Main piece: Man goes to his Rabbi and tells him there’s something he’s always wanted to be. Rabbi says, “What’s that?” He says, “I want to be a Kohen.” Rabbi says, “You want to be a Kohen? I can’t make you a Kohen. Why do you want to be a Kohen?” He says “I’ve always wanted to be a Kohen,” and he offers any kind of contribution that the Rabbi wants. He says “The shul needs a new roof. I’ll buy a new roof.” Rabbi says, “Now that’s interesting”. The Rabbi thinks about it and says, “Well let me see if I can work something out”. So Rabbi calls him a few days later, and says “I think I found a way to do it, and I think I found a way to make you a Kohen. We’ll have a ceremony in the shul, and I’ll say the bruchas, and I’ll bless you and you’ll be a Kohen.” So they go through all of this, and the man buys them a new roof for the shul. And everyone’s happy. A few months later, the Rabbi says “Tell me. Something’s been bothering me. Why all these years you wanted to be a Kohen so badly?” He says, “Well my grandfather was a Kohen, and my father was a Kohen, so I wanted to be a Kohen too!”
Background: My informant is an eighty-eight year old Jewish man from Baltimore, Maryland, and a Kohen himself.
Context: The Kohanim are one of the twelve tribes of Israel, who historically took on the position of high priests, as they are said to be descendants of Aaron. Kohanim in modern Jewish settings today still perform blessings over the congregation. Tribal identity within the Jewish faith is established through the patrilineal line – my informant’s grandfather and father were both Kohanim, so my informant is as well. Shul is a yiddish term for synagogue, or place of worship, and bruchas are another word for blessings.
After telling me the story about pidyon habens, my informant said “Well, I know a joke about Kohens too!” He doesn’t remember where he heard the joke the first time, but he thinks it was a friend who made him laugh.
Analysis: The joke here is that you can’t make anyone a Kohen – it’s a position only earned through birth, and the man who wanted to be a Kohen couldn’t be made one because he was a Kohen all along. It’s both silly because the man made a stupid mistake, but also it reinforces the status quo – that in terms of tribal identity within the Jewish faith, you can’t move up or down in the hierarchy, and become a high priest. Kohanim are believed to be descendants of Aaron, who was Moses’s brother, so it’s an impressive and weighty heritage and tradition. Kohen have privileges and opportunities to bless the congregation when other members do not. People could interpret the Rabbi’s willingness to make the man a Kohen for a new roof as sacrilegious or folly, and are scared because the status quo has been disrupted by a holy man who should know better. However, at the end people laugh out of relief because the man was always a Kohen, and the shul still got a new roof.