Icons for the New Year: Elisheva Cohen

This Rosh Hashanah, I’m thinking about change. We look at transformation as something that happens overnight, but if the women I learn about every day at JWA are any indication, change happens in surprising ways and at unexpected times. It can be sudden or slow, a product of one determined action or years of effort.

Sometimes, the inspiration to make change comes from within. But for me, it helps to learn about others—specifically, women with lives like my own, who weren’t Rothschilds or Kennedys—who chose to transform their lives when simply continuing on would have likely been much easier.

Elisheva Cohen left her home in Frankfurt, Germany for Jerusalem as Nazism took hold of the country. She spent the better part of her adult life as a mother and wife. Then, she faced a year of profound change: in 1954, her two children left home and she and her husband divorced. Her father died soon after. At a time when many would have turned inward and retreated from public life, Cohen embarked on a new chapter. She began working at the Bezalel National Museum in 1956, rising to curate a collection of Rembrandt’s drawings and develop a new cataloging system. Then, Cohen became involved with planning the Israel Museum. When it opened in 1968, she became the Israel Museum’s Chief Curator for the Arts in addition to being the Curator of Prints and Drawings. Elisheva Cohen’s career didn’t begin until her mid-forties. That she rose to become one of the most pivotal figures in Israel’s cultural history was the result of her own vision and determination.

The choices we make at personal crossroads are rarely easy. In transforming her own life, Elisheva Cohen changed the art world and helped establish one of Israel’s most prominent museums, though I’m sure she had no such aspirations in mind when she took the leap from housewife to low-level museum employee. This month, I’ll be introducing other icons for the New Year—women whose names you may not know, but who chose lives that weren’t handed to them; whose personal acts of transformation changed the world around them. 

Topics: Art
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How to cite this page

Metal, Tara. "Icons for the New Year: Elisheva Cohen ." 13 September 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 19, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/icons-for-new-year-elisheva-cohen>.

Elisheva Cohen (1911 – 1989) was honored with both the Israel Prize and the title of Yakirat Yerushalayim (Honorary Citizen of Jerusalem) for her contributions to the establishment of the Israel Museum and her years as its curator.

Institution: Meira Perry-Lehmann.

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