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 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.