two images: the book voer features a muted illustration of leaves. and the picture of the author shows a young white woman with long brown hair smiling in the sun.
Kayla Harris Cohen is the author of "The Full Severity of our Connection: Lessons from the Jewish Diaspora."

Cal student’s pandemic project: a book on ‘The Full Severity’ of Jewish identity

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Early in the pandemic, many writers wondered if their productivity would increase or decrease during the weeks and then months of isolation. One viral tweet from March 2020 read, “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.”

UC Berkeley student Kayla Harris Cohen seems to have found her own muse during the pandemic.

The 22-year-old, who will be a senior in the fall, is the author of a forthcoming book she wrote during the past year titled “The Full Severity of Our Connection: Lessons from the Jewish Diaspora.” The book digs into the complexity of her own fragmented Jewish identity, how communities from Cochin, India, to Sofia, Bulgaria, are linked in a Jewish diaspora and her own struggles with antisemitism at college.

“I’ve been passionate about writing since I was a little kid,” Cohen, a double major in history and comparative literature, told J. “The pandemic itself also afforded me extra time to focus and write from home for prolonged periods of time, which helped me get the work done.”

Cohen worked with the Washington, D.C.-based Creator Institute, a program that helps first-time authors publish their books. Hers is scheduled to be released on Amazon on June 20.

“The Full Severity of Our Connection” is split into three sections. The first is about Cohen’s travels as a gap-year student four years ago, when she visited Jewish communities in Greece, Morocco, Spain, Berlin and elsewhere through a program called Kivunim. Like a journalist, she interviewed people along the way. In one part, she’s in a taxi interviewing the chief rabbi of Greece, heading to the airport at 1:30 a.m., taking notes in a “half-legible, messily scribbled” style.

In this section, Cohen considers how the Jewish diaspora communities she’s observing are caught up in a “dilemma.”

“[Y]ou can either enforce social boundaries, preserve cultural and religious distinctiveness, and support passive coexistence between peoples without much interaction; or you can support the tearing down of all distinctions and play with or adopt new cultures and religions, forming one body,” she writes.

In the second part, Cohen writes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lense of her gap-year travels and a trip she took in 2019 with the Olive Tree Initiative, a student training ground for international conflict analysis and resolution. Group members visited and spoke with both Israelis and Palestinians, and she was one of only three Jews in the group.

There were moments during the 2019 trip that were very uncomfortable, Cohen writes, such a visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem when some non-Jewish students drew a parallel between how Jews were treated in the Holocaust and how Palestinians are treated by Israel. And one student called the museum “overdone.”

Her reply? “If you left Yad Vashem with these impressions, you need to go back to Yad Vashem.”

In the book’s third part, Cohen discusses her personal experiences with antisemitism while on campus at UC Berkeley, a hot spot for battles around anti-Israel issues and antisemitism.

She observes how Jews are in a bind in the United States politically, with elements on both the far left and far right engaging in activism that could be considered anti-Israel or antisemitic. But she takes it a bit further. She argues that some on the far left who care deeply about eradicating white supremacy will not address antisemitism. And she says some even spread problematic tropes about Jews controlling the world. In doing so, Cohen says, the far left actually ends up helping the white supremacist cause without even knowing it.

That chapter, Cohen told J., was “motivated by feeling super frustrated and never [heard] by the greater student body when issues related to Jewish identity or antisemitism arose” at UC Berkeley.

“I feel like a lot of people on my campus never wanted to engage with Jews [and] formed opinions about the Hillel building without having walked inside of the building or meeting its students,” she said.

Cohen’s own multicultural background informs many of the points she makes in the book. Her father is from Iran and her mother (who converted to Judaism) is from Scotland. And though Cohen was raised in Los Angeles in what she described as a Masorti, or traditional, home, her Jewish education was a mix of Reform and pluralistic. Sometimes she attended Persian Orthodox services, and other times found herself at Chabad.

“So I got to kind of sample all these different ways of doing Jewish practice,” Cohen said. “In hindsight, I think [it] really informed the way I approached the book and its recognition of the Jewish community’s own pluralities.”

Cohen’s book is available on Amazon.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.