Posted by: Steve Coplan | June 11, 2007

Eagle vs Shark

Thanks to the helpful bunch at a Very Short List, I believe I have found a worthy substitute for Borat to satisfy my need for comedic obsessions. Eagle vs Shark is sure to generate a lot of favorable comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite, which is probably a mixed blessing – on the one hand, a lot of people get to see a film from the edge of the earth (ie New Zealand) where they really do have strange accents but on the other, it’s going to be seen more as derivative, and less as original.  Putting aside the Sundance “buzz” and the potential for any preview to be entirely misleading, the final scene of my YouTube selection suggests to me that my hopes are not misplaced.  The red London telephone box off to the side of the frame and the wide bay occupying the rest of it is so perfect that you almost miss the classic comedic dialog.

The film’s protagonist Jemaine Clements is well known as the part of the “Flight of the Conchords” duo but on the strength of the trailer’s final shot, I was very intrigued to see who the director was.  A quick Google search and perusal of the IMDB profile revealed that the director Taika Waititi, scion of an illustrious Maori clan, is also known as Taika Cohen.  I initially assumed that it must have been his father who was the Cohen, but as it turns out that is his mother’s last name. For anyone familiar with halachah, or Jewish law, there are two conditions under which an individual may be defined as being Jewish: the first is having a Jewish mother, and the second is converting. Of course, these simple rules have been modified with varying levels of stringency. For instance, the validity of conversions by US Reform or Conservative rabbis has long been opposed by religious parties in Israel who are largely responsible for the lack of separation between synagogue and state in Israel.  Also, for some streams of Judaism, you need to have had a bar mitzvah to be considered Jewish even if your mother was Jewish.  By this measure, my father would not be Jewish, which seems unfair since it’s not by any fault of his own.

This digression assumes that a person with the last name Cohen is Jewish. This is not always the case. To my great disappointment, I eventually learned that the England rugby winger Ben Cohen and member of the 2003 squad that won the Rugby World Cup is not Jewish. Neither is he is uncle George Cohen (or either of his parents), who was a Fulham defender and a member of 1966 England team that won the Football World Cup.  I suspect that some contemporary of the character that was the inspiration for Dickens’ Fagan must have taken advantage of the dislocation afforded by the Industrial Revolution to relinquish his heritage and become English.

Cohen is derived the Hebrew word for ‘priest’, and by implication for a descendant of Aaron, Moses’ brother who served as the first high priest.  Kohanim (the plural) still serve some ceremonial purpose in Jewish ritual (some of it involving the Vulcan salute), and the first person called up to read the Torah in the synagogue should be a Kohan.  Membership is passed through the father, and studies of Jews across the globe indicated that there is a statistically anomalous occurrence of a particular genetic marker on the Y chromosome amongst Jews who claim priestly descent (including the BaLemba).  I have recently learned that even having the last name Cohen does not necessarily mean that the the family is of priestly descent — at some point in the late nineteenth century Jews adopted the name to avoid conscription in the Czarist Army since priests were exempted.

There is a remarkably broad set of Jewish family names that indicate priestly descent. My family name before my grandfather changed it in Depression-era Los Angeles was Kaplan, which apparently is German for ‘chaplain’ but I’ve seen other posited derivations.  Having just discovered that the Provencal word for ‘priest’ is ‘capelain’, I am going to set about investigating whether in fact my family was at some stage resident in the south of France. Makes for a more interesting story than the dreary and muddy Lithuanian village where my paternal family is from.

So in other words, just because his mother’s last name is Cohen, doesn’t make Taika Waititi Jewish.  If it is the case, I’d have to say he would be the first Jewish Maori (or Maori Jew for that matter) that I’ve yet come across. Even more reason to hope that the film meets with great commercial success.



  1. Cohan/Coan/Coen is a not unusual Irish name. I’ve never seen it spelled “Cohen”, but it is pronounced the same way.


    Any similarity between Cohen and the variants of Cowan is purely coincidental.

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