Cohen Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Cohen Meaning
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.


Select Cohen Miscellany

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
  • 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.

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

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:

Myron Cohen Russia 1902 Comedian and raconteur.
Felix Cohen Belarus 1907 Prominent lawyer and scholar.
Morris Cohen Ukraine 1910 Spy convicted of espionage for
the Soviet Union.
Samuel Cohen London 1921 Physicist who invented the
neutron bomb.
Stanley Cohen Russia 1922 Nobel prize laureate in medicine.
Henry Cohen Lithuania 1922 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

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 1920 2000
New York  50%  18%
Pennsylvania  10%    5%
Massachusetts    8%    5%
New Jersey    4%    8%
Florida     –  14%
California    2%  12%
Elsewhere  26%  38%

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

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.”



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 Cohen Numbers 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).


Select Cohen and Like Jewish Surnames

The Jews were banned from England in 1290 and did not return there until the 1650’s, sometimes in the form of Portuguese traders.  They were to make their mark as merchants and financers in London and many families prospered.  There was another larger Jewish influx in the late 1800’s.

In America the early settlement of Sephardic Jews was in Charleston, South Carolina.  In the 19th century Ashkenazi Jews started to arrive from Germany.  Later came a larger immigration from a wider Jewish diaspora.  Between 1880 and 1910 it is estimated that around two million Yiddish-speaking Jews, escaping discrimination and pogroms, arrived from the Russian empire and other parts of Eastern Europe.

Some Jewish surnames reflect ancient Biblical names, such as Cohen and Levy.  Some have come from early place-names where Jews resided, such as Dreyfus (from Trier), Halpern (from Heilbronn) and Shapiro (from Speyer).  Many more surnames came about when Ashkenazi Jews were compelled by Governments to adopt them in the early 1800’s.  The names chosen at that time were often ornamental ones – Bernstein or Goldberg or Rosenthal for example.  Then the name could change on arrival in America at Ellis Island.  And finally anti-Semitism perceived could cause further changes to conceal Jewishness.

Here are the stories of some of the Jewish surnames that you can check out here.




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