At the Mansion, Brother Peter (holding the cross given him for many years as a New Skete Monk) has been researching the meaning of names, and he was researching my name, and he reminded me of something I had mostly forgotten.
I didn't know my grandfather well when I was young, he was a quiet man, he spent most of his running the small Mom and Pop store he and my grandmother owned on the North Side of Providence, R.I. He was pious and self-contained, God knows what he remembered from the Old Country, from which he fled with his life.
My grandfather spoke little English, and seemed to be overwhelmed by the matriarchal culture all around him. Jews, like African-Americans and Irish people, seemed to produce strong and dominant women, the men, it seemed to me, were often weaker and more distracted. He looked almost insignificant next to the women around him.
The women ran the families and made most of the decisions, and were unapologetic tyrants. My grandfather hovered in the background. Once or twice a year, I was invited to the synagogue, usually on the Holy Days, we went to the small and ornate Shul, or Orthodox Temple. The woman sat upstairs, the men downstairs.
I remember my grandfather holding some kind of exalted position in the synagogue, he often led the prayers, he prayed with a shawl draped over his head and shoulders. The Rabbi, an ancient with a two-foot long beard, once told me that my grandfather was a Kohen, a holy man, descended from the Biblical Aaron. So, said the rabbi, was I, and he kissed my hand and bowed.
My grandfather, said the rabbi, was a righteous priest – his name was Cohen – and he was so holy that no one could see him praying, the power of his closeness to God could kill others.
Other than that, the grandfather I knew sat silently during dinner, turning down his hearing aid when my grandmother started to yell at him and nodding as if he was listening. He was no holy man at the dinner table or his small store, he was no righteous priest to his wife.
Today, when I came to the Mansion, I was told that Brother Peter was waiting for me, he was researching my name and had found something. When I found him in the hallway, he was holding the cross the monks had given him and that he sometimes carries with him, he is a monk still and has been since he was 19. He came to the Mansion for health reasons.
"I looked you up", he said, "you are a Kohen, a righteous priest. That's what Katz means." Brother Peter was excited, and I told him about my grandfather, and he glowed with pleasure. I think Brother Peter was impressed.
In ancient times, the name "Cohen" (also spelled kohen), meant Jewish priest, one who is a descendant of Zadok, founder of the priesthood of Jerusalem when the First Temple was built by Solomon (10th Century, B.C.) and through Zadok was related to Aaron, the first Jewish priest.
So I am related to Aaron as well. Aaron was named by Moses to the first High Priest of the Jewish Faith. The only knowledge of him comes from ancient and Biblical texts.
How strange to be reminded of this by a monk in an assisted care facility a half century after my grandfather died. A few years ago, I visited my grandparents gravesite in Rhode Island, I introduced them to Maria, who came with me.
Like my grandfather, I am a holy priest to no one, certainly not to myself. I guess I am a Kohen in my blood, and if I got studious, I could pray with a shawl over my head. I feel close to God, but not in that way. I think of that quiet man, who worked so quietly and so hard all of his life.
I don't recall a single conversation I ever had with my grandfather or saw him have with anyone else outside of the temple (I talked with my grandmother all the time, and she didn't speak much English either), but I will never forget his beautiful chanting, as he swayed back and forth for hours in that small and doomed temple, too holy to be seen.
I sensed the holiness in him, it transcended the store and the squabbling family, and my grandfather never squabbled or argued. Somehow, I think he was at peace with himself, living in his own head. I think I get my passion for faith from him, even if I can't quite figure out what to do with it.
I thanked Brother Peter for bringing me back a bit to my roots. I can't wait to tell Maria I am a righteous priest, and demand to be treated as such.