Select Cohen Miscellany

Here are some Cohen stories and accounts over the years:

What Is A Cohen?

"The lips of the Cohen shall keep knowledge
And Torah you shall seek from his mouth,
For he is the messenger of Hashem."
                                Malachi 2:7

The first and father of all Kohanim was Aaron, the brother of Moses of the tribe of Levi, who served as the first Cohen Gadol, High Priest.  Aaron, his four sons, and all his descendants were designated to have the status of Kohanim and to fulfill a role of spiritual leadership.  Traditionally they have been Torah teachers and Halachic decision makers.

The Hebrew word Cohen means "to serve," as the verse states: "(bring) Aaron your brother and his sons... to serve (le-chahano) me" (Exodus 28:1).  The word Cohen is rooted in the word ken, meaning "yes" or "proper," and the word kivun, meaning "to direct."  A Cohen therefore is one who directs himself and others in the proper service of God. 

Genealogically, a Cohen is:

  • a direct descendant of Aaron haCohen.
  • one whose father is a known Cohen.
  • and one whose mother was not disqualified from marriage to a Cohen.
A Cohen M'yuchas is a Cohen of veritable lineage.

Being a Cohen has some limitations imposed.  By Jewish religious law, a Cohen may not marry a divorced woman (only a single woman or a widow) and may not marry someone who converted to Judaism.  Nor should an observant Cohen come into contact with the dead. 

Cohen and DNA Testing

The Cohen lineage has been confirmed genetically.  Just over half of the men called Cohen are descended from one man about 3-4,000 years ago, a date which corresponds with the time of Aaron.  A further 15 percent have a comparable Y-chromosome which may reflect later chromosomal mutation by one individual.  This surname reflects the longest genetically proved pedigree from a named individual.

Levi Barent Cohen

Cohen had come to England in the 1770's from Amsterdam and by 1778 had developed a large business in London.  He devoted himself as well to Jewish affairs.  He was one of the founders and the first president of the bread, meat, and coal charity, and of the Jews' hospital; and filled successively all the synagogal offices of the Duke's Place congregation.  He was naturalized as a British subject in 1798.

His main claim to fame lies in being the founder of the Cohen family in England; and that all the leading Jewish families of his day were connected to him through marriage.  His daughter Hannah became the wife of Nathan Mayer Rothschild, the founder of the firm in New Court; the second daughter Judith married Sir Moses Montefiore; the third daughter Jessie married Myer Davidson; and by the alliances of his other children further marriages were made with the families of Goldsmid, Samuel, and Lucas.  

The Cohens in the Dutch Book Trade

Godert Cohen was born into a family of well-to-do tobacco traders who were impoverished during the French occupation of the Netherlands.  The Nijmegen-based library he started in 1827 at 419 Ganzenheuvel soon developed into the larger company of E. & M. Cohen Bros. of Nijmegen, Arnhem and Amsterdam.  This was done under his guidance and that of his two sons and two of his grandsons.

In 1905 the company moved to Amsterdam, by then the capital of the Dutch book trade.  Until 1941 it would be housed at 326 Herengracht.  During World War II this Jewish company was liquidated.  Following the liberation Esther Cohen, the great-granddaughter of the founder, continued the company under the name of Phoenix Publishers.

After only seven Phoenix publications, a century and a half of Cohen publishing history ended with the takeover by G. van Reemst in 1951.

Hannah Cohen and Arthur Bax

Hannah Cohen was an acclaimed British concert pianist of the inter-war years.  Her love affair with the composer Arthur Bax lasted for over forty years until his death in 1953.  It was Bax who gave Harriet the name of Tania for which she was affectionately known by close friends and family.  Their passionate affair started in 1914 when she was 19 and he 31. 

Many believed that their time together inspired his famous tone poem Tintagel Castle, in which he expressed the anguish at "the dream their world denied."  Their insatiable love led to Bax's decision to leave his wife and children in 1918.  However, they could never live together because his wife refused to divorce.  Neither could their relationship be recognized publicly because of the social climate of their generation.  Hannah did become pregnant with Bax's child in 1919, but she lost the child in pregnancy.  Through the 1920's and 1930's their relationship was less passionate as her international career began to flourish.  Nevertheless, as their private letters have revealed, the affair continued and they remained close.

In 1947, Bax's wife Elsa died.  Hannah would probably have expected to marry Bax after so long a wait.  But events were to unfold in a very different direction.  Bax did not even tell her about the death of his wife.  Six months later, when her will was read out, Bax revealed to Hannah that he had had another secret twenty year love affair with a Mary Greaves and that he was making no promises to marry anyone.

At that time, Hannah Cohen's career was at a height.  However, on discovering Bax's secret affair, she had an accident with a tray of glasses which severed the artery in her right hand.  This practically ended her performing career. 

Cohens of New York

The following is a list of some of the Cohen sons of immigrants to New York who made it in their respective professions:

Parents from:

Myron Cohen
Comedian and raconteur.
Felix Cohen
Prominent lawyer and scholar.
Morris Cohen
Spy convicted of espionage for the Soviet Union.
Samuel Cohen
Physicist who invented the neutron bomb.
Stanley Cohen
Nobel prize laureate in medicine.
Henry Cohen
Director of Fohrenwald (displaced person's camp) after WW2.

David Cohen and His Daughter Blanche

David Cohen, a descendent of the Vilna Gaon, had emigrated from Suwalk in Lithuania in the 1870's at the age of fourteen.  On arrrival in New York, he worked in the real estate business and devoted the rest of his energy to Orthodox Jewish educational institutions and synagogues.  He was a founder of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School (RJJ), the Uptown Talmud Torah, Beth Israel and Lebanon Hospitals, Bronx Machzikei Talmud Torah, and the Hebrew Teachers’ Institute.

His daughter Blanche was born in 1885.  Her parents named her Bluma, which she formally changed to Blanche upon graduation from high school.  She was the fourth of eleven children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.  

Blanche was married in 1906 to Alexander Schlang, a realtor who was a builder of Congregation Sons of Israel in Brooklyn.  In 1919 her family founded a kosher summer camp for immigrant children called Camp Tranquility and she was active in Tranquility's Women's League for the rest of her life.  In 1942, she founded the Manhattan chapter of Mizrachi Women’s Organization of America (later known as Amit), an organization dedicated to caring for and educating disadvantaged Jewish children in Palestine.  And she was president of the Rabbonim Aid Society for eighteen years, raising and distributing much needed funds to support impoverished rabbis and their widows, particularly victims of the Holocaust.  At the time of her death in 1972 at the age of eighty seven, she was chair of that society’s board of directors.

Nehemiah Cohen and Giant Food

Nehemiah Cohen, a Jerusalam-born teacher and schochet (ritual slaughterer), wanted to open a grocery store in Washington with Jac Lehman, whose family ran a wholesale grocery business in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.   After checking into Cohen's financial background, Lehman cautioned his father that Cohen had previously filed for bankruptcy.

"I am willing to take a chance on any man who speaks such beautiful Hebrew," Lehman is reported to have said.

The two opened their first Giant grocery store on Georgia Avenue above Park Road in 1936.  It was larger than the prevailing mom-and-pop stores of the period; and, because this and subsequent Giant stores were Jewish owned, there were always Jewish goods like matzo, challah, and macaroons to be found there.

Giant Food subsequently expanded into a large regional supermarket chain.


Cohen Spread Across America

Cohen accounts for some 2-3 percent of the Jewish surnames in America.  These Cohens were mainly clustered in New York in 1920, the year the immigration gates closed.  They have since spread across America. 

Cohen Distribution in America
New York
New Jersey

Helen Degen Cohen, Holocaust Survivor

Born in Poland, Helen Degen Cohen spent her early years in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw.  At the start of World War Two she fled with her family to Belarus.  As her parents became involved in the resistance movement, they decided to send Helen to the safety of the countryside.  There she was cared for by a Catholic woman.

"While they were heroic and good people, my parents did not want me to write.  They were very practical and thought writing was frivolous and perhaps dangerous.  The woman who hid me from the Nazis when I was about eight had a more spiritual sensibility and encouraged my proclivity for art."

Helen emigrated to America with her parents in 1947 at the age of twelve.  She attended the University of Illinois on the Navy Pier in Chicago at the beginning of her college career and finished undergraduate school at Trinity.

She and her husband Arnold later had three children; but even as a young woman she had a strong desire to express herself through art - first painting and then poetry and fiction.  Helen's work, much of it based on her years as a Nazi captive, has garnered numerous awards, including the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.

Asked what she thinks has been her greatest achevement, Helen has said: "Learning, and thinking for myself."  She said it is still difficult because people continue to tell her that she has this huge talent.  She may still be battling to overcome the influence of her parents who were protective and wanted her safe.

"It was all about survival for them; during wartime there really wasn't time to think about anything else.  It is of course more than a miracle that they saved both themselves and their child."  

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