’ll jump on home. I’ll also add the Jeopardy stage. I had so much fun.
Win, lose, whatever. I just loved playing that game.
Do you know a funny joke?
Buzzy: A Jewish mother takes her son to the beach. He’s playing. A big wave comes and washes the son out, and he sinks down into the water. The mother’s freaked out. She gets on her knees, and she prays, “Dear God, please, please just give my little boy back. I’ll do anything. I’ll keep kosher. I’ll go to shul every day. I’ll volunteer. I will be your most devoted servant. Please, give me my son back.”
All of a sudden, the heavens open up, a light shines down, and this wave comes and gently deposits her son right in front of her. She looks down at her son, and she looks back up at God, and she says, “He had a hat.”
Best Jewish food? Worst Jewish food?
Elisha: I like all the funky ones. Chopped liver, gefilte fish. We’re big sour people in this family, and pickled things.
Elisha: We’re huge, huge, huge deli fans.
Elisha: There’s not even a question.
I think it’s the best pastrami in the country.
They do twice-baked rye. The original Langer’s was in Palm Springs. He had to get the rye from the Jewish baker in LA, and, when they got back, he would heat it up in the oven again, and it ended up this twice-baked thing.
What’s kind of borderline is halva. As you get older, you like it more. I have a guy who works with me – he’s Irish from Indiana. I’ve gotten him really into Langer’s. They have halva there now. It’s vacuum-packed. I was explaining it, “It’s sort of peanut buttery, but with wet sawdust, kind of.” And he said, “That doesn’t sound appealing.” And I responded, “Yeah, wash it down with a celery-flavored soda.”
There’s gotta be something that I don’t like. I don’t love herring. I don’t really like super fishy fish.
Elisha: I deeply connect to all the jelly, funky, smelly, weird stuff.
It’s only as I’m approaching this era of my life that turning into an old weird Jew is comfortable.
We all are spending the first half of our life trying to back away from being the old weird Jew, and we’re spending the second half of our life trying to become the old weird Jew.
Is there anything that you wish I had asked you or that you just wanna say.
Buzzy: Our dog is not Jewish.
Elisha: We’re 100% convinced. She is the non-Jew of the family.
Photos by Jennifer Emerling
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