Jewish Book Fest author pens hilarious, compelling memoir

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

In his fascinating book, My Jesus Year, Benyamin Cohen, the Atlanta-born son of an Orthodox rabbi, who married a Protestant minister’s daughter who had converted to Judaism, describes his year-long plunge into an in-depth exploration of the beliefs and practices of Christianity.

Cohen shares his journey with remarkable candor and considerable humor, and makes it clear that he was not considering coverting to Christianity in his quest, but to “seek universal answers and common truths about the way people experience faith in America.” At the conclusion of his exploration of a sister faith, Cohen’s own commitment to Judaism had been sharpened and deepened.

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Cohen will be a featured author-speaker at the upcoming 2008 St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, appearing at 1 p.m., Monday, Nov. 10, at the Jewish Community Center for what is billed as “a hilarious and inspirational exploration of identity, religion and interfaith relations.”

The description rings true for the reader, with whom Cohen shares not only his observations on such events as being plunged into the midst of a mosh-pit at a Christian rock festival; attending an Ultimate Christian Wrestling match and hanging out with two princes of the polygamous African Hebrew Israelite Community, but also a stream-of-consciousness retelling of his innermost thoughts and memories, including youthful crushes and the songs which provided the soundtrack for his formative years.

In title, format and structure, Cohen’s My Jesus Year invites comparison to another memoir, The Year of Living Biblically, by A. J. Jacobs, himself a previous featured author at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. Jacobs spent a year attempting to fulfill as many of the 613 mitzvot enumerated in the Torah as he could, including “stoning an alduterer,” which he accomplished by tossing some pebbles at a confessed philanderer in a public park.

Jacobs himself has praised Cohen’s book in a blurb on its dust jacket: “(My Jesus Year) is a witty memoir that should appeal to Christians and Jews alike (as well as Wiccans, Jains and Bahais, for that matter).”

Jacobs is right, of course. Too few Jews and Christians have any substantive knowledge of the similarities and differences between the two monotheistic religions and even fewer have any meaningful knowledge of Islam.

Too much of what passes for “interfaith dialogue” consists of mouthing safe platitudes about brotherhood and sisterhood, and people talking past each other when it comes to a true understanding of religious similarities and differences.

Cohen’s book, like a handful of others, provides considerable useful information about the tenets of both Judaism and Christianity, and the book has potential as a discussion-group focus for a true and respectful exploration of the two faiths.

Several decades ago, the late and esteemed Rabbi Ferdinand M. Isserman of Temple Israel delivered and later published a sermon called “The Jewish Jesus and the Christian Christ,” which to this day provides clear and concise explanations of the Jewish origins of Jesus of Nazareth, and how many of the beliefs of Jesus and his followers were directly adapted from the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call “The Old Testament.”

Similarly, in The Misunderstood Jew, Amy-Jill Levine, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University, who was a visiting scholar at Traditional Congregation last year, published an in-depth exploration of the Jewish background of Jesus which has “prompted much-needed conversation and debate about how Christians and Jews should understand Jesus, the Gospels, the New Testament, and each other.”

Still other books, like Christ Killers: The Jews and The Passion From the Bible to the Big Screen, by Jeremy Cohen, a professor and three-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award, are designed to refute anti-Semitic canards against Judaism that result from anti-Jewish versions of the Passion Play and its depiction in the controversial Mel Gibson Film The Passion of the Christ.

Benyamin Cohen’s book, in contrast to Rabbi Isserman’s clear and concise pamphlet, which can still be obtained at the Temple Israel gift shop, free of charge, and to the scholarly works by Amy Jill-Levine, Jeremy Cohen and others, is much more “here and now” and frankly laugh-out-loud funny.

The author describes his various adventures, which include: his feelings being among a group of 15,000 spirit-filled African-Americans at a mega-church service, where he ends up seeing “my Jewish face 20 feet tall on Jesus’s JumboTron”; posing as a Roman Catholic in order to attend confession, where he receives valuable advice about his boring approach to prayer and feelings of guilt for hiding his true identity; and trying to “embrace the Christmas spirit” at a tree-lighting service at a Presbyterian church, and attending midnight mass at an Episcopal church.

Cohen also writes of attending the largest Jewish service on any U.S. military base, which is made up of mostly non-Jews. He attends a sunrise Easter service at Stone Mountain, a theme park which memorializes the Confederacy, and which was the birthplace of 20th century version of the Ku Klux Klan.

Cohen, who says he is descended from a Jewish family of “rabbinic rock stars,” manages to resist the seductive pull of the warm embrace provided at Christian gatherings which has caused some Jews to “go over” and become “Jews for Jesus” or to fully convert to Christianity.

He describes the theme underlying his yearlong quest is that “many paths lead to the Almighty,” and that “No one holds the copyright on a connection with God. Not the Catholics, not the Episcopalians, not the Baptists and not the Jews.”

He adds: “The gestalt of religious practice in America is simply this: between the Buddhists and Baptists, the Muslims and the Mormons, the pagans and Pentacostals, I found more similarities than differences.”

At the end of his adventure-filled year, Cohen says that his experiences taught him to appreciate his Jewish faith more deeply. In the end, Cohen says he finds his way to being “the Jew I always knew I could be, one who’s jazzed about his Judaism. I found a renewed connection to my faith, and I had Jesus to thank for it.”

As the reader shares Benyamin Cohen’s “Jesus Year,” one cannot help being infused with the good humor and enthusiasm which carried him along his winding path back to a deeper commitment to his own faith, based on his full exploration of another religion.