Hammerin' Henry (HaCohen)

February 24, 1997|By Steven Lubet

CHICAGO -- The scientific journal Nature recently reported that a team of American and Israeli researchers had successfully identified a biological link among cohanim, establishing that members of the traditional Jewish priesthood may well be descended from a single common ancestor. According to Dr. Karl Skorecki of the Technion Institute in Haifa, ''The simplest, most straightforward explanation is that these men have the Y chromosome of Aaron,'' brother of Moses.

I could have saved them all the trouble. I have been certain about the blood tie to Aaron for almost 40 years. And my evidence is far more compelling than a few genetic markers or biblical passages -- it's the 1957 World Series.

I was in the third grade when the Braves played the Yankees. As fate would have it, my two best friends at the time were Betty Spahn and Jimmy Bauer. Betty, of course, claimed proudly to be a cousin of Warren Spahn, ace of the Braves' pitching staff. Not to be outdone, Jimmy insisted that he was related to Hank Bauer, the Yankees' outfielder, although he was never very specific about the precise nature of the relationship.

Where did that leave me? And what does this have to do with Jewish priests? Simple. My maternal grandfather took some pride in the members of our family who were cohanim. Although I didn't qualify, by virtue of my father's non-cohan birth, my uncle was definitely a direct descendant of Aaron. And that must mean, I reasoned, that I am related to Hank Aaron -- Hammerin' Henry himself -- a fact that I proudly announced at show-and-tell to my entire third grade class.

A dead hush

Let me tell you that in 1950s suburbia, the claim that a blue-eyed Jewish boy was kin to a ''Negro'' ballplayer did not meet with the hushed adulation I'd expected. Oh, there was a hush all right, a dead hush. Then the other students, apparently alert to cultural nuances that had escaped me entirely, began to mutter and gasp in consternation.

The teacher, trying to calm the situation, explained to the class that what I said was simply impossible. ''Oh, no it isn't,'' I chimed in, ''white people and Negroes can be related through marriage,'' and I pointed to several of my parents' friends as examples.

It turned out that the teacher was a Wisconsin native and a rabid Braves fan. I think her greatest fear was that my liberal approach to genealogy might erode support for her team, if not among her students then probably among their unenlightened, pre-civil-rights-era parents. So she quickly called on the next pupil, who'd brought a dirty rock for show and tell. He bragged that it came from Pluto, the planet, not the dog. The teacher didn't bother to tell the class that his boast was impossible. I'm sure she'd had quite enough controversy for one day.

Well, the Braves went on to win the series, thanks to heroics by Cousin Hank and a great catch by Wes Covington (to whom I can claim no connection). And I've been a loyal Braves fan ever since, not that Mr. Aaron has ever shown up for a single B'nai Mitzvah or Tu b'Shvat seder. But, hey, family is family.

Steven Lubet teaches at Northwestern University School of Law.

Pub Date: 2/24/97

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