Is John Kerry Jewish or Catholic?

John Kerry's Jewish Roots

Secretary Kerry Delivers Remarks at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s 100th Anniversary Celebration
U.S. Department of State

The former Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry hails from Massachusetts, a state that contains America's largest Irish Catholic population. As a practicing Catholic himself, even the best friends of Kerry have considered him an American Irish Catholic through and through. The discovery of John Kerry’s European Jewish roots has surprised many people, including the secretary of state himself.

To understand where these roots began, let's go back to the early nineteenth century in southern Moravia.

 

Benedikt Kohn, Kerry's Great-Grandfather

Benedikt Kohn, the great-grandfather of  Kerry, was born around the year 1824 in southern Moravia and grew up to become a successful master beer brewer.

In 1868, after the death of his first wife, Benedikt moved to Bennisch, which today is called Horni Benesov, and married Mathilde Frankel Kohn. Benedikt and Mathilde Kohn were two of the only 27 Jews living in Bennisch, which is listed as having a total population of 4,200 in 1880.

Soon after, Benedikt died in 1876 and Mathilde moved to Vienna with her children Ida who was seven, Friedrich "Fritz," a three-year-old and newborn Otto.

Fritz Kohn/Fred Kerry, Kerry's Grandfather

Fritz and Otto excelled in their studies in Vienna. However, like other Jews, they suffered greatly from the anti-Semitism that prevailed in Europe during their time. As a result, both Kohn brothers abandoned their Jewish heritage and converted to Roman Catholicism.

Additionally, in 1897, Otto decided to shed the Jewish-sounding name of Kohn. He chose a new name by dropping a pencil on a map. The pencil landed on Ireland's County Kerry. In 1901, Fritz followed his brother’s example and officially changed his name to Frederick Kerry.

Fred, who worked as an accountant at his uncle's shoe factory, married Ida Loewe, a Jewish musician from Budapest.

Ida was a descendant of Sinai Loew, a brother of Rabbi Judah Loew, the famous Kabbalist, philosopher, and Talmudist known as the "Maharal of Prague" who some say invented the character of the Golem. Two of Ida's siblings, Otto Loewe and Jenni Loewe, were killed in Nazi concentration camps.

Fred, Ida, and their first son Erich were all baptized as Catholics. In 1905, the young family immigrated to America. After entering through Ellis Island, the family first lived in Chicago and then settled in Boston. Fred and Ida had two more children in America, Mildred in 1910, and Richard in 1915.

Fred, Ida and their three children lived in Brookline, where Fred became a prominent man in the shoe business and regularly attended Sunday Catholic church services. Fred did not tell anyone, and no one would have guessed, that the family had Jewish roots.

In 1921, Fred Kerry, at age 48, entered a Boston hotel and shot himself in the head. Some say the suicide was due to financial stress or depression. Perhaps the transition from Czech Jew to American Catholic was too great and unsupported as a spiritual, psychological and social change.

Richard Kerry, Kerry's Father

Richard was six years old when his father committed suicide.

It has been said that he dealt with the tragedy by ignoring it. Richard attended Phillips Academy, Yale University and Harvard Law School. After serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps, he worked in the U.S. Department of State and later the Foreign Service.

He married Rosemary Forbes, the beneficiary of the Forbes family trusts. The Forbes family amassed a huge fortune in China trade.

Richard and Rosemary had four children: Margery in 1941, John in 1943, Diana in 1947 and Cameron in 1950. John, formerly a Massachusetts senator, was the 2004 Democratic Nominee for president. Cameron, who married a Jewish woman and converted to Judaism in 1983, is a prominent Boston lawyer.

John Forbes Kerry

In 1997 Secretary of State Madeleine Albright learned three of her four grandparents were Jewish. Then Wesley Clark announced that his father was Jewish.

And then, a researcher discovered that John Kerry is really John Kohn.

What does it mean if John Kerry has Jewish family roots? If the discovery had been made in Europe in the 1940s, Kerry would have been sent to a Nazi concentration camp. If the discovery had been made in America in the 1950s, Kerry’s political career would have been negatively affected. Today, however, the discovery of Kerry’s Jewish roots were seemingly inconsequential and didn't affect his failed 2004 presidential bid.

The story of John Kerry’s Jewish past is of interest because it reflects the story of many European Jews who shed their Jewish heritage en route to America at the turn of the century. The story makes one wonder how many Americans today have Jewish roots of which they are unaware.