My surname is Cohen, and it always has been. I have always been proud to be a Cohen. It is a clear marker to the outside world that I am Jewish. Because I grew up in a secular home and did not go to Hebrew School like almost all my Jewish classmates, some of them expressed skepticism about whether I was “really” Jewish, but my name always gave me some authenticity.
The Cohens (Cohanim) are the high priests, a line that is supposed to descend from Aaron, Moses’ older brother. Observant Orthodox Jews who are Cohanim do not go into cemeteries or attend a funeral or touch a dead body in order to maintain their priestly purity. In a traditional service, there is a special ritual where the Cohanim bless the congregation. Cohanim get the first aliyah for the reading of the Torah.
Although I do not believe in any of the “special holiness” of the Cohen tribe and in fact am not even sure my family are true Cohanim, I do feel proud to have the name and some of the tradition and history that goes along with it. It was one reason that I did not change my name when I got married. I wanted to remain a Cohen—it was my name, it was my family’s name, and it was my ancestors’ name.
So perhaps it is not surprising that one of my first genealogical tasks was to trace the Cohen line. It was fairly easy to get as far back as my great-great-great-grandfather Hart Levy Cohen, who was born around 1772 in Amsterdam and emigrated to England as a young man. The English records and then the American records on my Cohen line were clear and easy to find through ancestry.com, and thus within a short period of time I was able to create a tree that went from Hart Levy Cohen to Jacob Cohen, my great-great-grandfather, to Emanuel Cohen, my great-grandfather, to John Nusbaum Cohen, my grandfather, to John Nusbaum Cohen, Jr., my father, to me. I have census reports going back as early as 1841 in England and 1850 in the United States as well as tax records and a marriage record from England. I have the names of Hart’s children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren and so on. I compiled a lot of information very quickly, but now I need to go back and learn from all those documents and see what I can find out about Hart Levy Cohen and all his descendants and also to see if I can find his ancestors from Amsterdam and before.
This research will require learning about English records and census reports and also about Pennsylvania records. From the little bit of initial work I’ve done this week, I already know that it will be more difficult to obtain Pennsylvania records than New York City records. There is not much online and not much available through the Family History Library. Most of it will require snail mail requests or traveling to places that are not as accessible to me as New York City. I do not foresee traveling to Harrisburg in the near future, so it may require hiring someone there to retrieve documents for me. And as for the English records, well, a trip to London sounds a lot more fun than a trip to Harrisburg, but I don’t think it’s too likely either.
So I have a big learning curve ahead. I am up for the challenge and ready to learn more about my Cohen relatives and about genealogical research. I will start by posting what I already know, and then I will fill in the details as I learn more.
Meanwhile, I will also continue to look for more information about the Brotmans, the Goldschlagers, and the Rosenzweigs. Tomorrow I hope to talk to David Goldschlager’s son and grandson and maybe learn more about the Goldschlagers. I am still hoping to work with Larry Brotman about a Brotmanville connection. I am still hoping to hear from my cousin Lois about her family and Lizzie and Ray Rosenzweig. I have written to descendants of Ray Strolowitz Adler and Zusi Rosenzweig Mintz, and I hope to hear back from them. So at the moment I am depending on these others to help me break down the brick walls that remain on my mother’s side. Without their help, I am at an impasse for now, but will keep on looking for any and all clues.