Lyon Cohen was a business tycoon and community leader who co-founded the Jewish Times, Canada’s first English-language, Jewish-interest newspaper.
Born in Poland, Cohen came to Canada as a child. He moved with his family first to Ontario and later to Montreal, where he and his father, Lazarus, entered the coal business together. Cohen went on to establish himself as the 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. As president of the Freedman Company, he became one of the most prominent retailers in the ready-to-wear market.
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 Sha’ar 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 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. It was the newspaper of the establishment, promoting speedy Canadianization of recent Eastern European arrivals and the acceptance of British customs. 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. It was also intended to counter the rising anti-Semitism around the world, which Cohen and his more assimilated uptowner associates partially blamed on the Eastern European Jews themselves. 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.
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.
Special thanks to the Museum of Jewish Montreal.