Looking back:  The Cohen Family from Amsterdam to England to Philadelphia and Washington and beyond


Amsterdam coat of arms

Two months ago I wrote a summary of my perspective on the descendants of Jacob and Sarah Jacobs Cohen and their thirteen children, including my great-grandfather Emanuel Cohen.  I wrote about the way they managed to create a large network of pawnshops that provided support for the generations to come.  Many of the Philadelphia Cohens stayed in the pawnshop business into the 20th century.  The generation that followed, those born in the 20th century, began to move away from the pawn business and from Philadelphia.  Descendants began to go to college and to become professionals.  Today the great-great-grandchildren of Jacob and Sarah live all over the country and are engaged in many, many different fields.  Few of us today can imagine living with twelve siblings over a pawnshop in South Philadelphia.  We can’t fathom the idea of losing child after child to diseases that are now controlled by vaccinations and medicine.  We take for granted the relative luxurious conditions in which we live today.

File:Flag of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.svg

Philadelphia flag


The story of the Cohen family in Washington is much the same in some ways, different in other ways.  Jacob’s brother Moses and his wife Adeline also started out as immigrants in the pawnshop business , first in Baltimore and then Washington.  But unlike Jacob who lived to see his children become adults, Moses Cohen died at age 40 when his younger children were still under ten years old.  Adeline was left to raise those young children on her own as she had likely raised her first born son, Moses Himmel Cohen, on her own until she married Moses Cohen, Sr.  When I look at what those children accomplished and what their children then accomplished, I am in awe of what Adeline was able to do.   For me, the story of the DC Cohens is primarily the story of Adeline Himmel Cohen for it was she, not Moses, who raised the five children who thrived here in the US.  She somehow instilled in those children a drive to overcome the loss of their father, to take risks, to get an education, and to make a living.

Her son Moses, Jr., an immigrant himself, had nine children; his son, Myer, became a lawyer.  To me it is quite remarkable that a first generation American, the son of a Jewish immigrant, was able to go to law school in the late 19th century.  Myer himself went on to raise a large family, including two sons who became doctors and one who became a high ranking official at the United Nations in its early years after World War II.  Moses, Jr.’s other children also lived comfortable lives, working in their own businesses and raising families.  These were first generation Americans who truly worked to find the American dream.

Adeline and Moses, Sr.’s other three children who survived to adulthood, Hart, JM, and Rachel Cohen, all took a big risk and moved, for varying periods of time, to Sioux City, Iowa.  Even their mother Adeline lived out on the prairie for some years.  JM stayed out west, eventually moving to Kansas City; he was able to send his two daughters to college, again something that struck me as remarkable for those times.  His grandchildren were very successful professionally.  Hart, who lost a son to an awful accident, had a more challenging life.  His sister Rachel also had some heartbreak—losing one young child and a granddaughter Adelyn, but she had two grandsons who both appear to have been successful.

Three of the DC Cohen women married three Selinger brothers or cousins.  Their children included doctors, a popular singer, and a daughter who returned to England several generations after her ancestors had left.  The family tree gets quite convoluted when I try to sort out how their descendants are related, both as Cohens and as Selingers.

There were a number of heart-breaking stories to tell about the lives of some of these people, but overall like the Philadelphia Cohens, these were people who endured and survived and generally succeeded in having a good life, at least as far as I can tell.  The DC Cohens, like the Philadelphia Cohens, have descendants living all over the United States and elsewhere and are working in many professions and careers of all types.

flag of Washington, DC

Looking back now at the story of all the Cohens,  all the descendants of Hart Levy Cohen and Rachel Jacobs, I feel immense respect for my great-great-great grandparents.  They left Amsterdam for England, presumably for better economic opportunities than Amsterdam offered at that time.  In England Hart established himself as a merchant, but perhaps being a Dutch Jew in London was not easy, and so all five of Hart and Rachel’s children came to the US, Lewis, Moses, Jacob, Elizabeth, and Jonas, again presumably for even better opportunities than London had offered them.  Eventually Hart himself came to the US, uprooting himself for a second time to cross the Atlantic as a man already in his seventies so that he could be with his children and his grandchildren.  Rachel unfortunately did not survive to make that last move.

Flag of the City of London.svg

The flag of the City of London

Arriving in the US by 1850 in that early wave of Jewish immigration gave my Cohen ancestors a leg up over the Jewish immigrants who arrived thirty to sixty years later, like my Brotman, Goldschlager, and Rosenzweig ancestors.  Of course, the Cohens had the advantage of already speaking English, unlike my Yiddish speaking relatives on my mother’s side.  They also had the advantage of arriving at a time when there wre fewer overall immigrants, Jewish immigrants in particular and thus faced less general hostility than the masses of Jewish, Italian, and other immigrants who arrived in the 1890s and early 20th century.  Also, my Cohen relatives may not have been wealthy when they arrived, but Hart and his children already had experience as merchants and were able to establish their own businesses fairly quickly.  Thus, by the time my mother’s ancestors started arriving and settling in the Lower East Side of NYC or in East Harlem, working in sweatshops and struggling to make ends meet, my father’s ancestors were solidly in the middle and upper classes in Philadelphia, Washington, Sioux City, Kansas City, Detroit, and Baltimore.

When I look at these stories together, I see the story of Jewish immigration in America.  I see a first wave of Jews, speaking English, looking American, and living comfortably, facing a second wave who spoke Yiddish, looked old-fashioned, and lived in poverty.  No wonder there was some tension between the two groups.  No wonder they established different synagogues, different communities, different traditions.

A recent study suggests that all Ashkenazi Jews were descended from a small group of about 350 ancestors.  We all must share some DNA to some extent.  We are really all one family.  But we have always divided ourselves and defined our subgroups differently—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform; Galitizianer or Litvak; Sephardic or Ashkenazi; Israeli or American; so on and so forth.  We really cannot afford to do that in today’s world; we never really could.  Today very few of us make distinctions based on whether our ancestors came in 1850 or 1900 because we are all a mix of both and because we have blurred the economic and cultural distinctions that once were so obvious.  But we still have a long way to go to eradicate the divisions among us and to overcome the prejudices that continue to exist regarding those who are different, whether Jewish or non-Jewish.



21 thoughts on “Looking back:  The Cohen Family from Amsterdam to England to Philadelphia and Washington and beyond

  1. It’s true that arriving that early is a huge advantage. Looks at the masses of Jewish and Italian immigrants that arrived end of 19th and beginning of 20th centuries. Such competition within the new immigrants and with the established population.


    • Yep, and there was a lot of snobbery. Those German Jewish immigrants really looked down on the Eastern European Jews—even half way into he 20th centry when my parents met.


  2. Great post Amy – I’m trying to catch up with my favourite blogs! I’ve been so busy with my day job and my other two jobs that I’ve not had much time to blog!

    One little thing to make clear though – the ‘English Flag’ you have on the post is actually the Union Flag, the flag for the United Kingdom, depicting the combination of the white Scottish Saltire, the red saltire cross of St. Patrick, the English Red Cross. Wales’s representation in the flag comes under the red cross of England as it was considered to be part of ‘England’ since the late 1200s. The English Flag is a white background with a red cross. The union flag was created out of the union in 1801 between Great Britain (so England, Wales & Scotland) with Ireland. People often refer to it as the Union Jack – but it is only a ‘Jack’ if it is flown at sea. It is quite poignant to talk about this today as Scotland is voting today whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or not. So the Union Flag could well look very different depending on what the Scottish people decide this week!


    • Thank you, Alex—I had no idea. Just shows you can’t rely on the Internet for everything! I googled English flag, and that’s what I got. Is there a specific English flag? I really wanted a London flag, but everything that came up was the same flag I found for England (the UK one), sometimes with London written across it. Which part represents Scotland?

      How do you feel about the Scotland vote? I assume most English people are opposed. I understand their nationalist feeling, but I think they are being short-sighted about the economic implications. Time will tell.


      • Here is a link to the cross of St. George – the flag of England – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_George%27s_Cross

        And this for the one for the City of London – very similar – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_the_City_of_London

        As for the Scottish vote, personally I understand the Scottish desire for independence, but I am not convinced that the Scottish Government can really deliver on what it promises the people. There are a lot of unanswered questions for business and economy that, if I still lived in Scotland (I did live there for a year when I worked for my parents in the hotel they had in the Scottish Borders) that if I was voting today, I would be voting No. Lots of things like – would it still be in the European Union? Would businesses there have to pay more for exporting/importing goods between Scotland and England? There are a lot of large corporations who are unsure, and much talk of the big banks there moving their registered offices down to London rather than in Scotland.
        It is a momentous historic vote, I could not predict the result because I think it will be so close. The polls taken over the past few weeks have fluctuated back and forth by a few percentage points so I think that whichever one wins, it will not be by a massive majority. The Shetland Islands (who are very oil rich and lie about 100 miles north of mainland Scotland) who seem to be majority towards remaining part of the UK – if the result is to part with the UK – they may get a deal to become a crown dependant self governing territory like the Isle of Man! They identify themselves more with Scandinavia than they do with Scotland!
        If Scotland does part with us, I will be quite sad, and with it being such a close call, there will inevitably be about half of the population who will be unhappy with whatever the result is!


      • I will be watching the vote with great interest. I have been reading about the election regularly, and our papers report very much the same analysis.

        It’s funny–even though the US broke away from England almost 250 years ago, and even though most of us (myself excluded!) have no English ancestors, most Americans are still very tied to a shared culture/language/history/identity with the English. We’d like to claim Shakespeare, Dickens, and Prince Harry as our own! 🙂

        I suppose I might have some mixed feelings if part of the US decided to break off, but it would definitely depend on which part….

        Thank you for the links! I will make the substitution.


      • We may not like the way countries were brought together in the past to make the nations we have now, but I’d like to think that by remaining together we can make a much better legacy and have a stronger way forward with collaboration and support.

        Part of me is kind of expecting that if they do gain independence that in some years from now the rest of the UK that is left will have to give Scotland a financial bail out!


  3. I will be planning to do a post today. I’ve been off work sick yesterday and today with tonsillitis (something I get several times a year when I am a bit run down!) Now I am not feeling too bad I want to post to let people know I am still here and haven’t dropped off the face of the earth!


      • No, they only offer them for adults if you have it more than 4 or 5 times a year. I usually have it about 3 – 4 times a year. I’ve had it that frequently most of my life, so it really gets me down! But thankfully my doctors are good and if I can’t get an appointment I describe my symptoms over the phone, explain what medication I usually have (as I am allergic to penicillin!) and they usually send a prescription for me to the pharmacy to collect. The sooner I get the antibiotics the quicker I get better, some times I get it and I’m not too bad, other times it is full on fever, can’t get out of bed etc. This time was a bit of a combination of the two! I got up to go to work yesterday and sat there trying to eat breakfast, feeling super hot and just went ‘Nope, not happening.’
        My Dad also used to get it a lot but always says to me ‘Oh when you’re a teenager you’ll grow out of it.’ then that changed to ‘…in your twenties…’ to ‘in your thirties…’ still not happening!


      • That sounds dreadful. Can’t you get a doctor to say your case justifies a tonsillectomy? (I hate to say this, but your situation is one that some Americans would use to argue against a government-controlled health care system; I for one am in favor of the US moving towards an NHS type system, but many argue that they don’t want to have to put up with government red tape to get medical treatment.)


      • The doctor I spoke to this week (she is a new addition to my local surgery) queried why I’d never been referred to an ENT specialist and I said I had no idea as I am always asking about a tonsillectomy. But I know that it is a high risk operation for adults due to the possibility of post-op profuse blood loss. But I think if I get it again this year (this is my second bout of the year) that I will be pressing the question again!


  4. I still think your father married “up”!

    Seriously, you are beginning to capture our place in America so well.

    Looking back, I can’t believe how blessed we all have been.

    Thank you.

    Shana Tova


  5. Hi Amy, I believe, after reading your blog that we may be related. I have an ancestor Solomon Hart born around 1818. He came to England from Amsterdam, Holland in the 1830s. We know he changed his name when entering England. It was rumored that he had a brother who lived in London. He listed his father’s occupation as optician. We believe he was disowned by his family because he married a Gentile.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lynn, thank you for reading and commenting. I sent you an email. Unfortunately I do not think that we are related or at least there is no evidence to suggest that we do. Sorry!


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