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.