. For a full year, the son of an Orthodox rabbi whet his curiosity about Christianity by visiting 52 services or Christianthemed events. Then he wrote about it, and — just in time for Hanukkah — published his experience in “My Jesus Year” (HarperOne, $24.95). Cohen wasn’t interested in converting but rather went on a journey to see how another major religion operated.
To say Young Benyamin (the Hebrew for Benjamin) was immersed in his religion since childhood is an understatement. For starters, on the eighth day of his life, when Jewish males are circumcised, a butcher had to weigh him to pass muster with the rabbi. Then later his father — Herbert Cohen — added an actual synagogue onto the family home in Atlanta.
“Religion was served up to us on a silver platter — whether we wanted it or not,” Cohen writes. For more than 20 years, Herbert Cohen was principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta.
Among his research venues: a faith healing service; a massive Atlanta rally held annually featuring Bishop T.D. Jakes; a sunrise service atop Stone Mountain; and Eucharist at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, which sits right across from his house.
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Cohen spoke recently viaphone with the Ledger-Enquirer.
Did you go to a different church each week?
I did go to 52 churches; not all my experiences made it into the book — just the best of the best. I was only parachuting in and you don’t get a full picture, or all the commonplace things. But everywhere I went, there was this total lack of cynicism. These people were serious about their religion. I talk a lot about my wife’s grandmother in the book. Not that she can’t joke around, but she takes her (Christian) faith very seriously. People have asked me what growing up in a synagogue is like. I tell them, when the president’s daughter grows up in the White House, it’s not a big deal to be in the West Wing. For me it was no big deal to have a synagogue in the house: ‘Eh, that’s the room off the house.’
Have you kept in touch with these places you visited? Have you gotten calls to come back?
Probably less than 20 percent of them. Now I meet people from a lot of other churches who invite me to their services.
The story about the faithhealing place is probably the most bizarre — except for the Christian wrestling match.
Yes, it’s probably the one story in the book that I don’t look at with the highest regard. Then again, it was the oil salesmen I had problems with. My wife’s grandmother was there and she sincerely had a good experience. Who am I to judge? The people were still getting something out of it. Then with the Black Hebrews group — some of them are on the FBI Most Wanted list. But there’s nothing wrong with the congregation.
How did you decide where to visit? Did you just go down the phone book?
I grew up in Atlanta, so there were the obvious ones. I wanted to know what was going on behind some of the closed doors. With others, they heard I was doing this so they invited me. I started doing some research and wanted to look for variety.
Did they know what you were up to?
At all these places, I was this lost Jew looking for faith, not to convert but to see what I could learn from them. They knew I was a journalist.
Compared to your faith, how do you view conversion to Christianity?
To become Christian, I think that getting in the door is easy. But being a spiritual person takes work, no matter what faith you are. Because Judaism doesn’t seek converts, there’s a harder barrier. In fact, when you go to a rabbi to convert, he is supposed to try to talk you out of it three times. In Christianity, there’s one ephemeral experience and you’re good, but you also have to maintain that.
How were you engaging your own faith during this time?
I was a robot going through the motions and I never appreciated it. My wife and I recently switched synagogues. We used to go to one with about 400 members. I admit, I like to be seen; my whole neighborhood goes to that one. But the prayer services were very unmoving to me. Now we go to a place with only 15-20 people on Saturday mornings. There’s not a lot of pomp and circumstance. ... I think this harkened back to the synagogue of my father. It is small and intimate. This is where I belong.
You say at the end of your book that you learned how to be a better Jew after going to all the churches. What might be some things you’d want to say to the churches from your religious perspective?
My book is really a message of interfaith dialogue. I think we’re supposed to engage our neighbor — not to convert them but to be exposed to other things. For instance, if you know Muslims personally, you discover that not all Muslims are terrorists. I think we’re supposed to break bread with one another.
Where did your dad go?
He’s in Dallas, where T.D. Jakes is. (Cohen is on staff at Yavneh Academy in Dallas and also works part time for the Community Kollel of Dallas, a group of rabbis.)
Others in your family are rabbis, right?
Yes, everybody’s in the family business. I’m child No. 5. My two sisters married rabbis. That was always the whole tension between me and my dad, that I didn’t become a rabbi.
In the book you say that he’s OK with it now.
He was able to say that “Inside, my son is struggling with his faith and is coming closer to that. He is who he is.” The book helped smooth the tensions. I would send him parts of the book to read and I’d be nervous, especially with this one part about us having a fight. My dad has a Ph.D. in British literature. He called back he and said, “You’re missing a comma.” ... I am constantly jealous of people who become converted as adults. Like my wife — she got to choose it and she got to own it. Judaism was something that was given to me. One time I heard Michael J. Fox say he’s a lucky man, and that Parkinson’s is the biggest blessing in his life. I have this disease called Judaism.
Is it a blessing?
I’m not there yet, but I’m farther along that path.