Yom Hashoah

I got onto a train.


It was morning. Rush hour was done. The car was still. Across from my red seat was a row of red seats, all empty.

I thought. Who are the people who could have filled these spots? 

I saw my reflection rippling in the glass. I saw other trains, not with eyes but with gut–stories told of boxcars, of standing for days, of terror, of rushing, of ending. Of a people that was mine. I looked through my reflection rippling in the glass and saw a shade of a world without my family in it. I saw myself as an empty seat.

I sat comfortably. A former Soviet City’s suburbs turned to center. I stood for my stop.

I got off of a train and stepped into Warsaw.


I got onto a train with my father.


We sat in plush seats. We ate Polish donuts. We drank Polish coffee. We spoke quietly and freely in English. We watched the country whisk by.


“If things had gone differently, before,” I said to him, “You could have been Polish. I couldn’t have existed because you and Mom wouldn’t have met. But you could have been Polish.”

Before. I looked out and saw a shade of a country with my family in it, before.

A conductor came by. My ticket was wrong. I was not a Polish student. My international student ID meant nothing here. I had to buy a new ticket.

I fished out my wallet and fished out bills. I solved a problem with money. I thought of a people that was mine that would have given any amount of money to solve a problem that could not be solved with money.

I sat back. A former Soviet City’s suburbs turned to center.

I got off of a train with my father.IMG_1309.jpg

Mostly, I did not think about trains in Poland. Mostly, I enjoyed myself. My father and I ate pierogis and drank good coffee. We wandered the streets.


We entered old synagogues and new museums.


We paused by memorials. IMG_1282.jpg

We saw signs of a reviving Jewish community.


The Krakow JCC

We walked through cemeteries. (Perhaps, if we had never left Poland, we would have believed that, as Cohens, we shouldn’t set foot in a cemetery. But then, if we had never left Poland, we would not be us.)


We traveled as strangers in a country that had once been home, in a city where my Great Grandfather attended high school, in a country where much of his family later perished. It had been home. It was not any longer. My father flew to our home– to America. I flew to Tel Aviv.


I missed a train in Tel Aviv.

The train came only once an hour. I missed it by a minute. I would have to wait. I grumbled to myself. I thought about my sore neck and long day and lack of sleep. I thought about the homework I had yet to complete. I did not think about a people that was mine that would have given any amount of money to solve a problem that could not be solved with money.

Blessed are you, Miraculous One, who has made me so free that I can forget what it would be to be anything else.

I got onto the next train. Across from me, the seats were full. I remembered the empty red row in Warsaw. I remembered my doctor in Jerusalem last fall, asking me my birth date to figure out which of the two “Emily Cohens” in his system was me.

I told him my birthdate. “There are a lot of Emily Cohens in the world,” I added with a smile and a shrug.

My doctor looked at me and did not smile. “Thank God,” he said. “Thank God.”

Blessed are you, Miraculous One, who gives humanity the wisdom to learn and to remember and to be grateful. IMG_1193.jpg

Shabbos Blessing- Week 29

This week is another “in person” blessing, because I got to spend most of it with my Dad in Warsaw! He was having a piece played at the local conservatory, and I got to tag along because Warsaw is close(ish) to Israel and cheap(ish) to get to, and I thought it would be cool to see the place and of course to see my Dad.

We had a great time, and, it so happened that the anxiety-producing stretch I’ve been in lately came to a halt the day before I got on the plane, when I got some news back. It was such a relief to be able to go into my trip calmer and more excited for the future.

I’ve definitely got reflections on Poland to share, but, as has become an unfortunate habit of circumstance lately, I don’t have time to share them at this moment. Tonight, the RRC students will be leading a shabbat service up here in Tel Aviv, and despite my lack of sleep due to a supposedly-overnight-but-actually-3.5-hour-flight this morning, I gotta get active here.

So, I leave you all with hopes for a wonderful, restful Shabbat, and this picture of my Dad and me in front of a 900-year-old set of gates in Krakow. IMG_1307.jpg

Shabbos Blessing- Week 19

וַיְכַ֤ל יַעֲקֹב֙ לְצַוֺּ֣ת אֶת־בָּנָ֔יו וַיֶּאֱסֹ֥ף רַגְלָ֖יו אֶל־הַמִּטָּ֑ה וַיִּגְוַ֖ע וַיֵּאָ֥סֶף אֶל־עַמָּֽיו׃
וַיִּפֹּ֥ל יוֹסֵ֖ף עַל־פְּנֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ עָלָ֖יו וַיִּשַּׁק־לֽוֹ
וַיְצַ֨ו יוֹסֵ֤ף אֶת־עֲבָדָיו֙ אֶת־הָרֹ֣פְאִ֔ים לַחֲנֹ֖ט אֶת־אָבִ֑יו וַיַּחַנְט֥וּ הָרֹפְאִ֖ים אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
וַיִּמְלְאוּ־לוֹ֙ אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם כִּ֛י כֵּ֥ן יִמְלְא֖וּ יְמֵ֣י הַחֲנֻטִ֑ים
When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people. Joseph flung himself upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. Then Joseph ordered the physicians in his service to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel. It required forty days, for such is the full period of embalming (Genesis 49:33- 50:3)

Tomorrow morning, Jews in synagogues around the world will study the portion of “Vayehi,” the last chapters of the book of Genesis. Joseph, after decades spent away from his beloved father, has been reunited with his father, his brothers, and their families. Jacob gives parting words to each of his sons and dies. He is embalmed for that magical number of 40 days, and the brothers settle in Egypt, putting down roots that will not be removed for hundreds of years. From 71 people– Jacob’s 12 sons and their families– the line of Israel grows into the people of Israel suffering under Pharaoh’s whip. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

At the end of each of the Five Books of Moses, what we call the Torah, there’s a tradition of chanting the words “Hazak hazak v’nithazak– be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened!” We have reached the end of one significant part of our journey. We are moving on to another.

Tomorrow we will finish the book of family within Torah and we will move on to the book of peoplehood. Really, Genesis is about one family. We begin with the very first humans, and we follow their line, first through Seth to Noah, then through Shem to Abraham, and from Abraham to Isaac and to Jacob. But then, our lines become too many to track. We know that Moses and Miriam and Aaron are descendants of Levi, but the Israelites whom they lead from bondage come from each tribe. Family is still important in the book of Exodus, but it is not the focus. Peoplehood is.

This week also marks the end of a book in my life. A week from today, I will be on a plane to Barcelona. I will have moved out of my apartment here in Jerusalem. I will have completed my last final– a 10-page paper on some element of the Oslo Accords that I’m still narrowing in upon. My first semester, this first half of my time in Israel, will be over. Next shabbat, when we begin the book of Exodus, I will be beginning a new book of my own.

The Jerusalem Campus of “Hebrew Union College.”

This morning, I found myself in a workshop at HUC on “Expressive Kavannah.” Kavannah is an important piece of my Jewish life– the focus or directionality or intention of prayer and other experiences. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect in the workshop, but I had heard that it would involve creative expression, and that usually interests me, so I gave it a shot. Our teacher spoke of blessings and of gratitude and linked them in with Jacob’s parting words with his sons. We had space to move, to meditate, and to write, and then we had space to create. Our teacher provided various materials and set us loose.
I am a creator, but I am not a visual artist, and this was freeing for me, because it allowed me to express however I wished instead of being tied to an ideal of what my work “ought” to look like. I ended up with this:
img_9719 This week, I guess you could say that I crafted my own blessing. This image is all about groundedness and exploration. The colors, moving from top right to bottom left, represent a sunset over water, shore, earth, and sky. The strings on top, diverging and then connecting on both ends, represent the underlying support structures that allow me to feel safe enough for risk-taking. The ends are my foundations and the center my explorations.

I am reminded, whenever I am grounded enough to see it, that I am held, but often enough, when I’m flying, it is hard to see the ground. It is hard to remember that I am connected to supports no matter how far from them I go. Last week, loved ones were here in person. I remembered that I am held because I felt it physically. This week, I must remember that my family and other dear ones are still with me. I hold their hearts and they hold mine.

Sunset is still early, and I have more travel plans to make. So, for one last time, Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.

Shabbos Blessing- Week 18

Well, it finally happened. After 17 weeks of never missing a Friday/pre-Shabbat post, even on the Friday when I was in Prague, I dropped the ball. This, I suppose, is what happens when you spend nearly every waking moment for a week with your parents. They left yesterday and I didn’t manage to get a post done afterwards. So, here we are, on week 18, a little delayed in terms of time but more than a little buoyed by marvelous time with family.

The number 18 in Judaism carries special significance. In Hebrew, it’s written as יח, which read backwards is “chai” (pronounced like “hi” with a hard “H,” not a delicious cup of tea), which means “life.” You may remember a certain Anatevkan in a certain musical singing all about “l’chaim.”

It’s fitting that week 18 is now, because this is the only week of my time in Israel spent almost entirely with the two people who gave me life. No, I did not plan it this way, but sometimes beautiful things just happen and timing is serendipitous and that’s how it goes. As was the case last week, this week the blessing feels more or less innate. I spent this week completely surrounded by family, enjoying some of Jerusalem’s sights and even getting to spend a day in Petra (I look forward to a longer trip sometime this spring). So, in honor of week 18, here are 18 pictures from life in the last week.  You can see these and many more here. Shavua tov. Thanks for sailing with me.


1) My mom (Judy) with her street near the shuk. (My dad is pointing to her just to clear up any confusion about whose street it is.)


2) Stilt walkers hanging out on Ben Yehuda street for a Hanukkah festival


3) Latke brunch in Jerusalem with my parents and also my aunt, uncle, and cousins– who were on a family trip to Israel last week!



4) A menorah atop a car is a common enough sight during Hanukkah. A menorah atop a prius? Not so much. 


5) The brightest night of Hanukkah. These outdoor glass oil lamps were everywhere in Jerusalem, and the first night after Hanukkah ended was so sad because all of the light was suddenly out! 


6) A selfie with my dad (I am a millennial, after all)  on the ramparts in the Old City


7) The Christian Quarter as viewed from the ramparts. 



8) My parents and uncle (my aunt and cousin and I are on the other side of the booth) welcoming 2017 in a neighborhood (Jerusalem) bar.


9) My first look at the Old City walls in 2017. Those “God Rays” are something else, huh? 


10) Dome of the Rock, up close and personal and (mostly) free of tourists so early in the day


11) My parents and I snuck up on my sisters in the shuk. They were with their Birthright group and didn’t know that we were hoping to find them that afternoon (nor did we know that we’d actually be able to find them in as large and confusing a place as the shuk!). The five of us hadn’t been together as a family since September when I left for Israel and my baby sister left for Nicaragua.  


12) A pillar from the ancient Roman city of Jerash, about an hour from Amman (Jordan). The city boasts some of the best preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy. 


13) A view of my parents (and other tourists) from the top of Jerash’s amphitheater.


14) Desert views from Jordan


15) My parents and me (and other tourists and merchants and camels, y’know, because why not) in front of Petra’s inaptly-named “Treasury.” 


16) My mom engaging in the Israeli practice of “hefker”-ing her old cold-weather boots, which aren’t necessary in California, in my neighborhood. When she told me that she planned to throw them away after the trip, I explained the practice here of leaving shoes and other usable items next to garbage bins for anybody who wants them. She was glad to take part. 


17) The chapel of the “Monastery of the Cross,” a 5th-century Byzantine construction just below Israel’s knesset (parliament) and the Israel Museum.


18) My parents and me (hiding behind the camera) enjoying shakshuka as only T’mol Shilshom can make it. 







Shabbos Blessing- Week 17

It’s Hanukkah. That alone would make this week special.


Night 1 in Tzion Square

Hanukkah means amazing donuts.


Thank you, Roladin!

It means lovely dinners with friends and their hanukkiot.


It means giant outdoor candle lightings.


It means breaking in my little Jerusalem-bought hanukkiah.


But most importantly, it means time with my family, who flew halfway across the world to spend the end of Hanukkah with me.


It is almost shabbat, and it is Hanukkah, and I get to share both with these people I love so much. This week’s blessing doesn’t require words. It’s right here.


Mom, Dad, and Marzipan rugelach