My Jesus Year

 

BENYAMIN COHEN (Author of “My Jesus Year”): I grew up in the heart of the Bible belt in Atlanta, Georgia, one of eight children, the son of an Orthodox rabbi. I’m the only one that didn’t go into the family business. They are all rabbis or married rabbis.

I was always jealous. I grew up across the street from a Methodist church, and literally my bedroom window looked out at the church parking lot, and every Sunday morning I would see it was packed, and living in the Bible belt there are churches on every street corner, and their parking lots are full every week. Maybe I could go to church—not to convert to Christianity. I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to go to find out what got people excited about worship, what got people excited about their religion. Maybe I could go and tap into that spirituality and find out the secret that I was never taught growing up, and maybe I could bring that back and apply it to my own Judaism.

Here’s one thing that I learned. I haven’t even walked into a church, and here’s already one thing I could write down and tell my rabbi—first-time visitor parking. I’m not talking about bringing Jesus into the synagogue. It wouldn’t hurt, it wouldn’t kill you to put a little first-time visitor parking sign in the parking lot.

I didn’t know going to church that they talk about the Old Testament. I assumed Jews have the Old Testament and Christians have the New Testament. I didn’t realize they have both, and this pastor got up and started giving an Old Testament sermon, and the way he was describing his interpretation was completely antithetical to what I had learned growing up. What came out of that moment was that I didn’t realize I cared so much about my own Bible.

At this Episcopal church they had a ritualistic service every week, and they had these nice traditions, and I was like that’s such a nice, sweet thing to have traditions and ancient rituals. I was like that sounds familiar. We have that in synagogue, and it kind of made me look at my own rituals with a new, fresh perspective.

Orthodox Jewry and Mormonism have a lot in common. We are both minorities in America. We both have special dietary—they can’t drink caffeine, and we have to keep kosher. They wear special undergarments, we wear special undergarments. There’s a lot of laws that dictate all their lives, and so for me I felt a real kinship with the Mormon community, and I went knocking door to door with these two female Mormon missionaries, and their conviction, these are girls 19- and 20-years-old, and their conviction for their religion was just awe-inspiring to me. I’m sure the woman whose house we were visiting, I’m sure she’s wondering why the Mormons brought their accountant with them. You know, what is he doing here?

I was feeling guilty at the end of the year that I kind of strayed from my own religion, and so I wanted to cleanse myself of that guilt, so I did what any good Jewish boy does, and that’s go to confession. I asked my Catholic friend, Vince, if I could do this, and he said, “No, only Catholics can go to confession, but I will sneak you in.” It was a very meaningful spiritual experience, and an interesting postscript to that whole episode is that the priest, now that the book has come out, the priest actually knows that I went to confession with him, and he called me and thanked me. He is so happy that I had a meaningful experience with him.

I for one feel a lot closer to a religious Christian than I do a non-religious Jew, because we have so much in common. People ask me if I found Jesus in church, and I personally did not, so to speak, find Jesus, but what I did find was true spirituality. That’s what I found in these places: the lack of cynicism, the openness to the experience, and the belief in God, whoever that God may be.

  • Don Richter

    I heard Cohen speak about his “Jesus Year” experiment at the 2009 Decatur Book Festival (GA). What a terrific and entertaining presenter! I have great admiration for the honesty, humility, and humor with which Cohen undertook this ethnographical adventure. Christians have much to learn from kindred spirits who attend our worship services and inquire about our rituals and practices. More, I find it enlightening to hear the perspectives and questions Jewish brothers and sisters have regarding Jesus of Nazareth — who was, after all, a first-century Mediterranean Jewish peasant. As Cohen observes, one’s faith can be deepened rather than diluted by making pilgrimages to faith communities other than one’s own. By doing so we become aware of the common ground we share as well as the real differences that make our respective traditions and apprehensions of God distinctive.

  • HeidiAnn

    From a Mormon:

    Amen, Brother Cohen!

  • Carrie Lee

    Greetings BENYAMIN,
    What a wonderful experience you had growing up, your story touched me and I believe you are truly seeking, and I would like to share this with you………God Bless you on your Journey

  • John

    Thanks for the interesting and well-thought-out article. For the record, though, Mormons are not prohibited from drinking caffeine. There *is* a requirement to not drink coffee or (black) tea, but the church takes no official stand on other caffeinated beverages or caffeine in medicines.

  • DoorOpener37

    I will have to read of this “Faith-Journey.” Sounds very interesting to see Christ working in and through Christians. Too bad you missed the view, my friend. God Bless

  • Rebecca

    My Jesus Year is an amazing book. I enjoyed every page. Cohen is a talented author and speaker.

  • Ceandon

    The young women missionaries would have had to be at least 21. They cannot serve until age 21. Only the young elders serve at age 19.

  • Talia

    B”H

    You know, as an observant Jew, I feel closer to religious Christians than to secular Jews too. I look forward to reading your book.

  • lori

    What a beautiful epistle about your “holy” experience.

    Grace and Peace, my brother

  • Keith

    Nice but a very superficial article.

  • Fr. Ian Yorston

    Is it not God who draws us closer to Him. Maybe this is why some of the devout of any religion feel closer to each other.

  • Anglican

    Nice, but too sort article. I hope to put the book in my Episcopal church’s library. Just one little item of information.
    You could have had confession at the Episcopal church you went to.
    Did you visit any Eastern Orthodox?
    God bless us everyone.

  • Channah

    Growing up, I went to many churches and never found this spiritual awakening mentioned here. I went to Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Catholic, etc., and tried to become active, to no avail. The feelings were not there.

    When I became an adult, I converted to Judaism, and found what I was looking for. The feeling of people, history, and G-d, was more powerful and spiritual than anything I had ever felt. It is not the given religion-it can be any religion. It is how we atune to where we are.