His Jesus year

Rabbi's son finds renewed inspiration by spending a year going to church.

Jesus book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jesus book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My Jesus Year By Benyamin Cohen HarperOne 272 pages; $24.95 It's Saturday night and a short funny Jewish guy reminiscent of Billy Crystal is holding court at Young Israel of Toco Hills. In fact, his initials also are BC. Benyamin Cohen, Atlanta-born son of an Orthodox rabbi - the scion of a clan of "rabbinic rock stars" - is a homeboy here. "Most of you in this room probably know me. Some were probably here for my bris," the 33-year-old journalist says to the 50 shul members and guests who have gathered to hear about his new book, My Jesus Year. "This is probably the first time you've had a talk about Jesus in shul." Cohen describes the elevator pitch for his book, published by HarperOne in October, as "rabbi's son marries minister's daughter, spends year going to church, comes out better Jew." (His wife, Elizabeth, is a convert to Judaism.) Like Billy Crystal's character in the 1991 movie City Slickers, Cohen was plagued by a crisis of sorts and went on a journey to find renewal and purpose. Only instead of traveling to the Wild West, the rabbi's son tamed his curiosity in the Bible Belt. Cohen stresses that he wasn't looking to convert. Instead, he wanted to find new meaning in Judaism. The founder and editor of a now-defunct national magazine called American Jewish Life and the on-line magazine Jewsweek, he yearned to learn the secrets behind Christians' religious joy and enthusiasm. It all began in his youth, when, as he writes in My Jesus Year, "religion was served to us on a silver platter - whether we wanted it or not. We kept kosher, we observed the Sabbath, we prayed three times a day. No questions asked. These were all givens. I went to a preschool called the Garden of Eden. Except in this kindergarten, sin was not an option." In preschool, he tasted the "sweet nectar of forbidden indulgence" by gobbling up non-kosher Nerds candy after school. His mother died just after he came off the religious high of celebrating his bar mitzva. And by the time his father, the principal of a Jewish high school in Atlanta, remarried a few years later, Cohen had grown into an angry teenager. For years he looked longingly at the church across the street from his house on High Haven Court. Each Sunday morning, khaki-clad parishioners, with smiling kids in tow, emerged from shiny minivans and walked into the stained-glass sanctuary. He tried to imagine what it would feel like to not be "strangled by the myriad rules of an Orthodox lifestyle." As Cohen writes about the Christians across the street, "Not only did they have a life that was more fun and exciting than mine, but they seemed to be enjoying - nay, embracing - their religion all at the same time. It was a paradigm shift for me. Religion equals happiness. How could that be?" Cohen had the chance to find out years later. In the name of journalism, he spent a summer checking out several churches and writing a magazine article about the experience. On his iPhone he still has a photo from that time: It shows an actor dressed as a hassid in the middle of a choir at a Baptist church. The article grew into a book, for which Cohen immersed himself in Christianity for a year, praying with a host of churches, from Catholic to Pentecostal. An Orthodox rabbi in Atlanta, whom the author declines to name, blessed the endeavor under two conditions: Cohen had to wear a press pass so that everyone knew he was in church to observe and not to pray. And he had to have on a kippa so they knew he was Jewish. Cohen's odyssey took him to such odd places as Ultimate Christian Wrestling matches and the bowels of a 1,760-square-meter African Hebrew Israelite compound in Atlanta. At the former, "good" wrestlers do battle against "evil" wrestlers. Fallen wrestlers are actually resurrected at these matches, Cohen reports from the sidelines. At the latter, he learns that African Hebrew Israelites live in Dimona as well as major American cities. "And despite public opinion to the contrary, the Black Hebrews all consider themselves Jewish." Speaking of Black Hebrews, Cohen reveals in an interview that the only negative reaction to his book, ironically, was from some Jews for Jesus. "Why didn't you come to us?" they demanded. As he explains later, "It didn't cross my mind. I don't look at Jews for Jesus as a church." Orthodox Jews who have gotten past the cover with the "J" word on it have read the book and recommended it to fellow members of the tribe. "They were grappling with the same issues I did," Cohen says, referring to the monotony he found in daily prayers recited for years. Still Jewish, still Orthodox, he found the proverbial pot of gold in his own backyard. "When I set out on this journey, I had been comparing our boring Yom Kippur service to the high energy of a gospel choir, but you can't equate the two," Cohen writes. "What I should have been doing is looking beyond the synagogue's walls. There's more to being Jewish than what goes on in the confines of the sanctuary. And that's true for any religion, not just my own." The self-described prodigal son, for whom "rebellion" meant going straight to college without studying first in Israel, had come home jazzed about his Judaism. Gospel bands helped inspire him. "I have never heard 'Adon Olam' sung so beautifully." Megachurch ceremonies with 15,000 believers and a Jesus JumboTron six-meter-tall TV screen made him realize he liked the intimacy of his synagogue's small hashkama early service, where he could tap into the purity of prayer the way he had as a child. In the end, Cohen the cynic, number five of six children in a clan of rabbinic rock stars, replaced his apathy with enthusiasm. "It's a story of faith I think anyone can relate to," he says while selling books at the Atlanta Press Club's annual Holiday Author Party. "You don't have to be a rabbi's son."