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Barbara Cohen

1932 – 1992

by Rita Berman Frischer

When Barbara Cohen died, she left behind an exceptional body of children’s literature. Cohen was adventurous, seldom repeating herself, always trying new ideas, settings and themes. “I’m an impatient person,” she said. “I don’t like doing the same thing twice.” The result of this prolific impatience was thirty-two books for children and young adults covering a wide range of topics, ranging from unique adaptations of biblical stories such as The Binding of Isaac (1978), I Am Joseph (1980), The Donkey’s Story (1988) and David (1995) to skilled retellings of Chaucer in Four Canterbury Tales (1987).

Her most familiar territory, however, was stories about Jewish children and young adults, past or present, faced with the universal dilemmas of growing up. “You don’t start to write a book about grand subjects,” Cohen once said. “You write about specific people doing specific things in specific places at specific times and hope they rise to a level of universal relevance. For me, those people happen to be Jews.”

Barbara Cohen was born in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on March 15, 1932, the first of three children of Florence (Marshall) and Leo Kauder. Inspired by “a family that admires a good story,” she started writing as soon as she could hold a pencil. Her father died shortly after the family moved to Somerville, New Jersey to run an inn, and her mother, left with children aged nine, seven and not quite five, raised them in this run-down hotel as she gradually built it into a successful business. Although she provided a stable and secure home, Cohen has said, “We were Jewish in a town where antisemitism was still close to the surface. My mother worked at a time when most other mothers didn’t. And she worked not in a school or an office but selling liquor and renting rooms to strangers. All these things served to make me feel isolated from other kids my age and forced me to depend on my brother, sister and books.”

After Somerville High, Cohen attended Barnard College. While a senior, she was invited to provide a column of personal commentary for her stepfather’s weekly newspapers, thus earning her first paycheck for writing. She graduated from Barnard magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1954 with a BA in English and a concentration in creative writing. She married Gene Cohen in 1954 and while he joined her mother in running the now bustling inn, she earned her MA from Rutgers University in 1957, had three daughters (Leah, 1957; Sara, 1962, and Rebecca, 1963), and taught high school English in Tenafly, Somerville and Hillsborough, New Jersey. Active in community and Jewish life, her only writing for many years was a column “Books and Things” published in New Jersey papers.

Her first picture book, The Carp In The Bathtub (1972) was published when she was 39 years old. The praise it received inspired her to stop teaching and write full time but she never anticipated that her simple story of two children trying to rescue a fish named Joe from his destined place in the seder meal would become a much loved modern classic. It is anthologized in hundreds of fourth grade readers and has been translated into many languages.

Cohen’s work sensitively depicts the inevitable strains of family life and outside pressures. Three of her early stories are set in a New Jersey inn of the forties and fifties, each told from the viewpoint of one of the innkeeper’s three children. They are R—My Name is Rosie (1978), The Innkeeper’s Daughter (1979, paperback 1990)—the most directly autobiographical of her works—and Thank You, Jackie Robinson (1974), an American Library Association Notable Book. Bitter Herbs and Honey (1976) is another work which strongly reflects the sense Cohen always had as an adolescent of being an outsider.

The award-winning King of the Seventh Grade (1982) introduces Vic, the terror of the pre-bar mitzvah class, who is released from studying when the rabbi discovers his mother isn’t Jewish. Indignant, he chooses to formally claim his identity as a Jew, going through conversion and the call to Torah. In First Fast (1987), ten-year-old Harry fasts all day on Yom Kippur only to have the big boys renege on letting him play with them as they had promised if he succeeded. Their betrayal rings as true as his private pride in his achievement.

Unicorns in the Rain (1982), a futuristic fantasy based on the Noah story, clearly showed Cohen’s concern about the increasingly violent society she saw evolving around her. Molly’s Pilgrim (1985, 1998), one of her most timeless and well-loved stories, portrays a young Russian Jewish immigrant who sensitizes her class to the real meaning of Thanksgiving and religious freedom. In 1986, the film version, frequently shown on TV at holiday time, won an Academy Award for live short subject. Cohen, who played the crossing guard in one scene in the film, attended the Awards ceremony with sheer delight.

In The Secret Grove (1985) Cohen mused over the neutral ground a young Jewish Israeli and an Israeli Arab youth find in an orange grove between their villages. Yussel’s Prayer (1981), a beautifully told tale of a shepherd boy’s simple faith, received the National Jewish Book Award and the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) Sydney Taylor Award for picture books in 1981. In 1982, AJL also acknowledged Cohen’s overall contribution to Jewish children’s literature with their AJL Sydney Taylor Body-Of-Work Award.

The Christmas Revolution (1987) was one of the books which grew from her own children’s activities. In it, the Berg twins are confronted with the familiar but troublesome December dilemma of whether to take part in their predominately Christian school’s traditional holiday observances. Their unexpected disagreement about the right course of action becomes so painful that only dramatic events can resolve the tension. Then, in 1990, Cohen wrote The Long Way Home (1990) in which Sally Berg, one of the twins of The Christmas Revolution, faces the fear and family tensions that result from her mother’s recent mastectomy.

To the end, Barbara Cohen had a story to tell. She died of cancer on November 29, 1992, leaving behind books since published posthumously and a fine new crop of young women writers she helped inspire.

Cohen’s books touched the concerns of all children, which she described as the longing to belong, to be accepted and loved, to find out who one is and what one is worth. Her work did not protect young readers from separation, loss, failure and death, but it always acknowledged what she called “the sense that the world is new, wonderful, fresh.”

Awards

Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award (1980); Sydney Taylor Picture Book Award (1981).

Additional Works by Barbara Cohen

Benny (1977); Coasting (1985); Even Higher (1987); Gooseberries to Oranges (1982); Here Come the Purim Players (1984); The Orphan Game (1988); People Like Us (1989); Seven Daughters and Seven Sons (1982); Tell Us Your Secret (1989).

Bibliography

Holtz, Sally Holmes. "Barbara Cohen." In Junior Authors and Illustrators. New York: 1983; “Obituary”. In Something About the Author Autobiography Series. Volume 74, Detroit: 1993, 49; Desmond, Stephen. "Barbara Cohen, 1932–1992." In Something About the Author Autobiography Series. Volume 77, Detroit: 1994, 33–37.

7 Comments

Two days ago, My 9 years old daughter made me sit down and read a book. "Molly's Pilgrim" As I was reading tears started flowing and I could barely finish the book as I was now sobbing. My daughter sat next to me and told me the feeling she has at school.

My older daughter went through the same treatment as she was going through 1-8 class. Life was hard for the only Indian girl in the entire school district. It is an old town where history has not been for diversity. Now my younger one goes through the same. I have tried several times to make friends with the moms, but other than free baby sitting for them nothing has ever grown into anything else to help my girls. In fact those kids were the worst as they knew a few more things about our family... Vegetarian food with fruits and vegetables, homework before TV, strictness towards computer use, Mom a Yoga teacher, a designer for clothing and accessories.

Nothing fits in the normal life of those kids and their Moms who frequented bars or dated guys!

Reading the book and about the author it only makes me proud that very soon I will have strong and highly successful women. I can't wait to see the bright future this painful present bring

Mrs. Cohen was my senior English teacher at Hillsborough High School in 1975-76. I remember her typing furiously before (and sometimes a little after!) the bell rang to start class as she worked on her next book. She wrote a weekly column for the Somerville Messenger Gazette while I wrote and did photography for the Hillsborough Beacon and Princeton Packet. For my senior project she allowed me to write and direct a "comedy" version of Hamlet!!! When the school's primitive video tape machine conked out she personally drove me from the high school to the main library in Somerville to borrow theirs, so we could show the film to the class. I've written a few books myself now, and there isn't a session in front of the keyboard where I don't think of, and fondly remember with appreciation, Barbara Cohen.

Thank you Rita Berman Frischer for a wonderful synopsis of my mother's life and of her books. But, you missed several in the list of other works, and all of those published posthumously:

Make a Wish Molly (Sequel to Molly's Pilgrim) The Chocoloate Wolf

And others Where's Florrie The Demon Who Would Not Die Lovely Vassilisa Robin Hood and Little John Roses Fat Jack Lover's Games 213 Valentines

Although I have never met Barbara Cohen she is very close to my heart. The reason for that may be that I know all three of her daughters considering one of them is my mom. I love her and all of her books whenever I think about her and all of her achievement I wish I knew her!

From what I have heard Barbara Cohen was an incredible woman who is near and dear to all of our hearts. I love her and miss her with every last bit of my heart! In fact the reason I found this website was because I am doing a research paper on her. I cant wait to find out new things about my grandmother that I never knew!

I wish she was here right now to share all of those happy, sad, and all of the above moments. I know that she would be nothing but, joyed to find that me or you were taking time to find more about her and writing about and to her.

I love you grandma!

Barbra Cohen was my Sophomore English teacher at Hillsborough High School in 1973. I was a shy, awkward boy who liked to read and was very interested in the stories we read in class, but who wasn't especially comfortable speaking. Mrs. Cohen realized this, and often took special care to speak with me after class, saying she thought I was a very good student, and encouraging me to offer my thoughts during class. She introduced me to De Maupassant, Dumas, Moliere', and a host of other classical writers and poets whom I still occasionally read, for which I will be forever grateful.

When I read of her death in 1992, I was shocked and extremely saddened. She is one of a handful of teachers whom I have always remembered with great fondness. She was a warm, wonderful, sweet, caring woman and a terrific teacher, and the public education system lost a true gem when she quit to pursue her passion. I still keep her obituary in my yearbook, right next to the place where she wrote me a very nice, encouraging note.

One of my very fondest memories of her is the time one day, as she was attempting to engage her group of lifeless lumps in a discussion of poetry, when she mentioned one poet after another, asking if we had heard of them, or knew anything they had written, to absolutely no avail. She'd have had better luck trying to persuade a mouse to speak at a convention of cats. Her frustration at our reluctance to participate was pretty obvious, and she was clearly at wits end. As she passed my desk, apparently trying to find even one poem with which any of us might be familiar, she spoke the first line of a work entitled Abou Ben Adhem, by James Leigh Hunt: "Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase..." Realizing I knew that poem, I screwed up my courage and said: "And lo - Adhem's name lead all the rest", which is the closing line of that particular work. She stopped mid-stride, turned around, and gave me such a smile you'd have thought I'd just presented her with the Hope Diamond on a platinum chain!

I still miss her, to this day.

04/06/2009

Up to this very date I had always thought my personal real life story of "my Carp" was unique. I was blown away when I was asked by my daughter, at last week's seder to relate my story to her friends.. It was a story I told my children for years, not as a holiday yarn but just as a personal boyhood experience. I never related it publicly.

My true story has just a slight twist in that as a child I was always interested in fish and to this day was never without a fish tank or pond. At the time I lived in an apartment building in NYC. I am of the same age as Barbara Cohen. My uncle was in the smoked fish business and knowing my avid interest in fish promised he would one day send me a fish. That day happend right before Passover(I was about 10) when a man knocked on the back door with a bundle of newspapers under his arm. He asked for me and handed me a huge live Carp! Unbeleivable! It went into the servant's bath tub and became known as "Donny's fish".

About three days later when I came home from school it was gone. Allegedley died.

At our annual seder at my granma's house in Brooklyn my Dad raved about the gefilte fish as "the best ever". When one of my Aunt's informed him it was "Donny's fish" he just about gave it all back. And so began the family tale that I thought was so unique until my daughter's friend exclaimed'I've heard that story before". Impossible I said, a little ruefully. Subsequently she emailed info on Barbara's book. What I never knew was the common practice in those days of harboring the carp in the bath tub. Anyway it pleases me that so many more people can appreciate a semblence of my coveted tale.(tail)

I read the book Unicorns In The Rain as a 7th grader in the early 80's. No book has ever touched my life as that one did. I could not put it down. Years later I searched everywhere for a copy for my own children. I finally found one and still have it. I wondered about this great writer. I now know her background and plan to obtain more of her books for my grandchildren!!!

Barbara Cohen
Full image

Children's author and educator Barbara Cohen (1932-1992).

Institution: Rita Berman Frischer.

How to cite this page

Frischer, Rita Berman. "Barbara Cohen." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 22, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/cohen-barbara>.

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