Select Cohen Surname Genealogy

The surname Cohen comes from the Hebrew cohen or "priest."  Priests are traditionally regarded as members of a hereditary caste descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses.  Cohen today is one of the most common Jewish surnames. 

Other Jewish surnames come from cohen, such as Cohn, Cone, Cahn, Kahn and Kahana; Cohen-Tzadek, meaning a righteous Cohen, gives us the shortened version Katz; while the surname Kaplan is related.  These variants of Cohen are more evident in America than they are in Britain.

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Select Cohen Ancestry

The Jewish diaspora spread the Cohen surname across Europe and the Russian empire.  By the early 1800's Jews in the Russian empire were being herded into the so-called "Pale of Settlement;" and, later in the century, they were being driven into exile.  Cohens fled, from Lithuania and Poland mainly, and headed west. 

The following were the main countries in Europe where Cohens are to be found today:
  • France, 16,000.
  • UK, 12,000.
  • Netherlands, 2,000.
  • Switzerland, 1,000.
The number of Cohens in America is larger.  And there are Cohens also across the Atlantic in Argentina and Brazil.
England.  The Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 and were not to return until the 1650's.  It was then that Jewish merchants in London, having perhaps previously presented themselves as Portuguese, could legitimize their presence as Jews.

Levi Barent Cohen, the son of a wealthy merchant in Amsterdam, arrived in England in the 1770's and built up his financing business in London.  During the 19th century, nearly all of the leading Jewish families of his day - the Rothschilds, Montefiores, Goldsmids, and Salomons - were connected to him through the distinguished marriages which his children then contracted.  A descendant was the mid-20th century British diplomat in Africa, Sir Andrew Cohen.

Later Cohens.  The Polish-Russian immigration started in the 1880's and hundreds of thousands of Jews arrived in the East End of London and provincial centers such as Manchester and Leeds.  Their children were to contribute the backbone of the Anglo-Jewish community of the 20th century.  Perhaps the Cohen who succeeded the most was Jack Cohen, the founder in the 1930's of the Tesco supermarket chain.  Ronald Cohen, from a Sephardic family, has been called "the father of British venture capital."

Some later Cohens have, through inter-marriage, lost track with their Jewish roots.  These have included the English footballer George Cohen (who played in the 1966 World Cup final) and his nephew Ben, the rugby player.

Ireland.  Cohen can also be an Irish surname, a variant of Coyne, Coen, or Kilcoyne. and mainly to be found in county Mayo.

America.  There were Sephardic Cohens in America who had come to Charleston from London in 1750. Solomon Cohen of this family was a prominent slaveowner in Georgetown, South Carolina in the early 1800's. These Cohens gave rise to a number of black Cohens in the area, including, it is said, Rosa Ella Cohen, the great grandmother of Michelle Obama.

Cohens from Germany arrived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the 1770's.  One branch became prominent bankers in Baltimore (Jacob I. Cohen and Brothers).  Others settled in Philadelphia.  Henry Cohen, arriving there from London in 1843, established a successful business manufacturing envelopes.

Later Cohens.  The flood of Russian Jews and Cohens into America really began in the 1870's and it continued strong until 1914.  Many brought their Cohen name with them; others only adopted it on arrival.  One family account starts:

"We have all heard that our family name was originally Gutschabes and that it was changed to Cohen at Ellis Island."

Likewise, Basche, Rassel, Sonie, Golde, and Ilke became Americanized to Bessie, Rose, Sophie, Goldie, and Edith.

Life was a struggle for this first generation of Cohen immigrants.  Some ended up catering for Jewish immigrant tastes: Al Cohen's rye bread bakery in Buffalo, for instance, or Louis Cohen's original tasty coddies in Baltimore.

"He would walk with his basket from store to store, selling coddies.  He had to make a living.  It was bad in the early 1900's."

In the 1930's, Nehemiah Cohen started the first Jewish-type supermarket. 

Other Cohen arrivals made more of a name for themselves: Morris Cohen, the philosopher and legal scholar at City College; Fannia Cohen, the labor activist in the garment industry; and David Cohen and his daughter Blanche through their support for Jewish philanthropic causes. 

However, it was the next generation of American-born Cohens that really distinguished themselves, in business, law and science in particular.  And today, in diverse areas:
  • a Cohen family runs the Hudson News stores at New York airports (which it has for three generations)
  • Lyor Cohen has been the developer of hip-hop talent in New York for Warner's
  • and Ben Cohen from Brooklyn is the Ben of Ben and Jerry's ice cream.   
Cohen Name Changers.  A number who were Cohen changed their name to de-Jewify themselves.  These have included: Joshua Cowen, the co-founder of the toy manufacturer Lionel; Elliot Corday, the eminent cardiologist; Allan Carter, who started the Carter pharmacy in Los Angeles; and Howard Cosell, the sports journalist and commentator. The comedian Rodney Dangerfield was in fact born Jacob Cohen.

Canada.  Lyon Cohen immigrated to Canada with his parents from Poland in 1871.  Later he was to help found the Canadian Jewish Times, the first English language Jewish newspaper in Canada.  His grandson was the singer/poet Leonard Cohen. 

Alexander and Rose Cohen were Jewish immigrants who came to Winnipeg, Manitoba in the early 1900’s.  Their six sons started a small retail business in 1939 which expanded enormously in 1955 after they secured the Canadian distribution rights to the Japanese Sony products.  Albert Cohen became one of the civic leaders in Winnipeg.

Australia and New Zealand
.  Henry Cohen, at the age of 43, was convicted in London in 1833 of receiving stolen goods and was transported to Australia.  On his release in 1840 he prospered as a merchant and ship-owner in Sydney.  Abraham Cohen, who had arrived in Sydney as a free settler in 1835, joined him in some of his ventures. Many of Henry’s sons also prospered.  Philip was the first licensee of the Pier Hotel in Manly in 1856 and there is a Cohen Street there named after him. 

Henry and Elizabeth Cohen from Liverpool arrived in Sydney in 1851.  Their son Lewis, then aged two, moved to Adelaide in 1876 where he did well as a stockbroker and businessman.  He became Adelaide’s first Jewish mayor in 1921 and was knighted three years later. 

Hymen Cohen and his family from London meanwhile arrived in Melbourne in 1853.  Hymen was active in the hotel trade in Victoria and later in Dunedin, New Zealand until he was imprisoned for fraud in 1872.  His son Mark, however, became a prominent newspaper editor, educationalist, and social reformer in Dunedin over the next fifty years

Select Cohen Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select Cohen Names

Levi Barent Cohen was the founder, in the late 18th century, of the oldest Ashkenazi family in England.
Morris Cohen, the Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York in the inter-war years, was one of the leading academic teachers of his day.
Jack Cohen, of Polish-Jewish roots, was the founder of the Tesco supermarket chain in Britain.
Wilbur Joseph Cohen, who worked for the Social Security Administration from its inception on 1935, has been called the "father of social security."
Elie Cohen, a Dutch doctor, survived Auschwitz and lived to write a number of books about the Holocaust.
Eli Cohen was the celebrated Mossad agent who penetrated Syrian security and provided intelligence which enabled Israel to capture the Golan Heights.  He was captured and executed by the Syrians in 1965. 
Leonard Cohen has been an acclaimed Canadian singer/songwriter.  His family roots were Polish/Lithuanian.
Ben Cohen from Brooklyn was co-founder of the ice cream company Ben & Jerry's.
Steven Cohen, manager of SAC Capital Partners, is one of the leading hedge-fund operators in America.
Sacha Baron Cohen is the creator of comic characters such as Ali G and Borat.  His family roots are from Lithuania.

Select Cohens Today
  • 12,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 41,000 in America (most numerous in New York).
  • 40 ,000 elsewhere (most numerous in France).

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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