Cohen Surname Genealogy

The surname Cohen comes from the Hebrew
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.

Resources on

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
the century, they were being driven into exile.  Cohens fled, from
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
them; others only adopted it on arrival.  One family account

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

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.”

the 1930’s, Nehemiah
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
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
  • 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
These have included: Joshua Cowen, the co-founder of the toy
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.

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

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
Canadian distribution rights to the Japanese Sony products.  Albert Cohen became one of the civic leaders

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
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
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.

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
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
Canadian singer/songwriter.  His family roots were
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).




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