Alumni Writer Series: Kayla Cohen '17

Milken virtually sat down with four alumni writers for a conversation about their book publishing journeys, creative inspiration, and reflections on their Milken experience.

Meet Kayla Cohen '17, junior at UC Berkeley and author of the book, The Full Severity of our Connection. The book is largely about Kayla’s gap year in Israel on a program called Kivunim.
Tell us more about the gap year program.

It's based in Western Jerusalem but two out of the eight months are spent traveling to diaspora for Jewish communities, including the diaspora Jewish community in India. 

What is your book about?

It’s a deep dive into my travels to talk about what it was like to live so close to Jerusalem, to talk about Israel, Palestine, to talk about the diaspora and to talk about a Moroccan jewry. 

You began writing an interview blog during your gap year in Israel. What was that like?

I met unique characters-an identity conflict academic, the second, Orthodox equivalent of a rabbi in Jerusalem-got to take her class and interviewed her, I sat down with a Tibetan Buddhist monk in India-among other characters. 

How did your blog ultimately inspire you to write a book?

I was thinking about what constituted the Jewish self, what kind of effects did the diaspora and its legacies have on the Jewish concept of self and this reported idea of unity- I kind of grew up with these ideas of Jewish unity and Jewish peoplehood, and it being this one singular and monolithic thing. 
How did your college's campus culture influence the narrative of your book?

I go to a school where Israel, Palestine and, Jewish identity itself is highly, highly, highly politicized at UC Berkeley. When I tell people I go to Berkeley, the first question I get is always, is it really that bad? Is it really that anti-Semitic. I kind of wanted to also talk about my experience and my gap in college and what my gap year experiences and what I learned about Jewish identity and Jewish history and Israel, Palestine, what all those experiences mean to me now, as a student at Berkeley. 

What impact has your Milken experience had on your life?

As I've entered their college, I have become more curious about Jewish practice. I was never really interested in it in high school, but in retrospect, I did have a lot of resources at my fingertips, to explore tradition, to explore, religion. I just got off of a call with Rabbi BK and I asked him to send me the syllabus to his Jewish thought class. Many of the themes about particularism, universalism and what is pluralism and all of these other questions that I'm facing now, and actually feel more relevant as I grow older. I kind of feel like I have a guide and I'm really lucky to have these resources at my disposal.
What has stayed with you from your relationships with Milken faculty?

I consider Mr. Moran and Ms. Mansfield, still mentors. I'm still in touch with them. Mrs. Huth- I actually had her for three years straight and I applied to UC Berkeley as a history major and none of my lectures compared to her history class. I don't think I'll ever find a better history instructor. 

What advice would you give to current Milken students?

Enjoy the process, enjoy being a high school student, go out, go talk to people. Don't be so consumed with studying. These are some of the best years of your life.
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