Veterans: Norman and Lola Cohen: From Leamington Spa, England, to Jerusalem

Norman decries what he sees as bad manners in Israeli culture.

Norman Cohen 88 248 (photo credit: Abigail Klein)
Norman Cohen 88 248
(photo credit: Abigail Klein)
In 1947, newly discharged from five years of military service in England's Royal Corps of Signals, Norman Cohen and two buddies determined to join the fight for the Jewish state. But the plan fell through, and instead Cohen reluctantly took over his father's carpet and linoleum shop. It was decades until he set foot on Israeli soil. "All those years, I had such a guilt complex about that," he says. "I was a trained soldier and wireless operator, and this country was won by kids who didn't know how to hold a rifle. I should have been here." EARLY LIFE Cohen was born above the family store in Coventry in 1923. His future wife, Lola, entered the world in Birmingham nine years later. As the Nazi grip tightened on Europe, the elder Cohens helped place 50 Jewish refugee children and housed one girl for 11 years. Norman's father was the synagogue president in Coventry until the family was evacuated to nearby Leamington Spa in 1940 after the store was destroyed in the Blitz. As members of Birmingham's Jewish Lads' Brigade of the 5th Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Norman and his brother spent Sundays in uniform doing drills. As a consequence, Norman was exempted from basic training when he joined the army in 1942. His service included two particularly historic moments: he was among the British 2nd Army troops who landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944 (D-Day), and it was he who received the transmission of the End of Hostilities document sent from the German High Command in Hamburg to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's 21st Army Group in Brussels on May 5, 1945. "I kept my copy of that historic message until a few years ago, when I gave it to Yad Vashem," he says. He and Lola wed in 1952 and settled in Leamington Spa. They had considered aliya, but their parents were too upset by the notion. BEGINNINGS OF ALIYA When their daughters, Stephanie and Gail, were six and three, the Cohens tried in vain to organize a car pool to a heder in Birmingham. Lola, a teacher, decided they could do the job themselves. Using books from a local rabbi, they taught Hebrew, Jewish history and basic religious observance to about two dozen children in their small house on Sunday mornings. "We had great success," says Lola. "The kids really didn't know anything [before]. Some told us later that because of us, they'd had the courage to join the Jewish Society when they went to university, and several of them live in Israel." Through the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Lola started giving talks about Judaism and Israel to schools, churches and Bible study groups. Her activities resulted in warm relationships and an offer to hold Shabbat services in the local Quaker center. The Cohens still count many gentiles among their friends. Just after they were married, their house was defaced with a swastika by a National Front neo-Nazi. But this incident only served to galvanize the locals in solidarity with their Jewish neighbors. They became the go-to couple for Jewish information. "As Jews, we represented Judaism and Israel to our neighbors and we tried to make sure our conduct lived up to that terrible responsibility," says Norman. In 1975, Gail - who now lives with her daughter Talia in England - spent a year or two at a kibbutz. In 1977, Stephanie temporarily left her London nursing job to help establish a premature infant unit at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Through her roommate, she met her future husband, Issachar Tsarfati, and never went back. With their daughters in Israel, and grandchildren starting to arrive, the Cohens finally visited the Holy Land. Following a trip in the summer of 1984, Lola said to her husband, "I think the time has come to go to live in Israel." Turning white, Norman nevertheless replied immediately, "I'll put the house on the market tomorrow." THE JOURNEY Despite their enthusiasm, uprooting themselves was not an easy emotional transition for the Cohens. "I had been teaching in the same school for 23 years and I loved it," Lola explains. "I was active in a marital counseling organization and we had a very good social life. Norman was chairman of the Leukemia Research Fund and was involved in many other civic activities. But I just somehow knew it was what we had to do even though it was very hard." They lost a great deal of money on their house sale when the bank lost the deed to the property. But one aspect did come easily. In the summer, they'd picked up a brochure about a housing development in Gilo, the southern Jerusalem community where Stephanie's family was living. "The January before we came, I was away at a marriage counseling training course and was totally incommunicado," recalls Lola. "Our son-in-law called Norman and said the last few apartments were available at a very good price but the deal had to be done that day." "I never buy anything without Lola - not even a pair of socks," chimes in Norman. However, after trying unsuccessfully to reach his wife, he phoned back Issachar and said, "Buy it." To his great relief, Lola was thrilled when she found out. On April 21, 1985, the couple arrived in Haifa after a three-week journey by car and boat. Their sabra grandson was born a week later. After four months in Beit Giora, a Jerusalem absorption center, they moved into their home on Norman's birthday. SETTLING IN Although it took a couple of years to find their social and religious niche, they began working almost immediately - Norman at a Judaica store in what was then the Laromme Hotel (now the Inbal), and Lola tutoring children in English. For many years, they also volunteered at the Tisch Family Biblical Zoo. About a decade ago, they joined the British Israel Group, of which they are now joint chairmen. On behalf of BIG, they host question-and-answer sessions with visiting Jews and Christians; get acquainted with British journalists in an effort to combat biased reporting; and write letters and articles for various UK periodicals. Their bottom-line message, says Norman, is that "Israel is not the aggressor and Jews do not hate." During the second intifada, "when we had tanks down the road and bullets flying through Gilo," the Cohens began penning a monthly "Report from Gilo" for the Birmingham Jewish Recorder. The columns now appear in publications including the bulletin of their synagogue, Aderet Eliahu. The synagogue's mostly Hebrew and French speakers rallied to provide meals when Lola broke her leg last year. Its rabbi, Eli Halle, practices English with Norman as they walk to shul together. THE DOWNSIDE Neither Cohen has quite mastered Hebrew. And Norman decries what he sees as bad manners in Israeli culture. Lola misses English theater and shopping at Marks & Spencer. By far, however, their worst experience here was the accidental death of their 23-year-old granddaughter, Orli, in 2003. In January, Orli's parents and siblings, Tamar and Shai, dedicated a park in her memory at Kibbutz Ravid. THE UPSIDE Along with the spectacular view of the Temple Mount from their living-room window, the Cohens appreciate being Jews in a Jewish state, or as Norman puts it, "not being the odd ones out" as they were in England.