American journalist Benyamin Cohen is an observant Orthodox Jew. Yet in his desire to rejuvenate his personal connection to his faith, this son of a rabbi — who built a synagogue right next to the family’s Atlanta home — decided to embark on a year-long journey to explore various strands of Christianity and see how churches differ from his more familiar synagogue environment. Cohen describes what he learned in the witty and insightful, My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith (HarperCollins).
Clear from the outset that his adventure would never lead to the abandonment of his Jewish faith, Cohen remained meticulous in his attendance at synagogue services and observance of Jewish holidays, festivals, and rituals, all while pursuing an unusual hobby on Sundays — dropping by churches to see what he could learn from Christians to better understand them and his own Jewish life.
An unusual pursuit, Cohen’s decision to embark on this year-long quest did not start before he received the blessing of an Orthodox rabbi, who did so with two caveats — first, Cohen always had to wear his press pass so everyone who saw him would know he was there to observe rather than pray, and, second, he always had to wear his kippa to ensure that everyone knew he was Jewish. The point of the caveats? The rabbi wanted Cohen to stand out from the crowd. This sometimes led to some funny and embarrassing situations. One occurred while he was trying to keep a low profile at an African American megachurch in Lithonia, Georgia — with thousands of congregants in attendance — only to end up on the jumbo screen being welcomed as “our Jewish friend Benyamin Cohen” by the affable bishop. Another occurred during Cohen’s first (and last) visit to the confessional booth of a Catholic church.
Much like the memoirs of other recent American religious quests — such as A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically — Cohen’s account is entertaining and full of trivia and astute observations. But, unlike some memoirs, Cohen is always careful to point out where Jewish beliefs and practices differ from those of his Christian neighbors. He contrasts Jewish holidays and observances with non-Jewish holidays, meets religious leaders and their congregants from a wide assortment of Christian denominations, including Pentecostals, Catholics, Mormons, and even Trappist monks. Along the way, he spends a day with a polygamist prince, attends Ultimate Christian Wrestling, and even a Christian rock festival. His calendar was always full and certainly never dull.
Although Cohen finds some common ground, like the adherence to detailed rituals that Catholicism shares with Judaism, he also elaborates on Jewish differences. About his interesting day spent with the Trappists, Cohen notes that “Monks and Jews go together about as well as oil and water.” Yet he defends their practices by describing Judaism’s own ancient nazir tradition — individuals described in the Book of Numbers who separated themselves from the community, not physically but ritually, by assuming more religious obligations to achieve a state of greater holiness. However, he goes on to cite modern Judaism’s position against living such a monastic life of solitude, stressing the importance of family and community for Jewish religious observance.
Rightly critical of the Mormon practice of posthumously baptizing Jews, including victims of the Holocaust, he comes to understand and even appreciate their other practices, such as their mandatory 10-percent tithing, which is not far from traditional Judaism’s views on charitable giving. A proud Orthodox Jew with a healthy sense of humor, Cohen has no problem being considered a “Gentile,” as he explains that is how Mormons refer to all non-Mormons, even Jews.
A memoir of his life growing up the son of a rabbi as much as an account of his year exploring the views and practices of American Christians, Cohen’s quest is comical yet respectful of those he encounters. Yet in the descriptions of his wanderings, Cohen is never shy to share his opinions on what he sees, especially when practices and beliefs differ significantly from his own. But his respect of his co-religionists is always present. This makes the book a sort of intriguing “armchair guide” to the sociology of contemporary American Christianity. Cohen learned not to view all Christians as a single group. Instead, he appreciated the nuances that unite and separate Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Mormons. He comes to respect that there are “many pathways to the Almighty” and that no one particular group “holds the copyright on a connection with God.”
Yet Cohen’s adventure through the American Christian landscape ultimately leads him to appreciate his Judaism more than ever before. According to Cohen, his “Jesus Year” made him a better Jew. His book is worth reading to find out why.
This review first appeared in The Jewish Tribune newspaper.