‘Singing Pharmacist’ teaches the classics; teen volunteer honored; Bible Quiz winner

Mike Sherwin
“The Singing Pharmacist” Marvin Cohen works with second grade students at Spoede Elementary School on May 7, rehearsing songs for a performance the following week. Cohen has been teaching American standards to teacher Jennifer Johnson’s students for 20 years.


The magic of Marvin

When Marvin Cohen entered Jennifer Johnson’s second grade classroom at Spoede Elementary School 21 years ago, he was supposed to tutor one of her students in reading. But every time Cohen came to tutor the student, he started to sing instead.

“He probably spent more time singing to my students than he did tutoring,” jokes Johnson, who is completing her 29th year as a teacher in the Ladue School District. “At the end of that year, he came to me and said, ‘I’d rather teach the kids to sing than tutor. Would that be OK?’”

And so it began.

For 20 years Cohen, 85, a retired pharmacist, whose nicknames are “The Singing Pharmacist” and “Marvin the Music Man,” has been leading Johnson’s second graders in song.  Two decades ago, he supplied Johnson with 20 or so American standards, and she put together a songbook from which her students could learn. Among the ditties: “Mairzy Doats,” “High Hopes,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover.”

Suffice it to say, many of the tunes are ones popular with the second graders’ grandparents, or great-grandparents, not these 7 and 8 year olds. But by the end of the school year, after 45 minutes of Cohen’s instruction every other week, the second graders in Miss Johnson’s class know each song, word for word. Recently, all 18 demonstrated as much when they practiced for the year-end assembly that was to be attended by their families and the rest of the school.

Second-grader Zoe Mei especially likes singing “High Hopes” because, she explains, “it tells us never to give up. If something seems out of reach, you can do it.”

It’s a lesson that Johnson says is timeless and repeats itself year after year.

“When Marvin first comes at the beginning of the school year some of the kids are really shy about singing. I’ve had students who have said no way am I singing with Marvin,” says Johnson. “But he makes it so much fun and builds these wonderful relationships with the students that by the end of the year they all love him and look at him like their grandpa.”

Cohen makes sure each child gets a solo, no matter how off-key he or she sings. He says it isn’t about mastering the nuances of a song but rather building confidence and teaching children at an early age to challenge themselves.

“I have a Marvin’s Song Fest T-shirt for each child with all of these notes they wear for the assembly,” says Cohen, who lives at the Brentmoor and has been involved with local performing groups like St. Louis Show Stoppers and Broadway Fantasies. “I credit Jennifer for all of her help and enthusiasm every year. We both put 100 percent into this, and it pays off because the kids seem to really love it.”

Johnson agrees, and has plenty of emails from parents to prove it.

“They email to say how much their child got out of singing with Marvin,” says Johnson. “One said her daughter came home and told her the great thing about Marvin is that he doesn’t judge any of us.

“He has touched so many lives over the past 20 years. My old students come back, some are grown and married, and the first thing they ask is, ‘Does Marvin still come in?’ It’s a really good memory for them.”

Below is a video of Cohen leading Johnson’s second graders in “Marvin Song Fest.” 

Mike Sherwin

At a reception in Washington, D.C., Lindsey Vonn congratulates Simone Bernstein, a senior at Clayton High School, for receiving the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, recognizing Bernstein as one of Missouri’s top two youth volunteers of 2018.

A Vonn-derful Student

Sophie Bernstein, a senior at Clayton High School, received an engraved silver medallion to recognize her selection by the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards as one of Missouri’s top two youth volunteers of 2018. The presentation took place Monday at the high school.

Sophie planted more than 35 organic vegetable gardens at preschools and daycare centers in low-income areas, and has conducted 175 workshops on plant science, cooking and nutrition to help financially struggling families make healthy food choices.

As a state honoree, Sophie also received $1,000 and an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C. with a parent for several days of national recognition events. Among the highlights was receiving personal congratulations from Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion skier Lindsey Vonn at a gala and award ceremony held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Rabbi Moshe Shulman and his son Yechiel at the U.S. Finals of the Chidon HaTanach, or “Bible Quiz,” a worldwide contest run annually by the Jewish Agency. Yechiel, a student at Epstein Hebrew Academy, won first place in the contest’s eighth-grade division. The contest was held at Manhattan Day School. Photo: David Khabinsky

Winning the ultimate Jewish trivia game

Also, a giant shout out to Yechiel Shulman, a student at Epstein Hebrew Academy and son of Rabbi Moshe Shulman of Young Israel. Yechiel came in first place in the eighth-grade division at the U.S. Finals of the Chidon HaTanach, or “Bible Quiz,” which is a worldwide contest run annually by the Jewish Agency. Tanach is an acronym composed of Torah (“Teaching,” also known as the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and Ketuvim (“Writings”). It contains the canonical texts that comprise the Hebrew Bible, which is made up of 24 books composed mainly in biblical Hebrew, with a few in Aramaic.

The Jewish News Syndicate (JNS.org) covered the event earlier this month and explained it this way:

“With competitors from more than 60 countries, the Chidon HaTanach is the ultimate Jewish trivia game that makes the oldest book in the world entertaining and engaging. It’s a test of skill, memorization and comprehension, but the foundational lessons of the Tanach—the byproduct of learning it—are complex enough to keep a reader’s attention for a lifetime. (Sample question: ‘Who said to whom: ‘Am I really unable to reward you?’  Choose from the following answers: A) Nechemia to Artaxerxes; B) Aaron to Moses; C) David to Barzilai; or D) Balak to Baalam. Answer is at the end of this story.)”

The final event is televised every year in Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day). American Jewish students, from 6th to 11th grade, gather each spring in New York to choose the U.S. winners, who then continue on to the competition in Israel the following year.

As a result of finishing first, Shulman will go on as one of four competitors to represent the United States at the international competition on Independence Day in Israel in 2019.

(And the answer to the sample question? If you guessed “D,” then you are correct.)