Question: Am I Jewish if my last name is Kohen?
My last name is Kohen. I am 40 years old. I was raised as a Christian, but really have never practiced anything. My mother is not Jewish, but I know my name is. My dad, age 82, was raised on a farm and never asked any questions of his father. Could I be a Jew since my last name of Kohen sounds Jewish?
Answer: Thank you for your question. You write that your mother is Christian and you were raised as a Christian, but you are curious about your Jewish-sounding last name.
You should know that a last name does not necessarily mean anything. There are many non-Jews who have names that "sound" Jewish, but who have no Jewish ancestry. Many Jews have last names that do not "sound" Jewish. A name in and of itself does not signify anything in Jewish tradition.
I can tell you that your last name is one that is often associated with Jews who are descended from the Kohanim (plural of Kohen), the caste of Jewish priests who conducted the rituals of the Temple in Jerusalem before it was destroyed in the year 70 of the common era.
In Jewish practice since the destruction of the Temple, the Kohanim have a strictly symbolic role. Orthodox and most Conservative congregations continue the tradition of giving Kohanim the first aliyah (blessing over the Torah reading) when Torah is read. Kohanim in these communities also perform the ritual of blessing the congregation on festivals (dukhenen), and receiving the five shekels of redemption for a firstborn Jewish boy (pidyon ha-ben).
In traditional observance, there also are restrictions on Kohanim. In orthodox and Conservative communities, Kohanim are expected to abstain from coming in contact with the dead, which includes a prohibition on visiting cemeteries except for the funerals of close relatives. Orthodoxy continues the prohibition of Kohanim from marrying converts or women who previously divorced.
I do emphasize, however, that having a name associated with the Kohanim does not make a person a Kohen, or even a Jew. Some investigation into your ancestry may reveal Jewish roots and relatives who are Kohanim. Even then, however, you would not be considered Jewish or a Kohen.
In traditional Jewish observance, the status of being a Kohen is inherited through the father, but the religious status of being a Jew is inherited only through the mother. By this standard, a person with a non-Jewish mother can only be Jewish through conversion. A person cannot be a Kohen without being Jewish, and you cannot "convert" to being a Kohen.
In Reform Judaism, a person with a one Jewish parent (regardless of whether it is the father or mother), can be considered a Jew without conversion if he or she is raised as a Jew. The Reform Movement does not recognize the distinction of being a Kohen at all.
I hope this is helpful.
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser