In the first part of my interview with Joseph Cohen , we talked about his family’s immigration to the USA from Syria in at the beginning of 20th century, how the early Syrian Jewish settled in East Manhattan, his gradual discovery of occidental culture and Syrian Jewish acclamation. We also talked about his love for classical music and his encounter with his wife with whom he shared seventy years of his life. Joseph is now ninety -six -year old and is struggling with multiple disorders that sometimes come with age; yet he is full of life, creative, young-spirited and continues to teach photography in College. In this part of the interview, I will continue my interview with him and reveal more to the reader about this amazing person.
As we were talking , Joseph started coughing ; I offered him some water but he said it was nothing but a minor problem: a simple narrowing of the esophagus for which he had a procedure and that it was probably coming back. I apologized for being there bothering him with all those questions; yet, he dismissed my worries as very minor and showed great readiness to continue the interview. My interest in Joseph was not because he was a ‘’world famous,” as he himself stated in this interview but rather because even in his nineties instead of letting himself go down the river, he ‘ d rather go up, he proudly stated in this interview. Instead of crumbling under the effect of old age, he decided to dig in himself and bring up to the surface other beautiful things; a full life he beautifully translated into verse.
Interview with Joseph Cohen
J.O: we were talking about the time you started writing poetry and you were saying…
Joseph Cohen: After I had retired I asked myself : “ what shall I do?” and the idea came on me: “try writing!” In these days you take a course either in private or in class; [well] I have retired in 1992 I’ve been in contact with writers.
J.O: Tell me about some of those writers and the ones who made it here in USA
Joseph Cohen: Poets are not world famous like novelists, artists, writers or musicians. However the right thing to do was not to retire and stop working and go down the river I’d rather go up the river.
J.O: do you have any published collections?
Joseph Cohen: Seven years ago I published a book called : “ A full life’’
J.O: “ A Full Life,” ? what was it about?
Joseph Cohen: I will tell you in a minute.
( Joseph called his helper to bring him his book so he could show it to me , and offered me an autographed copy.)
Joseph Cohen: When I met my wife I opened my eyes with her and en joyed to examine the works of arts that were currently being shown and I remained that way because of my wife, and my son who is a good drummer and pianist.
J.O: I did not know you have a son, I thought you only had Beth
Joseph Cohen: Beth and two boys. I would say that I was exposed to many nice things. I was ex posed to nice people, nice friends and people in politics .I was young when I was exposed to the left wing idealism. That was good for me. I enjoyed it, I enjoyed working with people.
J.O: When you say left wing idealism, are you talking about socialism just like the one in Europe and did that work out for you as an American living in a world that was very paranoid about anything that can be even remotely associated with communism and socialism.
Joseph Cohen: In the truth those philosophies appeal to me very well. I enjoyed working to promote Trade Union. I enjoyed working for promoting equality of the sexes and people with different ethnicity. And since I was not in the middle east I took interest in what was happening over there [also.]I chose to combine my Arab background and American background.
J.O: Joseph, the first time we met at Bagels and Bards at Au Bon Pain. You talked to me about your experience in World War and you read a poem at Kirk Etherton Artist reception for the opening of his Art Exhibition at SPL; the poem depicted of few aspects of your war experience and I personally liked It. Joseph tell me about your experience during the war
Joseph Cohen: I was overseas for three years for the war. I came into contact with the Italian and French culture and North African culture. I was very thrilled. I did not go then for Casablanca. I got picked up by friends, they played Arabic music [ such as ] Um keltum, M’hamed Abdel wahab and Fairuz and I heard a little of it when I was overseas. What I did do during the war; I did the war against Hitler, he was the world’s worst enemy, no doubt about it. Nothing bothered me during the war because we were doing the right thing. I was not on the enemy’s land s; I did not fight face to face; I fought from afar.
J.O: was it a traumatic experience?
Joseph Cohen: I loved it.
J.O: You loved it?!
Joseph Cohen: It was nice now…
At this point I interrupted Joseph and laughingly asked in surprise:
J.O: What did you like about the war? It was the war, what can you possibly love about the war? ( I apologized because I thought my question came too strong)
Joseph Cohen: In the beginning, I landed in Casablanca and went east to Algiers. We sailed from there to Italy. We stayed for a year or so in Italy fighting the enemy ; the Italian Fashist and German Fashists [ Nazis]It is thrilling because we were winning. the we spread all over Europe and I landed in Belgium. I loved little Belgium. It was thrilling to meet people from different culture. With my shoulders back, I am proud of what I have done. I got to know Italian farmers. Several of my poems dealt with how I as an American Surgeon had to rescue Italian women from some of the Americans who had gotten drunk but I did not drin
J.O: was it faith?
Joseph Cohen: what?
J.O: Was it a religious thing?
Joseph Cohen: No. I am not religious[…] I am not a ‘goody goody’ but I enjoyed life.
J.O: You have good coping skills; it is probably what have helped go through long and very fruitful life. Do you smoke?
Joseph Cohen: I don’t. I used to smoke cigar without inhaling. Still it is no good. I try to enjoy life.
J.O: I have a few more questions to ask you Joseph and we will close up. As an American, a Jewish American who was born in America and raised in America, what is your attitude towards the middle eastern struggle.
Joseph Cohen: The middle east problem ? my heart breaks. I think that the two people should live together side by side in peace and if it is convenient each in their own country. They speak the same language and their philosophy is the same. They have different religions. So, there are different religions all over the world but I think it is sad.
J.O: Have you considered to go and live in Israel?
Joseph Cohen: living in Israel?
Joseph Cohen: No; visiting and sightseeing.
J.O: Tell me Joseph. Now, if you look back on your life, how satisfied are you with your life?
Joseph Cohen: very. I think I have milked of what life most has to offer […]
J.O: Well, Lucky you! Rarely have I encountered a man in his ninety six very jovial friendly and outgoing. I congratulate you on that.
J.O : If you have to reconsider your choices what would you have done otherwise?
Joseph Cohen: It is a very important question and it is a one that I ask myself often and answer I am satisfied. I think I tried to draw up on what life has to offer in terms of people thing, arts , education …I was not frustrated
J.O: Thank you Joseph. I am very flattered and honored that you welcomed me in your apartment and answered my questions. Thank you.
Joseph Cohen: It is a delight to be your friend
J.O: Thank you Joseph.
Interview by Jamila Ouriour