Addie Bernstein Cohen, a locally noted soprano often compared to Jenny Lind, was the daughter of Solomon and Fannie Bernstein, the first Jewish residents to permanently settle in Urbana in 1854. She married Nathan H. Cohen, former vaudevillian and cigar manufacturer, and had three sons: Sidney, Sol, and Julius. The Cohens were a musical family and were active in the local musical clubs and amateur theater circles entertaining Jewish and Christian groups alike.
On Sunday evenings, they hosted Jewish students and faculty from the University of Illinois, sowing the seeds of Hillel in their house. Nathan was an active member of the B’nai Brith Lodge while Addie was a founding member of the Jewish Ladies Social Circle. The Cohens were charter members of Sinai Temple and used their talents to benefit the congregation. They were honored by the Jewish Ladies Social Circle during the 1902 Yom Kippur service for their musical contributions.
Nathan and Addie continued producing amateur performances and hosting musical guests scheduled to perform at the old Illinois Theatre throughout their lives. Two of their sons, Julius and Sol, continued with the family’s musical tradition while the third son Sidney worked in business. In 1920, Nathan wrote his memoirs which were later published in Lives and Voices: A Collection of American Jewish Memoirs. The Champaign County Historical Archives has a copy of his manuscript. Nathan died on December 29, 1928 visiting his sons in Los Angeles. Addie died May 25, 1943.
For more information about early Jewish settlers in Champaign-Urbana see our exhibit located on the first floor of the Library. The exhibit will be on display from September 1, 2019 - October 15, 2019.
- Matthew Mayton
Archives Practicum Student
- Sherrie Bowser