Friday, November 07, 2008

Getting Jewish with Jesus

From: The Jewish Journal

Benyamin Cohen is not someone you'd expect to find at church.

The son of an Orthodox rabbi, the founding editor of the now-defunct American Jewish Life magazine, Cohen committed to marrying within the faith to the point that during his 20s, which preceded JDate, Cohen flew from his home in Atlanta to the deeper Jewish dating pool of New York twice a month.On a scale of Yiddishkayt, Cohen was a super Jew.

And yet there he was one day, projected 20-feet-tall, for all to see, on "Jesus' JumboTron."

"Oh, God," Cohen thought, "forgive me."

This scene, which took place at a black megachurch in Atlanta, opens Cohen's just-released memoir, "My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith" (HarperOne, $24.95), named by Publishers Weekly as one of 2008's best religion books. Cohen's experience on the first Sunday of his year-long spiritual quest makes clear that he won't just be able to blend in as he visits Baptist churches and Pentecostal revivals and Christian wrestling events.

His story is also laden with Jewish guilt, a theme that runs throughout Cohen's Jewish journey, as if hell hath a special place for wandering Jews.

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.

"Stepping outside my comfort zone and hanging out with other people gave me a fresh perspective," said Cohen, who will be on a panel and sign copies of his book on Sunday as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books at American Jewish University.

In a phone interview, he told The Journal that his journey got out of his system what had been gnawing at him for years. "I finally got to taste the forbidden fruit. I think that was always a hurdle in my spiritual growth. No matter what, I was always looking across the street at the Christians. I was finally able to experience that, and I learned the grass isn't always green at the church across the street. And I learned to appreciate my own Judaism."

His Jewishness was, in essence, born again.

"I'm getting a fresh start and being reborn," Cohen writes a little more than halfway through his journey. "At the Georgia Dome, among forty thousand Christians, on Easter, the day of resurrection."

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.

Cohen's interest is not in celebrating "Jon Stewart Judaism," though he worships in that temple every night. Cohen wants to engender, or at least encourage, excited-to-be-observant Jews. And, after 52 weeks spent going to church and to Christian rock concerts and even to confession, Cohen found that Christianity can reveal many secrets to the Jewish kingdom.

In the way Christians use pop culture, such as the cartoon "VeggieTales," to teach biblical stories and spread the gospel; in the way megachurches are so welcoming to newcomers -- even being greeted by a stranger with a kiss made Cohen feel uncomfortable -- and in the way Christians get big organizations, like the Atlanta Braves, to target them with Faith Night at the ballpark.

"We shouldn't take their theology," Cohen said, "but just from a marketing perspective, there is so much we can learn from Christianity."

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."

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