After experiencing a crisis of faith, Benyamin Cohen found a unique way to rekindle his enthusiasm for Judaism.
He spent a year touring Bible Belt churches.
Cohen’s new book, “My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith,” is the result of that journey.
It was shortly after his bar mitzvah, when his mother suddenly died, that Cohen started to feel he was losing his religion.
“We had a good cop and a bad cop,” the Georgia native says about his parents in a phone interview. “I lost my good cop.”
Cohen acknowledges that his disaffection from Judaism wasn’t due to any one thing. There was the authoritarian attitude of his father, an Orthodox rabbi he calls “Dirty Harry” in the book. In addition, the young Benyamin seethed over what he thought was his father’s hasty remarriage two years after his mother’s death.
Unable to cope with his anger, Cohen started to feel his prayers were more rote than heartfelt.
“I was never taught the meaning behind the rules of Judaism,” Cohen says. “I was just taught to do this and do that.”
As he grew up, his feeling of estrangement from his heritage also grew, especially as he watched Christians going to and from the church across the street from his Atlanta home. They seemed to have it easier and to have more fun. And they could eat anything they wanted.
“It was something I always fantasized about, this untouchable thing I could never attain,” Cohen says about the “forbidden fruit” of Christianity. “I knew I’d have to tackle that if I was to grow.”
So Cohen spent the summer of 2005 going to Christian churches, to explore just how green the other side’s grass is. He believed he was “tapping into something many Jews living in America feel,” and since he was the editor of two (now defunct) Jewish magazines, Atlanta Jewish Life and American Jewish Life, he turned his spiritual odyssey into an article.
“That summer whet my appetite,” Cohen recalls. “I didn’t really gain any insights and grow ‘Jewishly’ from it. But I recognized if I wanted to allay my doubts about Judaism and grow, I had to spend more time [in church].”
Cohen laughs when considering if his quest was prompted by spiritual or material concerns, admitting it was “a little of both.”
He doubts that he would have embarked on this journey without a book contract in hand, and says that without the book contract, he wouldn’t have received permission from his rabbi, who also instructed him to wear a kippah and carry press credentials whenever he went to church.
His wife, Elizabeth, also approved the project, knowing firsthand what he was getting into. She’s the daughter of a Methodist minister whose own crisis of faith prompted her to convert to Orthodox Judaism before she and Cohen met.
"Luke Ford reports all of the 'juicy' quotes, and has been doing it for years." (Marc B. Shapiro)
"This guy knows all the gossip, the ins and outs, the lashon hara of the Orthodox world. He’s an [expert] in... all the inner workings of the Orthodox world." (Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff)
"This generation's Hillel." (Nathan Cofnas)