A life in verse

After tragic loss in Syria and a rebirth of sorts in Israel, Abraham Cohen discovers his poetic voice.

aleh book 88 298 (photo credit: )
aleh book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Aleh Ma'adim (Reddening Leaf) By Abraham Cohen In Hebrew Chalonot 63pp., NIS 45 Before the age of 70, Abraham Cohen had hardly ever written a line of poetry. There was a youthful effort, a poem about the curfews in Tel Aviv during the War of Independence, and some love poems he had written to his wife when they first met. But that was it. Cohen, now 72 and for many decades a successful psychotherapist in Manhattan, doesn't know exactly why the switch suddenly flipped. Why, unexpectedly, after years of being a voracious reader of Hebrew poetry - of Bialik and Altman and Amichai, among many others - he began to write himself. But it happened. And after two years of stealing hours and minutes in between sessions with his patients at his Upper East Side office, he has managed to produce a slim volume of Hebrew poetry, Reddening Leaf (not yet translated into English). It is a collection of almost 50 short poems written in a lyrical style - some even rhyming - and touching on a range of moods from nostalgia to the frustration of unrequited love. Most tell highly personal and often tragic stories drawn from an eventful life lived in three very different places. Cohen was born in Aleppo, Syria, or, as he calls it, by its original name, Chaleb, named after the Hebrew and Arabic name for milk. (It is said that Abraham stopped in the city to milk his cows). Cohen's family was part of the small Sephardic community that traced its origins back to Andalusia via Salonika. His father was a successful merchant, importing and selling cutlery and perfumes, and Cohen grew up in the closed world of the Jewish neighborhood, attending a local Talmud Torah and then a French Catholic school. In 1945, when Cohen was 12, misfortune struck his family. Both of his older brothers, one 18 and the other 17, died within a month. "First Rachamim, the older brother, fell ill with dysentery, lost a lot of blood and died in a few days," said Cohen. "Then the younger brother, Moshe, who already had a heart condition and who my parents had just taken to Palestine, to Hadassah Hospital, to be treated, suddenly died also. My father was just about to shave his 30-day mourning beard for the elder brother." The parents could not bear to continue living in the same house or city anymore and they took Cohen and his only remaining sibling, a sister, to Tel Aviv. Cohen had to wear short black pants that first year at Gymnasia Herzliya as a sign of mourning. His parents continued to wear only black for many years, even to their daughter's wedding almost a decade later. Despite having to overcome the taunts of other children, Cohen flourished in Israel. One of his poems, "Ice," describes this period. It's about a little boy sent out to the street by his mother to buy ice from the iceman for the first time. He doesn't know how much ice to buy or how to carry it back home - he's never done this before - but the iceman teaches him. From the poem, the reader senses Cohen remembering how exciting this new city was for him, a city where he could wander freely, where he went, for the first time, to school with girls. As a teenager, Cohen dreamed of joining a kibbutz and then later of going to law school at Hebrew University. But after finishing his army service, he got a chance to study in America. The year was 1954 and it was, for the time, a rare opportunity for an Israeli, one that could not easily be passed up. His parents, still scarred by the loss of their two children, encouraged him to leave, thinking their remaining son would be safer in America, where he could escape reserve duty in the IDF. Cohen quickly became a New Yorker. It was more than just a new place, another language to learn, and soon his time in America was no longer just a short stint of schooling. He was staying. At university, he gravitated toward psychology, and by the early 1960s he had managed to earn a PhD and a special degree to practice psychotherapy. "I chose the field partly because of the tragedies I had dealt with in my own life and observing my parents deal with them," Cohen said. "But it was also because I was a very interactive person. I love people. I'm an atheist, so the only place I see God is in the interaction between people, and I am endlessly fascinated by it." COHEN HAS worked as a therapist now for over four decades and has happily embraced the work and identity that came along with it. In his office, along with the standard leather couch, is an enlarged photo of Freud's study in Vienna. He's written a widely-used psychotherapy text. The poetry, when it arrived, brought great joy to his life. "I don't know what gives you more pleasure, to write poetry or have an orgasm," Cohen joked. In some ways, he said, poetry is an extension of psychotherapy, with the same interplay of signs and symbols involved in dream interpretation. One poem, "You Cried, My Mother," has to do with the way his father, from a higher social class, would sometimes treat his mother. It is filled with surrealistic imagery that might just as well emerge from a dream. There are circling birds of prey and a thinking fetus: "I swam in the stream of your tears/inside your belly, I solved your secrets/the puzzle of your husband's bed." Cohen wrote his poems and then sold them to an Israeli publishing house without ever telling his wife or his two grown sons. He didn't want to owe anything to his family or anyone else. He just wanted to work on the writing for himself. When he finally knew that Reddening Leaf - named after a poem in which a leaf in a book reminds him of his mother's hand - would see the light of day, he took his wife out to dinner and announced that he was publishing a book of poems. "Everyone was flabbergasted," Cohen said. "But I still don't see myself as a poet. I'm just a man who wrote a few poems." Still, Cohen cherishes the written word, and more than one of his poems takes as its subject the idea that writing is the only thing of permanence in this world, especially when seen against the transient, ephemeral quality of the body or even the soul. This book, in many ways, is Cohen's small seedling from which he hopes a measure of immortality will grow. Or, as Cohen puts it, "Only the word is permanent. The word doesn't get destroyed. People die. Trees die. But the word is always a fact. Nothing else is a fact."