December 16, 2005

Am I Really a Cohen?

One of the Kohanim, that is, the sons of Aaron, the priests of ancient Israel.

Informal family genealogy says I am, but Cohen has been our surname for only two generations. Before that, on the paternal side, it was a long Polish name, and a few generations before that, we didn’t have surnames at all. But Ha-Kohane, “the Cohen,” was an honorific applied to my ancestors in their communities, which is why my grandfather took the name Cohen when he got to Ellis Island early in the 20th century.

Now I can find out by mailing a sample of DNA from my cheek to a company called Family Tree DNA, which is supposedly the most reputable of the many companies doing DNA testing for genealogical purposes. They’re the ones who are doing the DNA testing for National Geographic’s massive Genographic Project, which hopes to map how our prehistoric ancestors migrated out of Africa and across the world.

At Family Tree you can also get tested for Native American ancestry, African ancestry, and more. You can find out the time span to the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) between you and another individual (maybe you and your girl/boyfriend are cousins). They have Y-DNA tests for tracing your male line, and mito-DNA tests for tracing your female line.

Most Kohanim share a set of markers on the Y chronomosome called the Cohen modal haplotype, which originated 3,000 years ago. The same markers are sometimes found in Italians (yo, Tony!), possibly because of the presence of many Jewish slaves in ancient Rome; and in an African tribe called the Lemba, who have traditionally claimed to be one of the lost tribes of Israel and are now supported in that claim.

Supposedly something more than half of men who get the test get a positive result. I should get the results in a few weeks.

So what happens if I find out I’m a Cohen? Well, there are taboos associated with the status, such as not being allowed to touch the bodies of the dead, but I’ll cheerfully ignore them as vestiges of the primitive past. The rule about not having disheveled hair is the one that would really affect me personally. Also, only the kohanim were allowed to bless the congregation using the special salute -- hands uplifted, fingers separated into pairs -- that some Hollywood wise guy adapted for the Vulcan salute on STAR TREK.

The main function of kohanim in orthodox Judaism today is to read the first passage of the aliyah, the Torah portion, at Sabbath services.

By definition the test will also tell me whether my kids are kohanim, which would be nice. Mostly, I’ll just be a little smug. And if I’m not, I’ll find some way to be smug about something else.

Live long and prosper, y'all!

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