Benyamin Cohen. My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith. New York, Harper Collins: 2008. Pp. 252, ISBN 978-0-06-124517-6. $24.95. *
My anthropologist colleagues are fond of saying that, upon approaching a social situation, sociologists hand out a survey while anthropologists invite themselves to dinner. The advantage to the dinner invitation is that one gets to see a broad social network in its natural setting. Benyamin Cohen’s book is not an anthropological study but it is the work of a journalist with an observant eye, a willingness to be self-critical, and a good sense of humor.
Benyamin Cohen, whose family I have known since he was a child, was brought up an Orthodox Jew in Atlanta. This location put him well within the Bible belt. As with many people brought up in a closed society, Cohen felt that “the grass was greener on the other side,” i.e., in the Christian church that stood opposite the family home with the synagogue his father built onto it. Having lost his mother and some of his faith as a teen-ager, Cohen went on to marry a convert but continued to live an Orthodox life, choosing journalism as a career. This book is the story of a year he spent visiting the inordinately vast array of forms of Christianity that Atlanta and its environs contain. The utility of the book is in its depicting this variety (I confess that, as a professor of Jewish Studies, I knew some, but not all, of this). Its charm lies in the way the author weaves in his own awkwardness, even his own sense of guilt, at seriously exploring Christian religion while including a running commentary on the foibles of the Jewish community as he describes this journey.
The book begins with a quotation from a later chapter in which Cohen is attending a very lively service in an African-American megachurch. A wandering cameraman whose job it is to photograph the participants catches him and “before I know it, there I am, my face twenty feet tall on the two screens hanging from the ceiling in front of the amphitheater. My Jewish face on Jesus’ JumboTron for all to see. Oh, God forgive me.” As the book progresses, Cohen attends the Ultimate Christian Wrestling match that sequences into a revivalist meeting, attends a Major League “Faith Day” in the Atlanta stadium, meets with Mormon missionaries, and visits the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA. He also attends a very sedate but beautiful (for him) midnight mass at the Episcopal Church across the street from his current apartment though he has to look up and down before crossing the street less someone from his community see him. And he pretends to be a Catholic long enough to get himself into a confessional until he suddenly realizes that he needs to have a sin to confess. There is much more: miracles, the Gospel music industry, “God wants you to be rich,” etc.
In the running commentary on his own faith, we hear about the completion of the seven year cycle of study of the Talmud for which the organizers had to rent Madison Square Garden in New York only to find out that it was too small and that they also need to rent the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey. We also hear about the lack of true spirituality in most Jewish liturgical prayer, Jewish revivalist music, the religious flatness of both Christmas and Hanuka, and the super fast Sabbath service in which he himself now participates: “Bereft of a long sermon or copious amounts of singing, we complete our prayers in half the time. Think of us as the drive-thru of Jewish prayers. Do you want some fries with that plea for mercy?”
Woven into the whole narrative is the pain of the death of his mother. I knew her and remember that day. What a tragedy! And the pain of his sister’s illness which felt especially unjust after the loss of their mother. And the appearance of his step-mother whom he, as a teenager in pain, could not accept. And the problems of being a “PK” – a preacher’s kid, the child of the local rabbi (or minister). And his relations with his wife’s Christian family. And his theological confusion: Just how personal is God? Can God really do something that contradicts the laws of nature?
I won’t spoil the book for the reader, but the end is touching.
This journalistic essay is not a systematic anthropological article, nor is it a study in interfaith relations. It is a guided tour of real, experienced religion – Christian and Jewish – from someone who lives Judaism and is willing to look at his neighbor’s religion seriously.