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  • Writer's pictureKaren L


Updated: Jul 4, 2021

I came across the name Cohany today. The person whose last name is Cohany is Jewish, but I thought, mm, sounds Irish too. What's with this? This is what Google states: Cohan is a variant of Cohane, which itself is an Anglicized form of the Irish Ó Cadhain. Cohan is also a variant spelling of the Hebrew surname Cohen. This version of that name is commonly used in France (among Jews). Then there is Brody? Instinctually, I would say the name is Irish also. But, did you know that Brody is a common Jewish name, originating from Poland. According to Google: Brody is a name of either Jewish or Irish origin. Often associated with the Ukrainian city of Brody, the name has been used both as a surname and a given name. The name originated with the noble families of Ireland and later Scotland when it was colonized by Irish settlers during the late 6th and early 7th centuries.So, I was close. Not Polish but Ukrainian. The borders between these two regions shifted throughout history.

It is common knowledge that the names of immigrants were shortened by impatient or uncomprehending border officials at Ellis Island and other ports of entry. "Next, what is your name?" the clerk asked brusquely. "Ahem, Wolffheim," the dishelved foreigner responded. "What? We'll call you Wolf. Next." Frequently, immigrants changed their names voluntarily, desiring to blend into the melting pot, which was a common description of the United States. It is an outdated term. Now, we are a plate, with dishes from many lands, which are separate but often leak into one another--as in, "Oh dear, my french lentil salad dressing is mixing with the sesame noodles." This happens at potlucks which, in my area, consist of dishes from different ethnic groups, rather than bland covered dishes. But, I digress. My grandfather tried, "Lee" to generate more business. He attempted to be a silver poslisher in affluent homes when he arrived in the United States. Imagine, an entrepeneur turned silver polisher? His surname was "Levi." He did not realize that "Lee" is a common Chinese name, and in San Francisco in the 1930's that designation decreased his opportunities. There is a long history of anti-Asian behavior in California. People constantly ask me about my surname. "Why is 'Levi' pronounced 'Levee' rather than 'LevI?' I explain that my relations were German Jewish. The "i" is pronounced "ee" in German, resulting in "Layfi." (Levi) I suppose the name game in the United States will forever be confusing, since we are a country of immigrants. I mispronounce foreign names, but I try to be polite, not dismissive about names. In the past, I wondered if "Levi" was the Sephardic version; but, my rabbi said, "not really." Due to the fact that the name is transliterated from Hebrew, one could choose any spelling. And, lo and behold, there were "Levis and Levys" in a cemetery in Morroco. Names are informative, suggesting a complex historical load that was borne on the backs of the people who emigrated to the United States. An African surname connotes the story of a proud and tenacious people who survived the perils of colonialism. Russian surnames tell us that this family was probably forced out by a totalitarian regime. A Vietnamese name, such as Ngyuen, reminds us of the horror of the war in Southeast Asia. Hispanic names evoke the troubled past of north and south America, beginning with the Spanish and continuing with our involvement in central and south American governments. The Ms. Cohany I know explained the history of her surname. Her uncle left Lithuania for Israel and her father for the United States before World War II. Their name was Katz, a German sounding name, possibly related to Cohen, but to me is "cat" in German. The Germans controlled what is now Lithuania for a period of time. The brothers thought that Cohany--deriving from Cohen--did not sound German. So there it is. And an immigration official on the east coast of the United States probably thought, Oh, he's Irish like me. Surnames at best describe a segment of a person's identity.

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