Guest Notes

Ancestral notes

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

Being David Cohen

The apparent news that Joe Biden tapped me to help lead one of his new administration’s most important agencies left me in a bit of a tizz. Obviously, I’m only human and it’s immensely flattering when a new American president immediately names you as the next deputy director of the CIA. But I also felt puzzled.

For one thing, according to the media reports, the appointment would see me returning to this new position after having spent an earlier period in a ‘vital role combating illicit finance and developing economic sanctions against foreign governments’, including Russia, Iran and North Korea. Really? I had absolutely no idea. And surely even the staunchest supporter of ‘diversity’ in the ranks of a new American administration would draw the line at any requirement to include a New Zealander.

You, like me, may have already worked out by this time that the next CIA deputy chief spook turns out to be another David Cohen. But it was fun while it lasted, and instructive, too, if one happens to be a name nerd living in our neck of the global woods with an interest in these things.

In many parts of the world Cohens are a dime a dozen. Even in Melbourne, Sydney and, one supposes, Lake Cohen out in Western Australia, there are plenty of us, including a decent sprinkling of ones with whom I share both names. Not so in New Zealand. We are a rare breed. I believe I’m one of possibly only two native-born David Cohens in the entire country. The only other fellow who comes close would be the actor-director Taika David Cohen, who was named after a Russian grandfather. To most of the world, though, the Kiwi who gave us the Oscar-winning JoJo Rabbit, is better known as Taika Waititi.

All in all, not a terribly impressive showing for a name that stretches back 3,500 years to the anointing of Aaron, the elder brother of Moses, as the first high priest, or kohen gadol after the Exodus from Egypt. Jewish tradition has it that all Cohens are his direct descendants, albeit with different spellings and variants. A name like Katz, for reasons too long and etymologically tedious to go into, is just one of them. In any event, it’s a guy thing, passing from father to son, the link not being so much about religion as the old man’s chromosomes.


But it does get complicated in religious circles. In Israel, couples who ask to change their name to Cohen (or Levy) are routinely turned down. Authorisation for this resides solely with a rabbi, and rabbis — in Israel at least — tend to take a dim view of interlopers using it for even the best of reasons. And they take an exceedingly dim view of the current fad for giving babies Cohen as a first name, a trend that picked up steam four years ago in the wake of the death of Leonard Cohen.

This in turn has led to Solomonic problems — for example, in situations where the father in a Cohen family is sterile and the mother becomes pregnant by way of IVF. In such cases, the parents may wish to ensure that they will have a daughter and thus avoid the birth of a son in their family who will not be a Cohen (unless the sperm donor also happens to be a Cohen, I suppose) but it’s a real headache. As it would be for somebody showing up at an ultra-Orthodox funeral and announcing in a loud voice that he is a Cohen. Also a definite religious no-no.

Jewish law even stipulates that a certain amount of tithes be set aside to ensure the Kohanim are well fed. But this food has to be kept in a state of ‘ritual purity’, up to and including (I am not making this up) the keeping of a red cow, which has to be slaughtered, sacrificed and burnt in a precise way. The cow’s blood is then sprinkled seven times, its ashes mixed with a bunch of other stuff and poured into spring water. At some point in this process, the priest becomes purified and is allowed to eat the food.

The name pops up in the early Islamic story, too, at least according to Muslim historians. At the time of Mohammad the two main Jewish groups who inhabited Medina are described  as kohanim; it has even been suggested that Medina, which means ‘town’ in Arabic, may have been named by Jewish settlers.

Certainly, the Koran itself refers to a ‘priestly tribe’ who held forth on the Torah back in the glory days of 622. They were initially well regarded by Mohammad for their scholarship, at least until a well-publicised spot of unpleasantness that is still in the process of being sorted out 1,300 years later. In any event, it’s more than plausible that the Muslim founder at one point knew as many Cohens as somebody living on New York’s Upper West Side.

Scientists can be terrible enemies or the best of chums with ancient religious narratives. They have pretty much debunked the myths about the parting of seas, bread from heaven and the like. But the same scholars have also discovered, by using the cohen method, compelling evidence that the Jews did indeed live continuously in what was Judea and later mandatory Palestine, a fact that I guess continues to hearten many Israelis.

Long before the days of Ancestry.com and $100-a-pop DNA tests, Karl Skorecki, a dean of medicine at Israel’s Bar Ilan University who also happens to be a Cohen, turned in some newsworthy genome research.

An early study of Dr Skorecki, reported in the British science journal Nature in 1997, surveyed 188 Jewish male Cohens. His study used DNA swabbed from their cheek cells. Participants from Israel, Britain and North America were first asked to identify whether they were a Cohen, Levy or ‘Israelite’, and then to identify their family background. The results of the analysis strongly supported the idea of an apparently unbroken biological line stretching back to the days of Aaron, with a particular chromosomal marker detected in 98.5 per cent of those surveyed. A later study reached much the same conclusion.

Further research is still probably needed, however, and I believe I know just the guy at the CIA who could lead any new investigation.

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