Hacham Hanania Cohen, wearing a loose white robe, black cap and phylacteries strapped to his forehead, opens his East Denver door on a snow-packed morning. It is the Fast of Esther.
“Take off your shoes if that makes you feel comfortable,” he suggests. “Otherwise, leave them on.” In the span of two minutes, the man with penetrating dark eyes and a trailing black beard eradicates awkward boundaries.
Hanania, 36, rejoins six-year-old Yehoyada, his eldest son. They bend over a siddur on a small table in the large, sparsely furnished living room. Absorbed in prayer, Hanania periodically pauses to clarify a difficult passage for Yehoyada.
Sarit Cohen, Hanania’s wife of nearly 10 years, extends a warm welcome. Because it’s a fast day, Sarit explains that morning prayers will last a little longer. “Come in the kitchen and I’ll make you tea,” she gestures.
Nehorye, 4, holds his mother’s hand. Hilkiyahu, the couple’s baby boy, peers from his stroller.
“Hanania and I met on a blind date in Israel,” Sarit says as she brings a cup of pink-colored tea to the table, followed by a plate of neatly arranged wafers.
“It was a very blind date,” grins Hanania, who has finished prayers and occupies a seat at the rectangular table.
“Two women from our families, who are both haredi, arranged the meeting because they thought we were freaks,” Sarit laughs.
“Maybe ‘weird’ is a better word,” Hanania injects. “OK, weird,” she says. “We were still observant but did things they would never do. Hanania traveled to South America. I went to Europe. Different things like that.”
“We’re not mainstream,” says Hanania, who coddles the baby now nestling his arms. “We like to keep our minds independent. We are seeking the truth, even if it’s not part of the mainstream agenda.
“Whatever helps make us better Jews, we’ll adopt and learn from it.”
A proud Sephardi Jew whose lineage — and appearance — date back generations to Morocco, Hanania observes kashrut, dons tefilin and performs mitzvot (“I try,” he qualifies. “No one can do them all”). He and Sarit, a Montessori teacher, home school their children in two spacious, tantalizing classrooms in the basement.