Wednesday, July 05, 2017
Joseph A. Cohen turns 100
You’ll find him most Saturday mornings seated in the same café with a cheese danish and a black coffee, chatting with his fellow poets, writers, and artists – he is Joe Cohen and he is about to turn one-hundred years old tomorrow, July 13th. The fact that a ninety-nine-year-old gentleman is a “man about town” is in itself noteworthy; but Joseph A. Cohen doesn’t only attend the Bagels and Bards informal weekly meet-up; he also gives public readings of his poetry in such literary settings as the Periodicals Room of the Boston Public Library (for National Poetry Month), the Armory in Somerville, and the Somerville and Cambridge Public Libraries. Joe’s poetry readings are often accompanied by his violinist daughter Beth Bahia Cohen, who teaches world violin traditions at Berklee College of Music and Tufts University.
Joe’s parents were Arabic-speaking Jews from Aleppo, Syria. They emigrated to America in 1911. Six years later, in 1917, Joe was born in the Lower East Side of New York City. The Cohens moved to the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, where they raised a large family of 8 children. Joe’s childhood in the 1920s was straight out of The Little Rascals – he and his pals searched for empty lots for a place to play stick-ball; they went to Ebbets Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play baseball (his cousin Sam Nahem pitched for the Dodgers in 1938). But by the time Joe went to New Utrecht High School the Great Depression had descended on America and people were hurting; but Joe got straight into the table linen business after graduation.
As a young man, and a handsome fellow to boot (see wedding picture), Joe was naturally looking for love; and he found it when he met Sonia, who was from a Yiddish-speaking Jewish family from Ukraine. From these two regions of the world, now so mired in misery, they seemed destined to find happiness together in America. To the question: “How’d you met your wife?” Joe shrugged his shoulders and said, “well, we were both lefties and we went to meetings”. He brought Sonia home and said to his disapproving mother (it was a mixed marriage after all): “if you like her I’ll marry her; and if you don’t like her I’ll marry her.”
Then, in December, 1941, America was suddenly at war and Joe joined the U.S. Army. He fought Hitler’s legions as part of an anti-aircraft gun battery in North Africa, Italy (Anzio), France, and Belgium. Joe Cohen went up against Hermann Goering’s dreaded Luftwaffe and shot Messerschmitts and Junkers out of the European skies; but you could never get him to admit it – “hundreds of shots went up but nobody knew whose shot downed the plane”. That’s how real heroes talk; never taking personal credit for their amazing deeds. On Bastille Day last year, Joe was awarded the Legion of Honor from the government of France for his services during the war – that’s no small distinction when a whole country says “Thank You!”
The 1950s were good to the Cohens; Joe’s table linen business boomed and he employed 200 workers selling his wares all over the world. Joe and Sonia had three children; he lived in Great Neck N.Y. for 50 years before he moved to Cambridge at the age of 94. Despite his business success Joe never forgot his political convictions; so he pitched in to help the singer-activist Harry Belafonte fund and organize the legal defense for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Then he fought to desegregate another famous American place – Levittown, N.Y., where the Cohens lived for a time on their journey from Brooklyn to Great Neck.
In the meantime, Joe became a student and later a teacher of photography; he studied with highly acclaimed photographers at The New School in NYC, Parsons School of Design, CW Post; he also taught the art of photography for over 40 years at colleges in the area. His photos were exhibited widely in New York. Joe also took time out to study poetry; and he became a published poet with two fine chapbooks – one book, aptly named A Full Life, shows a photograph of Joe reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace in a foxhole. A second book by the title A New Path, was published in June. Joe’s poems often evoke scenes of Middle Eastern hospitality, food, and music. They reveal a man who pays attention to details and who savors the good things of life – family, friends, the taste of Syrian cuisine, the color of green in springtime.
Joe has been a beloved “Bagel Bard” ever since he arrived in town; and he has graced our table with portraits of each of us, as well as with his poetry readings, his keen observations, and his wry wit. I can report that Joe Cohen still has a strong hand shake, he takes a glass of scotch and soda every night with dinner; his eyes twinkle and his wit is keen. Now don’t be fooled, old age isn’t a walk in the park; it’s not easy being a hundred. After all, most of the people he grew up with are long gone; as Joe complained in a turn of phrase worthy of Yogi Bera: “everybody I know is dead”.
In Joe Cohen, we find a man who was a soldier and a poet, a successful businessman and a civil rights activist, a Jew who speaks Arabic, a beloved husband, an adored father of three and grandfather of five, and a photographer whose long and clear view of life has earned him the right to the title “A Full Life”. But to come out at a hundred with another title – “A New Path” – what can be new at 100? Stay tuned to Joe Cohen and you’ll find out. No wonder why the City of Cambridge has declared July 13th Joseph A. Cohen Day.