Longtime former Great Neck resident of 50 years Joseph A. Cohen passed away in Cambridge, MA, on Dec. 18. He was 100½.
Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Syrian Jewish parents from Aleppo, he grew up in Brooklyn in a large family with eight children. As a young man, he became involved in social activism, and later married Sonia, a Russian Jewish pianist, with whom he shared a rich life of family, art, music, politics and much love. The couple had three children and, eventually, five grandchildren. He served as a Sergeant in the 451st AAA Battalion in WWII from 1942 to 1945 in Italy, France, Belgium and North Africa.
Upon returning to the U.S., the family moved to Levittown, where he worked on racial integration, helping the first African-American family move into the all-white housing development. Joe became president and cofounder with his brother Ezra of Sun Weave Linen Corp., a table linen company that flourished for 47 years, with 200 employees, peaking with annual sales of $44 million. He brought both his son Andrew into the business and his son David, who became president of the business in the late 1980s.
In 1960, he moved to Great Neck with his family. While growing his family and his business, Joe studied photography with master photographers, such as Phillipe Halsman, Lisette Model and David Attie. He then taught photography for 40 years at Queens College, Queensboro Community College, C.W. Post, Great Neck House and Great Neck Adult Ed, and exhibited his work at the New School for Social Research, the Parish Museum and Great Neck Library. He was a member of the Great Neck Camera Club and was interviewed several times on cable access TV. He studied recorder and played for many years, and was also an avid tennis player until age 88.
Upon retirement, he began to study poetry with Kent Ozarow and later with Susan Astor. At the age of 88, he published his first book of poetry, A Full Life. His second book of poetry, A New Path, was published by the Ibbetson Press on his 100th birthday last July. His poetry has been published in the Great Neck Record, Image Magazine, Jewish Currents, Constellations Anthology, Ibbetson Press, Bagel Bards Anthology, Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene website. He was also a Pushcart Prize nominee.
After his wife, Sonia, had a stroke in 1996, he devoted himself to her care. He wrote Notes on Surviving Strokes to help both caregivers and stroke survivors. He helped her flourish as a composer of one-handed piano music and a watercolor painter with her uninvolved hand, thanks to weekly lessons from the late Arline Michaelson of Great Neck. Sonia passed away 15 years after her stroke, at age 92.
After Sonia’s passing, Joe moved to Cambridge, MA, at age 94, to be closer to his violinist daughter, Beth. He joined a group of poets called the Bagel Bards, which met weekly at a local café and held poetry readings throughout the Cambridge and Boston area. Joe was a featured poet for many of these readings, including the First and Last Word Poetry Series, Boston Poetry Festival and Cervana Press. He also performed his poetry in collaboration with his daughter, Beth, performing on various bowed string instruments at Tufts University and several other venues. His last poetry reading was a week after his 100th birthday.
Once settling in at Cambridge, he taught photography at Brandeis University in the BOLLI program from age 96 to 98.
In 2016, the day after his 99th birthday, he was awarded the Legion of Honor medal by the President of France for serving in France during WWII. On his 100th birthday, the City of Cambridge passed a resolution making July 13 Joseph A. Cohen Day in Cambridge.
In addition to immersing himself in the poetry and photography communities in Cambridge, he enjoyed concerts, theater and making new friends wherever he went. He was a lover of life, and he modeled for all who met him how to have a full, creative and joyful life up to the very last day. He has been a mentor and an inspiration, a teacher and artist, a person who has shown us how to be a lifelong learner and how to keep moving with grace no matter what life throws your way.
He leaves children, Andrew Cohen, Beth Bahia Cohen, David Cohen and wife Linda Cohen; and grandchildren, Lauren VanZuiden and husband Brent VanZuiden, Stephanie Cohen, Chad Cohen, Kevin Cohen and Chaya Cohen.