My church, Bel Air Presbyterian, is down Mulholland Drive from American Jewish University. So after we got out at 12:15 this morning, I headed to the other side of the 405 and slipped into the memoir discussion at the Celebration of Jewish Books (and later avoided Jonathan Safran Foer’s talk).
One of the panelists was David Matthews, not the musician, but the author, whose memoir about facing discrimination as the son of a black nationalist father and a Jewish mother I just ordered. Another panelist, and the reason I popped into this session, was Benyamin Cohen, or Bizarro Brad as you will come to see.
Cohen, son of an Orthodox rabbi, spent a year wandering the Bible Belt in search of something to revitalize his faith. Cohen was never really looking for Jesus. However, he wanted to figure out what made Christians so spiritually fervent. What he found at churches and Christian concerts and even a Catholic confessional caused him to appreciate his own religious tradition more and lays the foundation for his book, “My Jesus Year.”
Cohen’s book doesn’t denigrate Christianity or speak condescendingly of it. The most apparent emotion is Cohen’s own guilt for spending time in the forbidden zone—in fact, he had to visit several rabbis before one would approve of his attending church, even as a journalist. Cohen’s primary hope is that Jewish leaders will see what’s working at churches and apply that to their own houses of worship—save for that whole Jesus thing.
“I look at the book,” Cohen said at the book festival, “as a love letter to Christians.”
I reviewed the book for this week’s Jewish Journal. An excerpt is after the jump:
Cohen, 33 (the “same age as Jesus when he died”), never thought he would find himself worshipping God with the help of a gospel choir. Yet all his life he had been tantalized by Christianity, gazing from the outside at the seemingly easier lives that Christian children led. While Cohen observed the Sabbath, his Christian neighbors played baseball; while he kept kosher, they ate bacon cheeseburgers; while he said a blessing after using the bathroom, they just washed their hands.
“I am, for better or worse, burdened for all eternity by my religion,” Cohen writes.
And over time it began to feel it was for worse. Judaism’s rules and ritual left Cohen feeling a bit crazy. Attending synagogue, praying, worshipping God, all these things had become rote, stripped of value. Cohen felt spiritually suffocated by tradition.
“What kind of religion was it that worshiped minutiae over meaning?” he writes. “Don’t get me wrong. There are brilliance and beauty in this faith. I just haven’t found them yet.”
Jesus, as you can imagine from the book’s title, helped Cohen find that brilliance and beauty. Cohen kept his journalistic guard up and didn’t drink the Jesus juice, though he did take communion. But by spending a year with Christians, Cohen’s own faith was invigorated.
I had looked forward to reading Cohen’s memoir—written in the Jewish tradition of A.J. Jacobs’ “The Year of Living Biblically,” Mark I. Pinsky’s “A Jew Among the Evangelicals” and Daniel Radosh’s “Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture.” Cohen’s tale seemed particularly poignant for me because it was, at heart, a mirror image of my own travels.
I joined The Jewish Journal last year for reasons that were as personal as they were professional. It wasn’t until I became a journalist that I learned more than the most basic details of Judaism and Jewish history—this despite three Jewish grandparents and a face that can’t evade the advances of Chabadniks.
On my own Jewish journey, I’ve learned a lot about my family history, but I’ve also learned how to be a better Christian; not by pretending to keep kosher or observe the Sabbath—not through some Messianic hybrid—but by applying Jewish cultural values to Christian observance and appreciating the common ground between two faiths that worship the same God.
Cohen’s experiences have been quite different from mine, but the life lesson—that Christians and Jews can learn a lot about their own faiths from the other—is the same.
Near the end of the book, Cohen thanks Jesus for changing his life, for breathing new life into an ancient faith that’s been in his family since Aaron. And he sounds a lot like a Christian in free-form prayer.
“Thank you, Jesus, for making me less of a cynic,” Cohen writes. “Thank you for teaching me that prayers can be recited in many ways and in many languages, and that God listens anyway. Thank you for miracles, even those of the golden dental variety. Thank you for small synagogues. For big churches. For gospel choirs. For holidays. Thank you for gratitude. For sickness and health. For repentance. For the lessons gleaned from death and loss. And, most of all, thank you for rebirth.”
You can read the rest here. I also reviewed “My Jesus Year” for Christianity Today; I’ll let you know when that’s online.