We don’t often see the classic Twin Peaks phrase “wrapped in plastic” taken so literally—but a Redditor posted the above photo of an Orthodox Jewish man who did just that on a recent flight. Poster “FinalSay” initially assumed the man was covering up because he was in front of women, but others pointed out that it is much more likely that the man is a “Kohen”, who are holy priests (or descended from them).
Kohens are prohibited from flying over cemeteries (“A kohen initially was not supposed to approach any dead body, and if he did so he became ritually impure”), which as you can imagine, could be a major problem for travel. According to Haaretz, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, the leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community in Israel, “found a solution to this issue, ruling that wrapping oneself in thick plastic bags while the plane crossed over the cemetery is permissible.”
I once thought that Jews weren’t as ludicrously religious as adherents to many other faiths, but that notion is slowly slipping away! It comes from my bias, of course, for I am of Jewish ancestry, and consider myself a secular Jew.
Now I once thought that I too was a “kohen” (a member of the “kohanim”, which are the supposed male descendants of Aaron (from the tribe of Levi), a designated “priestly caste” of Jews whose duties originally included animal sacrifice but are now limited to proffering special blessings, handling the Torah (first five books of the bible in a scroll) and so on. The designation of this patrilineal caste traces back to the first four verses of Exodus 28.
Many Jews named “Cohen,” “Cohan,” and, perhaps, “Coyne” (possibly a change intended to disguise Jewish origins) are indeed of the kohanim lineage, and, curiously, kohanim do have a unique Y-chromosome DNA signature, veryifying the patrilineal passing on of the duties and the name (this does not, of course, prove anything about the truth of the Bible—merely that a single lineage was given special duties and a special monicker).
My own name, Coyne, has always puzzled me. It’s a common Irish name, but my parents and relatives are Jewish, leading me to suspect that at some point “Coyne” was an alteration of “Cohan” or “Cohen,” for it was common long ago, when my relatives immigrated to the U.S., for Jews to change their names to something that looked goyisch. I subsequently found out though, that my paternal great-grandfather was named Peter Coyne, as you can see in this wedding announcement from 1879 that my cousin dug up:
Monday, 27 January 1879
The wedding of Miss Pauline ZOFFER and Mr. Peter COYNE took place at the Jewish Synagogue, at Boerum and State streets, at 3:30 P. M., yesterday, and was celebrated by a reception at Nilsson Hall, Fulton street and Gallatin place, at 5 o’clock. A large number of friends of the two families were present in response to cards of invitation from the parents of the bride and groom, and the occasion was one of agreeable festivities.
I found this announcement puzzling, for the name “Coyne” was, although presumably Jewish (I’m assuming this was not a mixed-religious wedding), was in use as early as 1879. But could there possibly be some Irish in my lineage as well: a tint of green in the Coyne gene pool? Did Peter Coyne have Irish paternal ancestors?
I was curious about that, and so, when I started writing WEIT, I got my Y-chromosome tested to see if it carried the kohen genotype. I did this because I intended to start off the book with the idea that our curiosity about evolution, and our own place in the genealogy of life, was simply an extension of many people’s curiosity about their own genealogy within modern humans. Evolution is our family tree writ large.
It turned out that I am one of the many fake kohanim: those with a variant of the name but lacking the DNA signature of membership in the priestly caste. I have to admit I was a tad disappointed, for I would have felt slightly elevated had I been a true kohen (isn’t that stupid for an atheist?). But what this did confirm is that, at least for my Y chromosome, I am not in the least Irish: my Y DNA was indicative of pure eastern European Jewish ancestry. (All kohanim are named “Cohan” or “Cohen,” but not all people with those names are kohanim. It’s the same way with the Indian name “Singh”: all Sikhs are named Singh, but not all Singhs are Sikhs.)
At any rate, this DNA mishegas didn’t make it in to WEIT, as I eventually decided that conceit was a bit twee, but I did, at least, gain some notion of my ancestry, confirming what I thought all along. The Peter Coyne of 1879 still mystifies me; I know very little of my remote ancestry, particularly on my father’s side.
And I no longer think my name is Irish, for, of course, male names are transmitted precisely with Y-chromosome DNA, as if the names themselves resided on that chromosome. (They don’t, of course, but both are passed on from father to son.)
I would, however, like to get more than my Y-chromosome DNA tested. You can now obtain comprehensive tests of most of your DNA from places like 23andme for around $100-$150. If you can spare that dosh, I’d urge you to do it: the technology and databases are growing exponentially, and you’ll learn a ton of stuff from simply sending in a bit of your saliva or a cheek swab. You’ll learn about not only your ancestry but, if you’re brave, you can find out what disease genes you’re carrying as well. (That wasn’t available at the time, and I’m not sure I want to know!)