A Cohen by Any Other Faith...

By Eleanor Goldberg

Published May 13, 2009, issue of May 22, 2009.
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It seems that a person no longer needs to be a direct descendant of Aaron in order to be called Cohen.

Priestly Blessing: An Orthodox man performs the Birkat Kohanim at the Western Wall.
ISTOCK PHOTO
Priestly Blessing: An Orthodox man performs the Birkat Kohanim at the Western Wall.

According to the Social Security Administration’s official list of popular baby names (note: first, not surname), Cohen rose to slot 393 in 2008, when 761 boys were given the name, up from 650 in 2004.

Not surprisingly, the trend has stirred some debate. On Nameberry.com, where expecting parents discuss all things moniker, non-Jewish mothers-to-be are tossing around the name associated with Kohanim, Temple priests that are chosen by God to perform specific sacred duties. The site describes “Cohen” as “fresh, modern and strong,” but not everyone agrees. “Cohen isn’t just some random surname being used as a first name…. It’s like a Jewish person naming their baby Deacon, Bishop, or Pope. It’s wrong,” one commenter wrote.

Still, steadfast Cohen devotees remain unmoved. “I am not even religious, so I couldn’t care less what the religious fanatics think,” one user responded.

Writing for the Web site The Daily Beast, Pamela Redmond Satran, co-founder of Nameberry, linked the Cohen surge to the fact that the name has become more prevalent on the pop-culture circuit. There’s Seth Cohen, a character on the teen drama “The O.C.”; famed British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen; songwriter Leonard Cohen, and the filmmaking duo the Coen brothers, to name a few.

What the Nameberry debaters failed to note is that with such a holy name comes some grave duties: the stringent restrictions to which a true Cohen is commanded to adhere to in order to retain his status, like not marrying a divorcée or a convert. The trendy-named little guys, however, are in luck. Since they’re not bound to the Jewish priesthood, they won’t be left without a first name should they violate the laws.


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