yehudit cohn arr 88 298.
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
Yehudit Cohn, 43 - From Charleston, West Virginia, to Jerusalem
At the Jaffa Street Felafel Bar, it's the middle of the afternoon, but all the tables are taken, and the line at the counter stretches to the door. Unless you told them, few customers enjoying the felafel, shakshuka and kebab would know the vivacious blond behind the counter not only owns the place, but is also a new immigrant who hails from West Virginia.
"I was so American," Yehudit Cohn says. "I love Wal-Mart, movie popcorn and hot dogs. But now my passion is for Israel, everything that we are and could be."
Cohn grew up as something of a vagabond.
"My father was a librarian, and each time he earned a new degree, we moved to a new state. I was born in Chicago, but we lived in 12 different states. When I was still at WUJS (World Union of Jewish Students), I ran into an old friend, a kid I'd lived next door to at one point. He'd been a lone soldier and had made aliya. I mentioned that my family had moved around so much, I'd never really had a home. 'Yes, you do,' he said. 'It's right here. Israel is your home.'
"That just blew me away - I'd never thought of it that way. The very next day I went to Beersheba and started the aliya process. I got my teudat zehut on October 1, 2001."
Both sides of Cohn's family emigrated from Russia in the early 1900s.
"My father's a serious academic," Cohn says. "But that's my orientation, too. I've done a lot of things, but I'm an academic at heart."
Cohn has a degree in communications, creative advertising and writing, a Masters in Humanities and her last job in America was as director of humanities for West Virginia State College. How did that lead to owning a felafel stand in the heart of Jerusalem?
"I'd always wanted to come to Israel, but until I heard about the Arts Project at WUJS I just never did it.
"So I decided to come for one year - but I really loved it and wanted more, so I enrolled at Pardes. Then I spent another year at Ulpan Beit Ha'am. I was working part-time teaching English, and then I heard this felafel stand was for sale. That really caught my interest. I wanted to do something that would involve both Israelis and Americans, something that would put me in the middle of Israeli life. This was perfect."
"In the break between WUJS and Pardes, when I'd made aliya, I had to go back to the States to deal with everything I'd left.
"What surprised me was how strange it felt in the States. By that time, I knew that Israel was really my home."
"The Felafel Bar is at 70 Jaffa Street, right across from the Clal building, and this whole area is my community.
"So far as I know, I'm the only Anglo woman in Israel who owns a felafel shop - almost all felafel stands are owned by Mizrahi men. So maybe I am different, but here, I don't feel it. This is my community - every kind of Israeli that exists comes in here, plus a lot of tourists. It feels perfectly natural."
Cohn lives in a set of rooms carved out of a larger house.
"It's old, which I love. It has character. The best thing about my apartment? Shabbat. I open my windows, and Shabbat just surrounds me. There's a yeshiva just across the street, and lots of other Batei Knesset everywhere. The sounds of Shabbat just float in - Ashkenazi, Mizrahi - songs and music. It's wonderful."
Cohn says she gets up at seven, a statement that draws laughter from Rami, one of the Felafel Bar's English-speaking employees.
"I do, too!" she insists, which draws still more laughter. "Okay, okay. I'm a night person," she says. "That's true. See? We're a family here. They know me too well."
Cohn spends most mornings on the computer, attending to business. The shop is open from nine a.m. till eight p.m. in winter and until nine in the summer, and Cohn spends a good chunk of each day there.
"Now I have great help," she says. "They can open and close, so I don't have to be here all day.
"Evenings, I'm usually home with my cats Alfred and Sydney. I read, I write short stories, I'm working on a novel. I'm a big TV person - I learn so much colloquial Hebrew by watching TV and paying attention to the subtitles."
Cohn is a neighborhood fixture. Other business owners have become friends, as have a group of regular customers who come in daily.
"I still have friends from WUJS, too," she says. "And my ulpan teacher and I are close. I enjoy all kinds of people."
"I'm doing about as well as Israel is," she says. "There were months when my rent was late, and my phone was disconnected. But now, I'm doing much better. Thank God."
"I'm an American Israeli. What else can I say? I grew up in America. But now I put Israel first. Just about the happiest day of my life was when I got my teudat zehut. I was so excited I showed it to everyone."
"I'm on the path. I'm still learning, still moving ahead. Living here has made a difference - I still get a thrill when I step into the street on Shabbat, and I realize that everyone I see is Jewish. Living with the Jewish calendar is a blessing - here, Succot comes at the right time of the year."
"I love Hebrew, I love the way it works. In ulpan, I'd know the Hebrew - my teachers knew I knew it, but I couldn't make myself speak. Working here, being among people who speak only Hebrew, has helped. I still get a kick out of being asked for help, when I find that I'm the one in the market who can help someone by reading the Hebrew label for them."
"I have so many plans, so many interests. I want to keep exploring Judaism. I want to write. I love Indian clothes - wouldn't that be fun, to have a shop that sold Indian clothes? I'd like to get my PhD.
"I've got my diplomas hanging on the wall - one from Peoria, one from Charleston. Wouldn't it be great to hang another one there - a PhD from Jerusalem?"
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