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I can’t read the news or look at social media without seeing someone continue to rake @SenWarren over the coals about her identification as an American Indian. When she says, again and again, that it was a part of her family’s story, I can really identify. Here’s a thread:
I’m a Kohen. I don’t just mean it’s my last name. I mean I’m a member of the Kohanim, the Jewish priestly “class.” There are Kohanim, Levites, and then *everyone* else, the Israelites. Judaism is—for most denominations—determined by matrilineal descent. But “class” is patrilineal
How do I know I’m a Kohen? Because my father is and my grandfather was. And my great-grandfather and so on, going all the way back thousands of years. But, like, there’s no paperwork. Except my name on my ketubah, my marriage contract, is אריאל בן יוחנן הכהן. The הכהן is the key.
So what? The benefits are minimal: in some synagogues, the first person called to the Torah each week must be a Kohen. In some synagogues, each week or only on major holidays, the Kohanim recite the priestly blessing, bestowing a blessing from God on the congregation.
The synagogue where I’m now a member does neither of these things, so there isn’t really any reason to even mention my “status.” It only comes up on rare occasions now. For example, I don’t attend funerals because Kohanim are prohibited from being in the presence of a dead body.
But why does any of this matter? Because I’m a Kohen; it’s a part of my identity. Several years ago, someone asked me if I was *sure* that I was. Maybe, he said, my grandfather was mistaken. Maybe his father was mistaken. I’ll never forget my reaction: I got irrationally angry.
The question came up shortly after my grandfather passed away and at the time that I’d begun to do some research into his childhood in Europe and his teenage years in Nazi concentration camps. I’d discovered that, instead of Kohen, our family name on Nazi documents was Kahan.
So maybe it wasn’t a question out of left field. But I was irate and my relationship with the person who asked me this, who suggested my family could be mistaken, was changed at that moment, damaged beyond repair. This person questioned who I was, seemingly called my family liars
So as I’m watching @SenWarren get these questions and answer that this was a central part of her family’s story, part of her identity, I understand what she’s saying and I also understand why it’s hard for others to understand the point she’s making.
The facts suggest she’s almost certainly not American Indian & she shouldn’t have said she was. But she grew up *knowing* she was American Indian just as I grew up knowing I’m a Kohen. When she wrote “American Indian,” it was because it was her identity, not because she’s a liar.
Her family, it seems, was wrong. My family, I’m still quite sure, was right. But that difference—who’s right and who’s wrong about heritage—doesn’t really matter when it comes to how we *feel* about our identity until that rug is yanked out from under us.
Last thought: Obviously, claiming a heritage that isn’t one’s own for personal gain is wrong, especially that of a persecuted minority. Warren doesn’t seem to have done that. She grew up with this heritage as part of her identity and it’s likely very painful to have lost it.
Thinking about my reaction to the person who questioned my identity, I know it would be difficult to process the loss of my “status” as a Kohen. Even though it’s not worth much, it’s clearly worth a lot of me because it’s a key part of my identity and my family’s identity.
I hope we’ll be able to get to a place where we understand what @SenWarren is saying to us. I don’t expect everyone to empathize with her the way I can. But hopefully we’ll stop laughing or shaking our heads or asking her to keep apologizing for believing in her family’s identity
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