A TOAST TO JOSEPH COHEN ON HIS 100th BIRTHDAY
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.
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.
SOUTH TO NORTH AFRICA
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.
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.
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!
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.