By Harris Traiger

Joe Cohen (Photo by Harris Traiger)


I first met Joe Cohen in a BOLLI Photography class in which he was a new member. He had been a skilled photographer for many years, and during one particular class, the SGL, Art Sharenow asked Joe to talk about his specialty, portrait photography.  Joe talked about many of the techniques of portrait photography and showed the class examples of the work he had done over many years. In following semesters, Joe became an SGL as well as a BOLLI student.

Joe studied photography at the New School for Social Research in New York, working with a number of photographers including Philipe Hallsman, who is known for his many Life magazine covers.  Joe also taught courses in photography at CW Post, Queensboro Community College, Queens College, Hofstra, and numerous adult education programs.  His talent is certainly clear in these family photos provided by his daughter Beth.

Joe’s Wife Sonia


His Mother Bahia


His Father Aaron and Niece Susan


Daughter Beth


Friend Anjali


When teaching, Joe’s approach was always kind, positive and generous. We would present our latest photos in class and, from Joe, learned many of the finer points of composition.  Joe’s critiques were always thoughtful, leaving each of us  with good feelings about how to improve.  At the end of a session, Joe would comment that “this is a class of artists.”

Joe Cohen was born in New York City to Jewish Syrian parents in a household where Arabic was the spoken language. Following the death of his wife, Joe relocated to Cambridge to be near his daughter who lives in Watertown. Beth is a performing violinist who is on the faculty of Tufts University and the Berklee School of Music.

In addition to photography and his family, Joe’s other love is poetry. He meets monthly with a poetry group and has given poetry readings at a number of venues. Joe published a collection of his poems, “A Full Life,” in 2005, and his second collection, “A New Path,” has just been published by Ibbetson Street.   Click here for a short review of “A New Path” from the Globe.

One of Joe’s poems, entitled “South to North Africa,”  is a moving recollection of his time with the US Army in North Africa prior to the invasion of Sicily during World War II. He recalls his meeting and befriending a young Arab street orphan in Morocco, their relationship during those very difficult times, and the sadness of their separation when he left.



By Joseph Cohen

                                        After eighteen stormy days at sea,                                                                              Casablanca’s warmth permeated                                          my eager but seasick body.

                                         Exotic scents of orange trees and                                                                              rosewater pastries flavored the air.                                                                                      Street-wise kids swarmed                                                                               around, offering to bring us coffee or girls,                                                                    asking for cigarettes or bonbons                                                 in exchange.

                                               Drawing myself up with the                                                                                          dignity of an Imam, I chanted                                                                                           in Arabic that they brought                                                                                                    shame on themselves,                                                                                               with such words and actions.                                                                                       Silently, they bent their heads                                                in disgrace.

                                       With a dark mood hanging heavily,                                                                                      a newcomer ran to me with                                                                                             the usual cries reserved for                                                                                               the foreign men in khaki.                                                                                            The leader of the dock urchins                                                                               smacked him a powerful blow, saying,                                                                  “Be quiet, we do not beg from one of us.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Clearing a manure-soaked pasture,                                                                             we set up tents, preparing to stay.                                                                                Blue-eyed, ragged, Mustapha sat                                                                                 by my pup tent smiling radiantly.                                                                     He adopted this Arabic-speaking American,                                                                          offering always to be of help.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    When not running errands,                                                                                                he was a fixture in front                                                                                             of my canvas home in the field.                                                                             Of a Sunday, my little Moroccan friend                                                                            and I went to dine on the town.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             French colonialism turned ugly                                                                              when refusing to serve an Arab child.                                                                     Naturally, we walked out until he said,                                                                                       “Yousef, I am hungry.”                                                                                     We compromised and ate in the kitchen                                                                where Arab waiters fed him a king’s feast.                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Soon, orders had us preparing to leave                                                                   by convoy through the Atlas Mountains                                         to invade Italy from Algiers.

                                     Early one morning, drivers were gunning                                                   engines, girlfriends waved goodbye to soldier lovers                                                            while Mustapha stood by me,                                                                                            with tears streaking down                                                                      his unwashed face, crying “Allah Maahak ya Yousef,”                         May God be with you, oh Joseph.

                                                For me it was a tender moment                                                                                  in the war.  For him, a role model                                                                                          and father figure was lost.                                                         Sadly, he would return to the streets.

Algerian Children (photo by Joe)


During World War II, Joe fought in North Africa, Italy and France. In the summer of 2016, he was awarded the French Legion of Honor in a ceremony at the residence of the French Consul in Cambridge for his army service in France during the war.

Medal of Honor Recipient Joe


Those of us who have been privileged to know Joe feel that his being a part of the BOLLI community has brought honor to Brandeis and BOLLI–we are happy to now honor Joseph Cohen in return.

Joe will turn one hundred years old on July 13, 2017–which, by the way, is officially JOSEPH A. COHEN DAY (Click here for more information)  in Cambridge.  Happy Birthday, Joe–from all of us!


Writer Harris Traiger

A familiar face at  Turner Street, Harris has been an active BOLLI member for several years.  His photography has been on display in our classrooms and has been featured in issues of The Banner and The BOLLI Journal as well.


  1. What a beautiful tribute to a worthy friend. 100 Years Old! And still creative! Thank you, Harris, for telling us about a man whose life is so well lived.

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