Judith Love Cohen, Jack Black's Jewish Mom, Was a History-Making Aerospace Engineer – Kveller
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Judith Love Cohen, Jack Black’s Jewish Mom, Was a History-Making Aerospace Engineer

She helped develop the technology that saved the crew of the Apollo 13.

Judith Love Cohen (Left) Jack Black (Right)

via Getty Images

Behind every confident, exciting Jewish actor is, usually, an incredible Jewish mom. That’s especially true about Jack Black, one half of the band Tenacious D, star of countless iconic movies, voice of kid-favorites like Po in “Kung-Fu Panda” and Bowser in “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” and style icon. His mother, Judith Love Cohen, was an aerospace engineer who saved lives with new technology she helped invent, and was a true feminist who wanted women to feel like they could do anything.

Black, who recently flaunted his bar mitzvah MC-ing skills while endorsing Joe Biden and who found his love for theater, in part, at the Passover seder, is happy to boast about his mother. “It’s true… my mom was a bad-ass aerospace engineer… and also a loving mother… I miss you mama!” he recently shared on Instagram about Love Cohen, who passed away after a brief battle with cancer in 2016.

Judith was born in Brooklyn, New York, to two Jewish parents. Her mother, and many of the women in her life, worked in her great uncle’s clothing factory, while her father worked as a soda salesman and helped her discover her love for numbers and geometry by analyzing ashtrays. She found she was particularly skilled with and passionate about numbers early on, helping kids with their math homework for money, the only girl in junior high who got into intermediate algebra.

As a young girl, she dreamed of becoming an astronomer, but back in the 1940s, there were no women astronomers she knew of, so she found the only woman who had a career that felt close enough — a math teacher, who she decided to emulate. She got a scholarship to go to Brooklyn College to study math. Her high school counselor recommended she go to finishing school instead and find a husband. But Judith always marched to the beat of her own drum. She also danced — while her sons said she would often profess a lack of any particular skills in dancing, she did dance with the Metropolitan Opera dance group when she was attending college, and later on in life found a passion for folk dancing.

Judith did take some of her counselor’s advice, finding herself a nice husband, Bernard Siegel, who was her ticket out of Brooklyn’s “Jewish ghetto,” as Jack and his older brother, Neil, recounted in a 2021 episode of the podcast Periodic Talks. Her first husband was a fellow engineer, a senior at NYU who proposed along with a job offer in California, where the two both wound up working at NASA. Judith gave birth to her first three children, Neil, Howard and Rachel, and went to night school, getting her master’s and bachelor’s at USC, where her son, Neil, a now-retired aerospace engineer, ended up teaching engineering. In all her days of schooling, she never ran into another female engineering student, and the school shared with Neil that she was the eighth female student in the school of engineering’s history.

It was also in California that she met her second husband, Thomas William Black, a fellow engineer who converted to Judaism when they married. Jack’s birth, a month after the lunar landing in July of 1969, is part of the myth of Judith Love Cohen.

“There is the legend of how, when she went to the hospital to give birth to me, that she had some paperwork, she was still working on a problem. And after she delivered the baby, she called into work and they said, ‘Hey, congratulations, you just had a baby! How are you?’ And she goes, ‘Fine, fine, I’m faxing you over the papers, the mathematical equations,” Black shared with ET.

Cohen worked on guidance systems, missiles (she worked as an electrical engineer on the Minuteman missile) and satellites, and then, on the Apollo project, where she helped save the lives of the astronauts on the Apollo 13. When the mission ran into trouble with an explosion early on, they lost the engine and the power supply for the command module, and the crew used the lunar descent engine which Bernard worked on, and the Abort-Guidance System which Judith worked on, in order to get the crew safely back home.

 “Judy was there when the Apollo 13 astronauts paid a ‘thank you’ to the TRW facility in Redondo Beach,” Neil recounted in a remembrance.

Cohen also worked on the ground station of the Hubble Telescope. Black shared that before the Hubble was decommissioned, he used used to love getting photos from the telescope. “There’s mom,” he would think to himself, knowing her hand touched the technology that helped make those images possible.

Like another great Jewish woman inventor, Ruth Handler, Cohen realized early on how important it was for girls to see a world of possibilities for themselves more than just mothers and homemakers. She made sure her own workplaces were diverse and got involved in the hiring processes. Even after she retired, she kept doing work to make sure girls knew they could be anything, writing a series of books about what women can be: architects, engineers, astronomers, professional athletes — collaborating with other amazing women and telling the tale of inspiring women like Rachel Carson. She collaborated on these children’s books with the man who would be her husband for the last 30 years of her life, David A. Katz, who co-published the books with her when publishers refused to take them and filled them with his gorgeous illustrations. She wrote these tomes for young girls like the one she was back in Jewish Brooklyn.

“It was really difficult psychologically and emotionally to be better than all the boys in math and science,” she shared with the LA Times. “[The books] really would have helped encourage my feeling good about myself, that this was the direction I wanted to go. I didn’t see role models. I didn’t get encouragement other than at home.” She wrote over 20 books with amazing women collaborators.

“My mom was the head of the family, she called the shots,” Black recalled in 2021. She made a point of never doing any of the cleaning or cooking (aside from a great spaghetti), and while their house was often in chaos, she was a wonderful mother. “She raised four happy and healthy kids who were able to pursue their dreams,” Black shared.

While Black often struggled to understand what it was exactly that his mother did, he did get to honor her work, in a way, in his professional career, when he starred in Richard Linklater’s “Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood.”

“She was much smarter than me, I did not inherit those mathematic genes,” Black shared in an interview about the Netflix animated film, “but there’s a sense of pride and connection to telling this story, ’cause I know my mom was in there working on it too.”

Judith Love Cohen was an aerospace engineer who changed history, and who was all about empowering other women — and for that, she deserves to be remembered. May her memory be for a blessing, and may it continue to inspire more and more generations of women in STEM.

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