Jerusalem artist and healer dies in New Jersey

Azriel Cohen, who unexpectedly passed away at the age of 47, was known in the capital as a "mystical renaissance man."

Azriel Cohen 390 (photo credit: Courtesy Ilene Prusher)
Azriel Cohen 390
(photo credit: Courtesy Ilene Prusher)
Azriel Cohen, an artist, healer and seeker who lived in Jerusalem for many years, unexpectedly passed away while visiting his family in New Jersey on Friday.
Cohen, 47, died in his sleep the day following his return from his most recent home, Thailand, and after seeing his family for the first time in more than a year, said Cohen’s sister, Shula Kelman, who lives in Jerusalem.
Doctors believe the death may have resulted from a blood clot or an undetected heart problem, she said.
Friends around the world were shocked by Cohen’s untimely death. They referred to him as a “true mystical renaissance man” who expressed himself through photography, watercolors, performance art, movement, music, multimedia, healing, video, sketches, leadership and words.
Cohen’s projects often stretched across his many loves, such as a series of black-and-white drawings based on jazz at a jazz bar he founded in Thailand, or his involvement in Sulha – Sacred Interfaith Music. In addition to Hebrew and English, Cohen also spoke conversational French, Arabic, Thai and Hindi.
Cohen’s resume dances all over the spectrum of spirituality and art. He was instrumental in founding Ohr Olam, a spiritual center for Israelis seeking a deeper connection in Dharmasala, India.
Cohen was also one of the founders of the eco-village and artists colony established by Vertigo Dance Company in Israel’s Eila Valley.
He was best known for the Traveling Jerusalem Café art installation, which Cohen pursued during the second intifada.
Armed with a miniature set of watercolors small enough to fit into an eyeglass case and a canvas the size of an index card, Cohen sat in more than 20 different cafes across east and west Jerusalem and painted. He captured scenes such as Israelis trying to strategize the safest table in the case of a bombing, or workers lounging at the bar of a nearly-empty restaurant as businesses struggled to stay afloat.
Dressed in his trademark beret, Cohen strode through the Old City and east Jerusalem during a time when few Israelis ventured there.
“He knew the ‘in’ places to go and made friends with everyone – he was just that kind of person, he was able to connect, it didn’t matter who they were and where they were from,” said close friend Nadia Levene of Jerusalem. “You [could] see it in his face, this acceptance of people and love of people.”
Cohen showed the paintings, blown up onto large canvases, at installations across North America, which featured a working Jerusalem-style café where viewers could relax on pillows and see street signs for the popular hangout street Emek Refaim.
“Just connecting to people, he really believed that was possible,” said Levene. “It’s not all about politics and hatred. Regular men and women on the street can connect to this. The underlying common denominator was connecting people, loving people and saying we’re not all that different,” she said.
Born in Toronto on January 1, 1965, the oldest of four children, Cohen was raised in an Orthodox family. He spent two years at the Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavne in Israel before pursuing a BA in psychology at Yeshiva University and a Masters of Fine Arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
He also completed Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation for alternative dispute resolution and was recently trained as a somatic healer. In between academic studies, Cohen’s wanderlust took him across Europe, the Middle East, northern Africa and the Far East.
News of his death sent ripples throughout the world, where Cohen’s path crisscrossed with other travelers and seekers.
Lori Kaufman from Singapore talked of the magical Hanukka her family spent in Chiang Mai while visiting Cohen last year, when they sent lanterns floating into the night sky for each of the eight nights, and the jazz mural Cohen painted this past August when he visited her in Singapore.
Levene recalled organizing a massive Seder for Jerusalem’s impoverished residents in the space of less than a week, with Cohen at the helm.
Guy Lieberman from South Africa remembered Cohen’s conversation with the Dalai Lama, when Cohen went to ask permission to create Ohr Olam in an intensely spiritual area where Tibetans have their government- in-exile.
“But of course – you are the Chosen People, no? No need to ask me for permission!” the Dalai Lama laughed in reply.
“[Cohen] had that magnetic personality that could connect with all types of people,” his sister recalled. “He had unbelievable talents, amazing talents...
He was given artistic talent and he used it, he channeled it to become closer to Hashem,” said Kelman.
“He was so enthusiastic about what he did – he didn’t just keep to himself, he also shared it with others,” she said.
In his writings and videos, Cohen shared a passion for creating bridges between cultures separated by strife, including Jews and Arabs.
“The most basic thing anyone can do is to suspend your world view,” Cohen said in a video interview in Thailand in 2011.
“Have enormous curiosity when you meet people from a different culture, and hold in your mind the possibility that the way these people experience the world is completely unlike anything you can even imagine.
And the possibility you’re going to be completely shaken up and your world view is going to be completely shaken up.
And if you have that kind of experience – right on,” he said, giving the thumbs-up sign and grinning. “Because other people experience the world differently in ways you cannot even imagine.”
Close friend Nitzan Sitzer said Cohen’s art during the second intifada was a turning point.
“The intifada really, really affected him,” he said, adding that Cohen was “shaken to his core” by the almost-daily bombings in Jerusalem. “But rather than escaping, however, he went back to those cafes and drew these little postcards,” said Sitzer.
“He was a very sensitive man and some of that sensitivity brought him to deep, deep pain,” she said.
After the intifada, Cohen left Israel and presented his art installation across the world. He also embarked on a journey of healing, which led him to Somatic Experiencing, a naturally based healing regimen that focuses on hyper-awareness of the body. In a move typical of Cohen, Sitzer said, he became a healer in order to help others recuperate from trauma as part of his own recovery.
“Those who swim those deep waters often find themselves pretty lonely,” said Sitzer.
“There aren’t that many people able to swim that deep.”
But Cohen dared to swim deep, bringing others along on his journey through art.
He explained the importance of diving into the unknown in the video interview in Thailand: “The very things that you’re scared to explore are probably waiting for you with incredible horizons, like open seas in the time of the explorers centuries ago.”
Cohen will be buried on Wednesday evening in Beit Shemesh.