Lyon Cohen (1868–1937), business tycoon and community leader, was born in Poland. As a child, he moved with his family to Ontario and later to Montreal, where Lyon and his father, Lazarus, entered the coal business together. Cohen went on to establish himself as owner of one of Montreal’s largest clothing corporations, the Freedman Company (in whose factory Lyon’s grandson, the poet and singer Leonard Cohen, briefly worked in the 1950s), and as the leading figure of the more affluent, West End-based uptowner contingent of the Jewish community. Lyon Cohen served at one time or another as president of the Baron de Hirsch Institute, the Clothing Manufacturers Association of Montreal, the Montefiore Club, the first meeting of the Canadian Jewish Congress in 1919, and Congregation Shaar Hashomayim. His home in Westmount played host to such eminent personalities as Chaim Weizmann, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and Solomon Schechter. Despite his high positions, extensive connections and famous antipathy to unionizing Jewish workers and radicals, Cohen was known throughout his life as a man in touch with the common person; he would greet new immigrants as they stepped off the docks, welcoming them to the Jewish community and to Montreal.
In 1897, Cohen and Samuel W. Jacobs founded the Jewish Times, the first English-language Jewish-interest newspaper in Canada. It was the newspaper of the establishment, promoting speedy Canadianization of recent East European arrivals and the acceptance of British customs. It was founded to counter the antisemitism spreading around the world, at the Dreyfus trial in France and in the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was also created to counter the customs of recently arrived East European Jews, which Cohen and his more assimilated uptowner associates considered to be among the root causes of that antisemitism. This belief system and desire to fit in with the Anglo-Protestant elite led to conservative and often bland journalism and a de-emphasis on Jewish nationalism. The Times was meant not only to inform the growing Montreal Jewish community of goings-on, but also to guide its readers into what the founders believed was the proper way of living and thriving in the New World.
Faced with waves of immigrants who often spoke only Yiddish (which the Times labeled “a jargon of abrupt coarseness”), the Times declined in popularity and was bought in 1914 by Hirsch Wolofsky, owner of the Keneder Adler, who transformed it into the Canadian Jewish Chronicle. Cohen and Jacobs had meanwhile parlayed the publicity they received from the Times into further influence in the community. Jacobs was elected to Parliament in 1917 and Cohen became president of the Canadian Jewish Congress in 1919. When Cohen died in 1937, Samuel Bronfman, who in some ways was one of his successors, served as pallbearer at his funeral.
By Richard Kreitner
Levendel, Lewis. 1989. A Century of the Canadian Jewish Press. Ottawa: Borealis Press.
Nadel, Ira B. 1996. Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Shuchat, Wilfred. 2000. The Gate of Heaven: The Story of the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim of Montreal. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Tulchinsky, Gerald J. J. 1992. Taking Root: The Origins of the Canadian Jewish Community. Toronto: Lester Pub.
*Images courtesy of the Jewish Public Library Archives, the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives and the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim Museum and Archive.