July 18, 2024
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July 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Jewish People can be divided into a number of different categories including, for example, (i) Orthodox, Conservative and Reform (among others), (ii) right-wing, left-wing and centrist or (iii) schmegegge, schlemiel and shmendrik. Other categorizations might include (i) Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Mizrahi, (ii) New York, New Jersey and anywhere else or (iii) yenta, yutz and yiddishe kop. However, the easiest and least controversial categorization might be Kohen, Levi and Yisroel.

According to most experts, a Kohen is a patrilineal descendant of Moshe’s brother, Aaron, and a Levi is a patrilineal descendant of Jacob’s and Leah’s third son, Levi. Most experts also agree that the term “Yisroel” is a catch-all for anyone who is not a Kohen or Levi. It’s sort of like a football team: offense (Kohen), defense (Levi) and special teams (Yisroel). Then again, perhaps it’s more like the actors in a movie: lead role (Kohen), supporting role (Levi) and the extras (Yisroel).

Kohanim have special privileges such as receiving the first aliyah during Torah reading and delivering the priestly blessing during duchaning. Leviim are special too; they get the second aliyah during Torah reading and they help the Kohanim prepare for duchaning. The Yisroels of the world do not receive such privileges and often do no better than the third aliyah. Of course, if not for the Yisroelim, there would be no one for the Kohanim to bless (other than than the Leviim, that is). In other words, every Kohen needs a Yisroel just like every monarch needs a royal subject and every sitcom star needs a studio audience.

There is no central agency keeping track of precisely who is a Kohen, Levi or Yisroel. There are no official licenses or registrations for such tribal designations. It is governed by the honor code and once you tell the gabbai of your shul your designation, it usually is accepted without question (or at least until DNA testing catches up with you). Few if any gabbais are running background checks to verify such claims and, even if they do, most (non-DNA) databases do not go all the way back to the 13th Century BCE. Thus, a person can claim to be a Kohen or Levi just as easily as they can claim to be a vegetarian, libertarian or humanitarian.

In the grand scheme of things, nobody should pretend to be a Kohen or a Levi because no matter your designation, you should be proud of your role. The idea of “keeping it real” applies in other aspects of life too. Nobody should pretend to be descendants of a famous rabbi because they believe it will help their children get into the high school of their choice. Nobody should pretend to be Sephardic just so that they can eat kitniyot on Pesach. Nobody should pretend to be Israeli citizens just so that they can keep one day of Yontif. Nobody should pretend to have a bar mitzvah in Israel just so that they can avoid inviting certain people to the party.

Every now and then, a long-time Yisroel will claim to be a Kohen, typically after discovering some long-lost family tree. Putting aside the veracity of these claims, some or all of which may be entirely legitimate, it is rather strange that such claims seem to always be for elevated status. Don’t you find it odd that there are few if any Kohanim (or Leviim, for that matter) who discover that they actually are a Yisroel? Most of these miraculous discoveries seem to flow up the ladder. In the same vein, most people do not hesitate to brag about their famous ancestry, no matter how obscure (e.g., “I just found out that I am related to a minority owner of Burgers Bar, but not the Ben Yehudah or Old City locations. The one in Rishon L’Tziyon”), but few people admit their infamous heritage (e.g., “Hey everyone, guess what? I’m related to the people who invented subprime mortgages, New Coke and asbestos!”). To be fair, it probably would be very hard for someone to transition from Kohen to Yisroel, a plunge (that some view as) almost as precipitous as going from synagogue president to plebeian congregant.

One strange thing about the Jewish people is that having the last name “Cohen” (or variations like “Cohn” or “Kohn”) does not necessarily mean that the person is actually a Kohen. Similarly, not every Goldstein and Silverstein is a jeweler, not every Greenstein is a horticulturalist and not every Lookstein is a private investigator.

Final thought: At most shuls, the Kohanim and Leviim do not get first dibs at the kiddush. If they did, then in all likelihood the number of admitted Yisroelim would abruptly plummet.

By Jon Kranz

 

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