We all have relatives we don’t like. And most of us have a dodgy uncle or two who have been to jail or should have. But what does it feel like to discover that the most notorious white-collar criminal of the day is your first cousin’s first cousin? At first, the name Michael Cohen didn’t ring any specific bells: It’s basically the equivalent of Joe Smith, or, in our terms, David Steinberg. (I come from a world where there were three Shoshanas in my class, and not a single Jane.) I just figured this was another person in the Trump court who was definitely #notgoodforthejews. (It’s a long list.)
I never imagined that Michael Cohen—yes, that Michael Cohen: the former Trump lawyer and current Mueller cooperator; handler of the hush money payout to Stormy Daniels who was just sentenced to three years for campaign-finance violations—could be sort of related to me.
Then my mother called me from Toronto. She was a bit breathless, the way we all are when we have a great, shareable, slightly sordid scoop. “You’re aunt’s nephew is going to jail!”
“Wait, what?” (And who? And why?)
The ‘who’ was easy for her to explain. My father’s eldest brother married a woman with two siblings. One I know well; her kids, though older, went to Ramah with me and we spent time together at family events, camp, and in the general Jewish community. Her other sibling though, moved “to the States,” which was still kind of a big deal, kind of glamorous when I was growing up. Not so much anymore. I didn’t know the American brother that well, though we’d met, of course, at b’nai mitzvah and weddings. I can picture him in my mind, easily. An elegant gentleman, with the once ubiquitous Eastern European accent that my kids don’t even recognize.
But I didn’t, to be honest, really remember his kids. I certainly didn’t remember their names. Not that it would have helped.
“What’s your aunt’s maiden name, Sharrona?”
“Cohen, of course.” I certainly remembered my aunt’s mother, Mrs. Cohen, who lived across the street from them and whose story of survival in the Polish woods during the Holocaust I’d heard, though never from her. And never from my aunt, who was born in those woods on the run.
“Right. And you’re aunt’s nephew is Michael. Michael Cohen.”
“Michael Cohen, Michael Cohen,” I mused. “Michael Cohen. Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
“Michael.” “Cohen.” My mother spoke slowly with exasperation and a touch of asperity. She was enjoying this. She had one on me, her politically active daughter who makes no secret of her anti-Trump activism.
“MICHAEL COHEN!!!!” Oh. Michael Cohen—that Michael Cohen—is my first cousin’s first cousin, it turns out. Not 5 degrees away, nor 4, nor 3. I’ve met him multiple times, in intimate family settings. I’m almost related.
The truth is that my first instinct was to tell everyone I know. The connection is far enough away that I don’t experience the shundah (family shame) and close enough that it’s fun to claim proximity in a kind of ironic way. And I like breaking down the whole first cousin’s first cousin thing. It takes a minute. It took me more than that.
I even took to Twitter with the hashtag #theoppositeofyichus. Yichus is the Yiddish term for family pride used when you are related to someone noteworthy, noble, or with great standing. This isn’t that. But it sure is something.
I admit that I reveled in the story and didn’t think twice about sharing it. But that’s me: I’ve never felt particularly embarrassed even about my own dodgy uncle (sentenced to 90 days of jail on weekends for his minor white collar crime). His parents, however, basically never left their house again, so shamed were they by their son’s behavior. And I’ll tell anyone about my husband’s own dodgy uncle (great uncle in his case) but his family really doesn’t like to bring it up. I’m not ashamed of my family, but they are not particularly shameful.
My aunt feels awful. And her brother is in hell: not just because of what his son is about to experience, but because of what he did to deserve it. He didn’t escape the Nazis in order to have his own son try to subvert freedom, liberty, and democracy. It is, actually, incredibly shameful. They don’t want to talk about it. They did nothing wrong. But they, in their shame, are also being punished.
And yet I want to talk about this. I want to brag. I want to share this with the world. It’s partly about the story, but also: I refuse to cower in shame. I own up to all parts of my family (and my family’s family). That’s what family is. So go ahead: Ask me about my relationship to Michael Cohen. But don’t ask me to name his parents or his (and my) aunt. I own them, but I also owe them at least that.
No one should stand for the many. Michael Cohen is just a man, a very flawed man. A very flawed man who is my first cousin’s first cousin.
Sharrona Pearl teaches medical ethics at Drexel University. Her most recent book is Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other. Her work is at sharronapearl.com and she is on Twitter @sharronapearl.