esther cohen
 


Esther Cohen is like a lot of middle-aged Jewish women. She worries. She thinks. She reads. And she prays. Well, she prays sometimes.


For most of her life, Cohen only prayed on rare occasions; but lately, as she’s been getting older (and getting increasingly nervous about getting older), she’s been praying more. But Cohen’s prayers aren’t what you might expect; they aren’t the traditional, god-fearing prayers of the ancient scriptures. They don’t center on distant holy lands. Instead, Cohen’s prayers take place in her rent-stabilized New York apartment, a smallish space where she’s lived for years. They are heartfelt, honest, and even funny thoughts on everything from spider veins to forgiveness to the day her son got his driver’s license.


They are prayers for her friends, as they begin to use the words “diagnosis” and “disease.”  They are prayers for mothers and for mammograms. They are prayers for everyday and for rare days. Because for Cohen, the usual prayers often are not quite right. They are in books that are black and forbidding. Their pages seem dry and inappropriate to the Mid-Life situation.


So Cohen created GOD IS A TREE, a pocket-sized collection of 72 prayers (plus one for the back cover) that’s filled with poignant black-and-white family photographs, to carry around, just in case. It’s Cohen’s prayer book, but it’s also a prayer book for anyone who’s getting older and wants to laugh as much as they want to pray. In essence, it’s a prayer book for the modern Jewish woman who’s Middle Age might be as much about drinking vanilla milkshakes as it is about God.




Some Middle Age Prayers



Dear God,

Everyone
is younger
and thinner
than I am.
So what
So what
So what

Amen



Dear God.

No one tells the truth
about menopause.
You’re incredibly hot.
You develop a small moustache.
It’s hard to sleep.
Black cohosh doesn’t work.
Your body gets wider.
Still, nothing big
truly changes.
Thanks for that.

Amen



God,

Before I had
my hysterectomy,
I called eleven women
asking their advice.
Some said
never take out your ovaries
but I did. I have
never missed them.

Amen


 



Esther Cohen writes, teaches at Manhattanville College, and does countless other things including running prayer-writing workshops. She lives, of course, on the Upper West Side, home of many Middle Aged Jews (and others). Before this stage of her life, Esther worked in book publishing and taught writing everywhere: libraries, supermarkets, classrooms, and even, on occasion, on subways.

    Esther collaborated with Brooklyn artist Nina Talbot on the book, Painting Brooklyn, featuring both visual and literary sketches of several Brooklyn residents.

    Her newest book is Breakfast with Allen Ginsberg, now available.



 

A pragmatic poet’s ‘Breakfast with Allen Ginsberg,’ dinners, emails

By Trudi Cohen

Advocate arts correspondent


To meet Esther Cohen in her Manhattan apartment is like seeing a Roz Chast character come to life.

Undoubtedly, the association may come to mind in light of the fact that the famed New Yorker cartoonist illustrated one of Cohen’s books, “Don’t Mind Me and Other Jewish Lies,” but there are other factors as well that might lead one to this impression.

Cohen’s curly hair is abundant and flowing, as is the long dress she wears sometimes and accessorizes with striped socks. A resident of the same Upper West Side apartment for more than 48 years – in a bright, well-kept and charmingly old-fashioned building that houses forest-green corridors and an elevator festooned with wood and mirrors – she moved in for one big reason: the address. (As she says, “The numbers made sense!”) Each wall of her apartment is a different bold color: yellow in the living room, red in the kitchen. Down to earth, accessible, full of mirth and good spirits, that is Cohen. Which is why she so resembles one of Chast’s wonderful creations.

“Breakfast with Allen Ginsberg,” by Esther Cohen, Pleasure Boat Studios, 2016 The artistic connection does not end there, though. Cohen’s most recent book of poems, “Breakfast with Allen Ginsberg,” is a cozy, down comforter. One can put it down, pick it up, read it and feel known. It is small enough to carry in a pocket and peruse before the next train stop.

The title poem about her meeting with the writer of “Howl” and other masterpieces bursts with the experience of a newcomer to New York City in the 1970s. She buys him breakfast, and he tells her she is a poet. She paints the scene with sparing words and rhythms of a long-disappeared coffee shop. When asked if Ginsberg was a messy eater, she remarks, “He was Allen Ginsberg – I didn’t notice.”

Despite her reminiscences, make no mistake, Cohen lives in the present – she has been writing a poem nearly every day on her website since Jan. 30, 2012.

“My agent at Writers House and her social media expert suggested I write a poem a day,” she says. “Writing poetry is like making music. Jazz especially. And writing a poem a day is a liberating experience. Trying it out. Letting it go. Understanding there is no such thing ever, ever as a perfect poem. And it doesn’t matter. Every once in a while there’s a good poem, and that’s exciting.”

While exploring “Breakfast with Allen Ginsberg,” readers may smile with recognition at a life well lived with dinners and uncertainty. There are stories of a small town in the Catskills, as well as tales of emails, blogs and Turkish food. Reading the book is akin to sitting down and talking to Cohen: warm, funny, curious and meandering. Yet her mien is resolute, and her opinions are strong – particularly with regard to the prospect of offering her poems gratis.

“Art should be free,” she says. “Why are ‘Hamilton’ tickets $1,000? There should be a lottery available for the public.”

Such clear-cut, matter-of-fact determination is evident in many of her poems, including, “Pennysaver,” which features the lines:

“not a sentimental person
Your grandmother’s papers
Can go if I’m in charge.”

This kind of pragmatism may come from her real-life experiences, which, like many poets, have involved a variety of jobs, ranging from creative director, poster maker and curator to book doctor, book coach, fundraiser and activist. Yet when she speaks of her role as a teacher, she is most effusive.

“I love teaching,” she says. “Particularly non-traditional students: fast-food workers, nail-parlor practitioners, nannies, home-care aides. I have taught a class a semester for many, many years in a range of places, from Manhattanville College to homeless shelters. I teach at a wonderful feminist writing conference in Hobart, New York, every summer, and teach a class called, ‘Good Stories’ in many places around the country.”

Still, she does not relegate her activities solely to altruism. A proud grandparent whose husband, Peter Odabashian, is a documentary filmmaker, Cohen is an avid fan of TV shows such as “High Maintenance” and “Insecure,” as well as the TBS series, “Search Party,” which she feels has a lot in common with the serial novel she wrote for the West Side Spirit. “Although it’s not about millennials!” she says.

Certainly, this is a sensible way of looking at things, though perhaps she exhibits her prudence most in her advice for both new and old poets:

“Write,” she says. “Find your true voice.” Then she adds a sentence that most Chast characters would agree with: “It takes time.”

Copyright 2008-2017 The Jewish Advocate, All Rights Reserved

Trudi Cohen

Prospect Research Analyst

Columbia Law School

435 West 116th Street

Box A-2

New York, NY 10027