Lit­er­ary De­tec­tive Look­ing for the Fa­ther She Never Knew

The true story of a pro­lific pub­lisher killed trag­i­cally at 33 and his daugh­ter’s life mis­sion to re­deem his lit­er­ary en­ter­prise from obliv­ion

The Jewish Voice - - BOOK REVIEW - By: Rachel Neiman

Atop many an Is­raeli gar­den wall, you’re likely to find a stack of books placed there by some­one clean­ing out clut­ter and hop­ing that some lover of lit­er­a­ture will give the books a new home. It was on such a wall that one kind soul found two books whose lurid jack­ets caught her eye – much as the pub­lisher in­tended in the 1950s, when the books were new.

That pub­lisher was Yosef Co­hen. His com­pany, HaSifriya HaYis­raelit (The Is­raeli Li­brary) man­aged to put out about 100 ti­tles be­tween 1949 and 1956, be­fore Co­hen was killed in the 1956 Si­nai Cam­paign at the age of 33. Through the magic of the In­ter­net, the two afore­men­tioned books were re­cently re­turned to his daugh­ter, Dalia Co­hen-Gross, pro­fes­sor of He­brew lin­guis­tics at Bar-Ilan Univer­sity, who has made it her life’s mis­sion to re­cover as many of her fa­ther’s im­prints as pos­si­ble, “to com­mem­o­rate him and re­deem his lit­er­ary en­ter­prise from obliv­ion.”

“I was less than three years old when my fa­ther died,” Co­hen-Gross says, adding that her mother kept none of the HaSifriya HaYis­raelit books and, in fact, got rid of all me­men­tos, aside from a box of her fa­ther’s medals. “For many years I didn’t deal with the is­sue of the books. But I got in­ter­ested in find­ing out more at the age of 40, af­ter I fin­ished my PhD.”

Co­hen-Gross be­gan comb­ing the Na­tional Li­brary of Is­rael’s card cat­a­logues. Search­ing proved dif­fi­cult in the 1990s be­cause the cards weren’t listed by pub­lisher, but later the li­brary is­sued a dig­i­tized ver­sion on CD.

Co­hen-Gross shared the good news with her older brother that the li­brary had nine hard­cover books pub­lished by HaSifriya HaYis­raelit and was sur­prised to learn from him that their fa­ther’s com­pany had a pa­per­back im­print called HaKoreh. “The logo is a rooster be­cause it’s a play on the words ‘am­mop­erdix’ [sand par­tridge] and ‘reader,’ which sound alike in He­brew.”

Hav­ing found the pa­per­backs in the Na­tional Li­brary, Co­hen-Gross made an­other dis­cov­ery: “On the back page of the pa­per­backs was a list of other ti­tles. And so, the search be­gan in earnest.

“I went to the Jaffa flea mar­ket. Used book­stores on Al­lenby Street. I sat on ware­house floors and went through boxes. I went down to the old Cen­tral Bus Sta­tion area where his of­fice and the print shop were. I went to the bindery, look­ing for clues. Book deal­ers also helped me – they were moved by my per­sonal story and spread the word.”

As the world was go­ing dig­i­tal, Co­hen-Gross de­cided she needed bet­ter data-mining tools. She went back to school for a mas­ter’s de­gree in in­for­ma­tion science and since then has lo­cated about 100 books is­sued un­der seven dif­fer­ent im­prints.

The world­wide web pro­vided an even more sur­pris­ing boon – her long-lost fam­ily. “My mother had cut all ties with the Co­hen fam­ily. Two years ago, I re­ceived an email from a woman whose fa­ther was, in fact, my un­cle. She found me through the web-page I posted about my fa­ther. She gave me four let­ters my fa­ther had writ­ten to his brother in 1948 dur­ing the In­de­pen­dence War.”

In those let­ters, Co­hen-Gross dis­cov­ered a young man with a dis­tinct writ­ing style. “He was only 25 years old but you can see that he was very lit­er­ate, very well-read.”

Born in 1923 in Alexan­dria, Egypt, to a fam­ily whose roots went back gen­er­a­tions to Jerusalem and Safed, Yosef Co­hen came to pre-state Is­rael in 1935. He fought in the Ar­mored Corps dur­ing the War of In­de­pen­dence. Af­ter the State of Is­rael was de­clared, Co­hen joined the Is­rael Air Force, and served in the reg­u­lar army un­til 1953.

Con­cur­rently, in 1949, Co­hen founded HaSifriya HaYis­raelit. The com­pany pub­lished Amer­i­can, Bri­tish, Ger­man, Ital­ian, French and Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture by fa­mous au­thors such as Go­gol, Pi­ran­dello and Zola. Their cheesy book-cov­ers, how­ever, fea­tured im­ages of ro­mance and gang­sters meant to at­tract busy passers-by as HaSifriya HaYis­raelit books were sold at news­stands and book­sell­ers ad­ja­cent to the bus sta­tion.

The cov­ers be­lied the books’ high­brow con­tents, as did Co­hen’s sta­ble of trans­la­tors: peo­ple who went on to be­come well known lit­er­ary fig­ures like ac­tress and pub­lisher Miriam Bern­stein-Co­hen, who re­ceived the Is­rael Prize for Theater in 1975; S. Somekh, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of mod­ern Arab lit­er­a­ture at Tel Aviv Univer­sity and 2005 Is­rael Prize win­ner, Is­raeli thinker Me­nachem Har­tom; au­thors Ye­shayahu Le­vit and Haim Tarsi, and oth­ers.

Co­hen also pub­lished books un­der the Yu­val, Bar­bour, Makor, Dafde­fet and Ma’ayanot im­prints. As to the range of im­prints, Co­hen-Gross can only the­o­rize. “It could have been ad-hoc, or for tax pur­poses.” Given that al­most all of the ti­tles deal­ing with sex ed­u­ca­tion were pub­lished by Ma’ayanot, Co­hen-Gross agrees there might have been a the­matic rea­son for the dif­fer­ences.

With the out­break of con­flict in 1956, Co­hen vol­un­teered for re­serve duty and, trag­i­cally, was killed by friendly fire at the very end of the Si­nai Cam­paign. His daugh­ter muses, “It’s amaz­ing that in the short time that the pub­lish­ing com­pany ex­isted — six or seven years — he was able to pub­lish so much. He was only 33 years old when he died.”

Co­hen-Gross is still on the look­out for 25 to 30 ti­tles still un­ac­counted for. At least two books have been dis­cov­ered in li­braries in the United States, and she is ap­peal­ing to any­one with in­for­ma­tion about her fa­ther’s work to con­tact her at Dalia.Co­hen-Gross@biu.ac.il.

Books left on a wall in Jerusalem for any­one to take. Photo by Rachel Neiman

In­side the Na­tional Li­brary in Jerusalem. Photo by Hadas Parush/ FLASH90

Two of Yosef Co­hen’s 1950s books. Photo: cour­tesy

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