Cohen Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Cohen Surname Meaning

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. 

Cohen Surname Resources on The Internet

Cohen Surname Ancestry

  • from Jewish emigrants
  • to England, America, Canada and Australia

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.
  • while 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 started: “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
  • Fannie 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
  • Louis Cowan, the president of CBS in the late 1950’s
  • 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.

Cohen Surname 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 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.

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:

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 arrival 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 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 Poetry.

Asked what she thinks has been her greatest achievement, 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.”

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.
  • 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.

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).

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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Written by Colin Shelley

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