Cohen Family Reunion Honors Sephardic Pride

Cohen Family Reunion Honors Sephardic Pride

Weekend celebration prior to the Fourth of July brought together 130 family members from across the country.

A Saturday night pool party in Buckhead was a highlight of the family reunion // Photo Credit: Greg Gimpelevich
A Saturday night pool party in Buckhead was a highlight of the family reunion // Photo Credit: Greg Gimpelevich

On the July 4th holiday weekend, the descendants of two brothers, Morris and Eliezer Cohen, who grew up 180 years ago in Manisa, Turkey, came together to celebrate their family’s long history. The brothers never moved far from their home on the Aegean Sea near the port city of Izmir with its sizable Jewish population.

But one of their sons, Abraham, named after the patriarch whose journeys are chronicled in Genesis, travelled to Cuba in the early years of the 20th century. His knowledge of Ladino, the Jewish dialect of Spanish helped him to establish himself and his family on the Caribbean island.

In 1920, he moved again, to Atlanta, with what eventually became a family of 12 children. They settled in the growing Sephardic community south of what is now the Georgia state capitol. Since then, seven generations of Abraham Cohen have traced their ancestry to this latter-day patriarch and on the first weekend in July, they celebrated him.

About 130 attended the family reunion, coming from various communities in California, Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida and along the Atlantic coast to New Jersey. One even made it all the way from Australia. Many of them noted their location on the elaborate family tree that has been updated over the decades. There are now 14 branches to the tree, indicative of the growth of the family and its dedication to recording the births and deaths and the passages that have marked the family’s rich history.

Atlanta’s Sephardic community was fortunate to have developed early in the century when immigration was relatively easy for Jews. Those who were lucky enough to have immigrated at that time, escaped the full brunt of the Holocaust during World War II, which decimated the Jews of the Mediterranean, particularly the large Jewish community of Salonica on Rhodes.

The Cohen family reunion was multi-generational, with ages ranging from 6 months to 92.

The many Cohen family members who attended were hosted by a 17-member committee chaired by Sandra Roberts and her daughter, Erin. A pool party at the home of Stephanie and Brad Ludden’s home in Buckhead was a highlight of the weekend.

One of the committee members, Luna Cygielman, said the committee worked quickly because a number of important family members are in their 80s and older.

“It normally would take a year to plan something like this. But it was important that we do it now, as soon as possible, because some people might not be here. And it was very, very important to have this as soon as possible.”

Luna Cygielman’s uncle, Albert Barrocas, 82, has been the driving force behind the family’s three large reunions. The first, in 1980, while he was still a surgeon and hospital administrator in New Orleans. The second, 30 years ago, was on the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from the Spanish peninsula. His devotion to the history of the family, he says, goes beyond merely bringing people together for a pleasant weekend.

“I want my children and other family members [to know] where they’ve come from and be proud of all that we have accomplished as a family and as individuals. And have that recorded [so] they can pass that on to their children and their family members.”

The weekend was launched with a Saturday morning service and a luncheon at the family’s ancestral synagogue, Congregation OrVe Shalom. The Sephardic congregation was first organized in 1914, six years before Abraham Cohen arrived with his family, but it quickly became the center of life in the closely-knit Sephardic community, most of whom lived within walking distance.

Philip Barrocas gets a close look at the Cohen family tree.

Many of the early congregants were from the Greek island of Rhodes, but some had married Jews from Turkey. What bound them together was their deep Jewish faith and their language, Ladino. The Spanish dialect had been the way many of the Jews in the Mediterranean communicated with each other. It was also a reminder that all of them shared a common heritage, until they were suddenly expelled during the Spanish Inquisition in 1492.

Through the centuries, they kept their faith and their language alive, and the synagogue enduring history is a testament to both. For Luna Cygielman, who spoke in the final hours of the reunion at a Sunday brunch, the weekend of rich family memories and the brush with history was an experience almost beyond words.

“Our family has put together something this weekend that will be in our memory forever. I have no words for how I’m feeling as it’s coming to an end. It’s a really great feeling to feel so connected to so many people. We have a responsibility to hang on to our history and pass it on to future generations.”

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