Breslov Hassid working to bring body of Rabbi Nachman from Uman to Israel

Moshe Cohen leads a simple life in a one-room apartment in Nahlaot that is filled with books in every corner. His diet is very simple, consisting of all natural foods; mainly vegetables and fruits.

By STUART GHERMAN
November 9, 2019 00:00
STREET PERSON by definition: Moshe Cohen.

STREET PERSON by definition: Moshe Cohen.. (photo credit: STUART GHERMAN)

If you live in Jerusalem and walk its many beautiful streets, at some time you are bound to meet up with Moshe Cohen. He is a Breslov Hassid of the Na Na Nachman group. Dressed in the garb of a hassid with a long, striped black coat that is worn and faded, and a wide-brimmed black hat that looks like it was worn in a shtetl from pre-war Poland, he is very noticeable.

One is immediately mesmerized by his appearance, with his long graying beard and sidelocks and piercing eyes that seem to tell some distant story. He is a street person by definition and spends 10 to 12 hours on most days on the streets of Jerusalem playing sweet melodies from one of the two harps or keyboard he owns. He carries his musical instruments and portable chair strapped to a shopping cart and positions himself either on Ben Yehuda Street, the shuk at Mahaneh Yehuda, the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, or even at City Hall Center.

I have often taken photographs of him playing his harp in the many different areas of the city. He is very accepting of people taking his picture and even admits that he is very photogenic. I never said much to him, but I would always listen to his beautiful sweet melodies and leave him a few shekels. Then one day, two of my grandsons came to visit and as we walked around, there was Moshe Cohen playing the piano at the plaza of the new Yitzhak Navon railway station. I asked him if my grandson, who is an accomplished pianist, could join him in a duet on the piano. He answered me in perfect English with a Chicago accent. From that moment on, I realized that Moshe Cohen was someone very special.

Cohen was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and brought up in a religious home, but far from hassidic. He had a natural talent for music, and at the age of nine his piano teacher said he could not teach Cohen anymore because his talents far surpassed anything that the teacher could offer.

He attended yeshivot as a youth and eventually got rabbinical ordination from the prestigious Skokie Yeshiva. He went on to study at Norheastern University and earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in social work and city planning. With all his degrees and education, his love was his music, especially the music of Shlomo Carlebach, who had a tremendous influence on him.

While attending university in Chicago, Cohen was active in fighting the bill to abolish the statute of limitations against Nazis that would, in essence, free them from prosecution. When Jesse Jackson came to Chicago in 1988 campaigning for the presidency of the United States, Cohen was on the front lines picketing and exposing Jackson’s intolerance and antisemitism. He became involved in politics and was asked to run for state representative but declined because of the corruption that was so prevalent at the time.

As a youngster, Cohen lived in many places in the United States. His father was a yeshiva high school principal and a school psychologist. Moshe learned to read music before he learned to read English and Hebrew. He performed in concerts and mastered the piano in a few short years. His love for music was a driving force in his desire to move to Israel.

HE WAS motivated by a strong desire to make people happy through his music and felt the only place he could fulfill his mission was in Israel. His friends and family did not understand why he wanted to give up his comfortable life in America for the unknown prospects of a life in Israel. From that moment he heard Golda Meir speak in Milwaukee after the Six Day War, he knew he belonged in Israel.

His father played a major influence in his life and told him that it didn’t matter how smart he was or what level of education he had, but that God gives wisdom to a person if he prays for it. His father taught him that whatever he did in life, just be consistent. The trait of consistency instilled in him contributed to his success in music and learning.

In Israel, he learned for many years in various yeshivot and kollelim. Eventually he came under the influence of the Breslov Hassidic movement and particularly the Na Na Nachman group that distributes the teachings of Rabbi Nachman all over the world. He became an expert in organizing some of the difficult works of Rabbi Nachman, writing pamphlets and books that laymen can understand.

He leads a simple life in a one-room apartment in Nahlaot that is filled with books in every corner. His diet is very simple, consisting of all natural foods; mainly vegetables and fruits. He grows his own teas in a very modest garden outside his apartment. He does not smoke, drink, or take any medicines that are not natural.

Asked what his main goal and purpose in life is, he said, “I want to open people’s hearts when I play my music so that they will feel human and have hope. There is more to life than running around in circles like a cat running after its tail.”

One day while playing music on the street, a man offered him 200 shekels to stop playing his music and go learn in a beit midrash (study hall).

“I will still play music,” Moshe said, and told the following story from the Talmud: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked the Prophet Eliyahu to show him someone who had a share in the world to come. Eliyahu did not take him to a beit midrash but took him to a marketplace, where he showed him two men dancing and making people happy. He said “Those two have a share in the world to come. They are opening people’s hearts to do teshuva [repentance], they are making people happy, even those who cannot see.”

It’s not often that we come across a person like Moshe Cohen, with such a pure soul, who leads such a simple and modest life, fulfilling his dream of living in Israel, playing his music and making people happy. There is one other trait that characterizes Cohen, and that is his true and unswerving belief in tolerance.

“We must learn tolerance of others even though they may differ in their way of thinking, mode of dress and way of life. We are all human, and if we are to survive on this planet, we must learn the trait of tolerance.”

Cohen would like to bring Rabbi Nachman’s body back to Israel where he feel he rightfully belongs. There is a movement to bring the body from his temporary burial place in Uman. Right now Moshe is working on a project with some prominent people to restore the gravesites of our forefathers from the tribes of Jacob, Naftali and Asher which lay neglected in the North near Kiryat Shmona.

 So the next time you encounter Moshe on the street, stop and listen to his sweet melodies. He will surely open your heart.


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