05.05.09

The Big Baby-Naming Battle

As "Cohen" climbs the rankings of popular first names for babies, naming expert Pamela Redmond Satran discovers a holy war being waged over the classic Jewish surname.

It started out innocently enough. Which name sounds better, a mom-to-be asked on nameberry’s message boards. “Nathaniel Cohen or Cohen Grey?”

The first few responses tiptoed around the issue: What about Nathaniel Grey? How about Ezra, Gideon, or Levi instead of Cohen?

And then the gloves came off.

“All these hillbillies are sitting around drinking their Mountain Dew and eating their Ho Hos and naming their babies Cohen.”

“A Cohen is a Jewish priest and a religious name, so… it would pretty much be like a non-Christian person naming their child Jesus, a non-Muslim person naming their child Mohammed, or a non-Catholic person wearing a rosary as jewelry simply because it looks cool,” one poster wrote. “If you're not Jewish, please be aware that many Jewish people may be understandably offended by a non-Jewish Cohen.

“I am not even religious so I couldn't care less what the religious fanatics think,” the Cohen-loving mom fired back. “I’m not going to not name my baby something just because it might offend someone.”

If you haven’t spent any time lately in the wild world of baby-naming, you may be surprised to learn that Cohen is one of the hottest new names for boys, rising from No. 650 in 2004, when it debuted on the Social Security’s most popular names list, to No. 393 last year, when 761 baby boys received the name. It’s in Canada’s Top 100, and has gained a following in the U.K. as well.

The initial inspiration: The character on television’s The O.C., Seth Cohen—typically called just plain Cohen—with a little pop-culture help from fellow Cohens, Sacha Baron and Leonard, along with the filmmaking Coen Brothers.

Video screenshot

All Jews, of course, Cohen being the most common Jewish surname in the United States. But the problem is it’s not just any Jewish surname. Call your sons Greenblatt or Rosenberg, the objectors say. But the name Cohen is reserved for the priestly caste descended directly from the biblical Aaron. Cohens are accorded certain privileges in the Jewish religion and are subject to certain restrictions: They’re not allowed to marry a widow, a divorcee, or a non-Jew, for instance, which has kept the Cohen bloodline exceptionally pure.

There’s even a Kohen gene, identified as a marker on the Y chromosome shared by over 90 percent of Kohanim and about 5 percent of all Jewish males. Not to mention the positioning of the kohen’s hands during a priestly blessing, adopted as Mr. Spock’s Vulcan salute by Leonard Nimoy, who was raised an Orthodox Jew.

What’s especially ironic, and to some galling, about the rising popularity of Cohen as a first name is that the people who love it seem to be just about as un-Jewish as you can get. Google “Cohen is my favorite name” and you’ll find family pictures featuring toy guns and rebel flags. On being assured on one name board that using the name Cohen would not necessarily offend Jews, one mom-to-be wrote, “That's great to hear!! We live in a small town in the Midwest and I've never met a Jewish person IRL.”

In Real Life.

“This is exactly why Orthodox Jews stay in Brooklyn, in their own communities, and don’t have anything to do with outsiders,” says my friend Diane, who spent six years in Brooklyn as an Orthodox Jew and now calls herself “a Christian believer who feels guilty on Jewish holidays.” “Once you leave Brooklyn, you go to Hollywood and become a television writer who puts a Jewish character on TV and names him Cohen, and then people in Iowa copy you and those little Cohens grow up and move to New York and marry real Jews and ruin everything.”

Most parents choosing the name Cohen seem unaware of the name’s quintessential Jewishness—or are actively in denial of it. Some posters equate Cohen with such Biblical names as Sarah and David or choose to identify it with the Irish Cohan or Coen, a patronymic related to Coyne; the Scottish Cowen or Cowan; the Dutch Koen or Coen, which means "daring,” and the German Kohn, a short form of Konrad.

“You needn't feel guilty about using Cohen, because the name has been percieved [sic] in so many different ways by many different faiths,” writes one online Cohen-lover to another, “much like the Bible itself.”

“All these hillbillies are sitting around drinking their Mountain Dew and eating their Ho Hos and naming their babies Cohen,” says Anne, a New York teacher who hasn’t been to temple since her bat mitzvah but finds the use of Cohen to be akin to “taking a name in vain.” “They’re ignorant that they’re stealing a sacred name from a religion to which they don’t belong, and even if they find out, they don’t care who it offends.”

But the real reason people love the name Cohen is not because of any religious connection or lack thereof, but because they see it as a “unique” spin on the two-syllable, n-ending, surname-y names so popular for boys today: Colton, Rohan, Logan. One online poll pitted Cohen against Coby (Cohen won, 67 percent to 33 percent), while another debated the merits of Cohen Ray versus Desmond Reeve. And a downmarket baby-name site lists Cohen as an American form of Cody.

“No. 1, it’s just such a cool name, we fell in love with it,” says Hector Cervantes, the guitarist for the Christian rock group Casting Crowns who lives in Rome, Georgia, and has a two-month-old son named Isaiah Cohen, called simply Cohen. “It felt right to me because of its connection with Aaron and the Levites, which is meaningful because I’m a firm Bible believer. It wasn’t until afterward that we learned some people might find Cohen as a first name offensive.”

Cervantes’ experience playing Christian rock convinced him to stick with the name despite potential objections. “Ninety percent of people are positive but 10 percent say how dare you throw stones at the church. If we worried about what other people were saying, who knows what kind of life we’d live.”

Not every Jew, or even every Cohen, is offended by the growing use of Cohen as a first name. If she were called upon to preside at the bris of a baby boy named Cohen, says Jamie Korngold, “The Adventure Rabbi” of Boulder, her reaction would be “Mazel tov.”

“I don’t find it offensive at all,” says Benyamin Cohen, the son and brother of Orthodox rabbis and the author of My Jesus Year, which recounts the tale of his tour through the world of Christianity. “If you’re not Jewish, I have no reason to expect you to follow my laws. I’d rather if people name their kid Cohen than if they name it Britney. At least Cohen means something.”

Those who do find the use of Cohen as a first name offensive are every bit as vociferous as those who don’t.

“Calling someone Cohen is NOT the same as calling someone priest,” wrote one message-board poster. “It's more in the same category as calling your kid "Jesus is dead"—it’s like making a statement that you don't respect the religion.”

On the other side, someone wrote, “I'm not naming my child Hitler, or Saddam, I think that those names may evoke bad feelings from others... but Cohen? Really?”

The bottom line: No matter what anyone says, the name Cohen is unlikely to go away any time soon and is expected to leap even higher up the list when the 2008 name statistics are announced Friday. Even the most eloquent objections often fall on deaf ears.

When a new post appeared on what I’ve come to think of as Nameberry’s Cohen Debate Board this afternoon, I held my breath, expecting another heated volley. Here’s what it said:

“I like the name Cohen for a first name but not too fond of Grey. Maybe Cohen Nathaniel?”

Pamela Redmond Satran is a developer of the baby-naming site nameberry.com and the coauthor of 10 books on names, including Beyond Ava & Aiden, due out next month.