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My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith Hardcover – October 7, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Raised as an Orthodox Jew, mostly in Atlanta, Cohen, editor of Jewish Life in Americamagazine, obsessed over the church across the street from his childhood home—a home onto which his father, a rabbi, added a place of worship for Orthodox services. Struck by a crisis of faith, and not long after marrying the converted daughter of a Baptist minister, he decided to see if Jesus couldn't lead him back to Judaism. Each week, mere hours after celebrating the Jewish Sabbath, he'd attend Sunday services. He visited myriad denominational churches, Faith Day at Turner Field, Winter Jam at the Georgia Dome and even the home church of Ultimate Christian Wrestling. After 30-odd years of speculating that the sun shines brighter on the church side of the street, and 52 weeks of an Oz-like journey, his yarmulke turned out to have the same power as Dorothy's red shoes. A delicious olio of guilt, longing, surprise, wonder, unease and of course humor, Cohen's quest has universal appeal. One need not be Jewish, Christian or even a seeker to enjoy this wonderful loop around the Bible Belt. (Oct.)
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Cohen is the son of an Orthodox rabbi; his book is part memoir, part spiritual quest, and part an “anthropologist’s mission.” His so-called inspirational exploration—that is, adventures—include jumping into a mosh pit at a Christian rock concert, taking a trip with a Mormon missionary, attending a Black Baptists service, going to a Christian wrestling match, and attending a sunrise Easter service on top of Stone Mountain. Cohen writes that what he learned from the year’s spiritual journey was that there are many paths people take to find faith in God and there are more similarities than differences in various religions. “Hanging out with Jesus has made me a better Jew,” he writes. Amen to that. --George Cohen
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Reviewer’s disclaimer: I grew up Catholic, but these days you’d identify me as a conservative Presbyterian. I’ve been inside a synagogue once in my life, and that was for my childhood friend’s Bar Mitzvah.
Cohen cares about people, about our existence, about ultimate meaning. He tells us early on that Judaism left him feeling empty and unfulfilled. And that the church right across the street from his childhood home was always beckoning, tempting. As a young adult, he decided to give himself over to the temptation for one year, hoping Christians might teach him something about spirituality.
If this sounds like too heavy a theme, don’t let it stop you. Cohen is endearing in how he describes a journey that will take him to a variety of Christian worship services and venues. There will be faith healers, gospel choirs, a Trappist monastery, a devout Pentecostal grandmother (on his wife’s side); a Roman Catholic confessional; an Episcopal cathedral. Even a Christian wrestling show. And the list goes on. Cohen diligently sampled the Christian faith during his year, though dogged by guilt that he was eschewing the faith tradition he was born and circumcised into. That qualifies as bravery.
I liked that Cohen is somewhat coy in telling us about his year, as to where the journey leads him. I wanted to see how it turned out for him, and he does tell us where he lands in the final chapter. I wanted to see what he learned. He learned some really good, true things about pursuing a relationship with God.
I was glad that Cohen could see through the machinations of the faith healers and to understand that their shtick has little to do with authentic Christ-worship. I was also glad to hear him talk about his confessional experience as one in which he experienced a true sense of cleansing. I loved his openness to experience what was so foreign to his upbringing. There was a lot of other things in the book that would make a Christ-worshipper like me, glad.
So why is this book maybe a little sad (depending, admittedly, on one's perspective)? There is no mention of the essential difference between scripturally-defined Judaism and scripturally-defined Christianity: the Christian concept of an already-fulfilled Messiahship with the yet-to-be-fulfilled Messiahship of Orthodox Jewish faith. Is this a commentary on the state of Christ’s church in the U.S., that it’s gotten so far from preaching the gospel to people who are seeking God that Cohen never got to hear it? Or does it speak more to Cohen’s decision to avoid tackling the essential difference head on, and instead spend a year merely dabbling in the trappings of religious practice? Either way, the lack of contact in this book with the root of the difference between the two faiths, makes me sad. I’d love to hear Cohen wrestle with that.
But I am not sad that God put people like Benyamin Cohen on the earth. I found a lot to love and respect about him – wondering if he sounds like Seinfeld in person, aside. This is a book that any person who takes their relationship with God seriously, will come away with something important to think about.
A rabbis' son feels a disconnect with his "forced faith " and goes on a journey of curiosity and self-exploration that will leave you wondering about why we believe what we believe and perhaps, reconnect you with your own faith in the process.
Never irreverent, the author pokes fun only at himself as he seeks his own answers with respect for everyone he meets along the way--whether he agrees with them or not.