283: Conversation With the Jewish Author of “My Jesus Year”

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S
ome of the best recent books on faith and spirituality are from “outsiders.” Secular scientist E.O. Wilson wrote “The Creation,” atheist Hemant Mehta wrote “I Sold My Soul on eBay,” and, let’s face it, Anne Lamott’s popular persona is built on her outsider status.
    It’s in that spirit that I strongly recommend Benyamin Cohen’s “My Jesus Year.”
    He’s funny. I mean, he’s Anne Lamott funny. And, he’s friendly as he’s poking fun at others and at himself. You’ll find yourself chuckling as he describes trying to slip into an enormous Pentecostal megachurch to learn what’s drawing thousands upon thousands of Americans to these venues.
    Then, this “five-foot-two bespectacled Jewish kid in a mosh pit of faith” suddenly discovers that the church’s video crews have zeroed in on his face and he’s shocked to discover: “My Jewish face on Jesus’ JumboTron for all to see! Oh, God, forgive me.”
    We learn a lot about Benyamin’s Jewish life, his family life, his vignettes from this year-long Christian pilgrimage and, in the end, his conclusions about faith in America.
    In closing, he writes a pitch-perfect summary of how millions of young Americans see our national smorgasbord of faith: “Despite the gospel choirs and Christian rockers, despite the baptismal baths and Christmas trees, despite the wine, wafers, and confessional booths, and even despite our theological and philosophical differences, there is a deeper thread running throughout. There are many roads leading to spiritual maturity and even to God Himself, and all of us have to find our own way.”
    This is an important new voice. His journey is fun to follow and, when it’s done, you’ll begin to realize that many of us feel like spiritual outsiders today, looking in on houses of worship and wondering how we might fit inside.

HERE ARE HIGHLIGHTS FROM OUR CONVERSATION WITH BENYAMIN COHEN:

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    DAVID: I like your easy-going humor. Here’s a line early in the book. You’re talking about the point at which you finally got out on your own, left the authority of your father behind — and you were all set to become a religious rebel. But, you write: “As for me, I wanted to date a shiksa, a gentile girl, wrapped in bacon, but all I could do was order cable. My big defiant act was watching the Cartoon Network, something that had been denied to me as a kid.”
    BENYAMIN: Not exactly a rebel.
    DAVID: Well, the way this book works, you’re not trying to be a rebel, really. Right? You’re writing here as both an insider and an outsider.
    BENYAMIN: I grew up as a religious insider. I’m the son of a rabbi, so for me it’s akin to being the president’s daughter growing up in the White House. She sees behind the scenes and, for her, hanging out in the Oval Office isn’t all that special. I grew up inside a rabbi’s family so I saw all the bad and the good that can come from living inside Judaism. We actually had a synagogue built onto our house! I tell about that in the book.
    So I don’t come to this with a naivete. Other people may look upon religion as a kind of house on top of a mountain that we can’t really strive to reach. But I was able to take my own insider’s point of view with me as I went out to explore someone else’s faith.
    DAVID: Well, your book is coming out in the same season that Bill Mahr’s “Religulous” is in theaters. I’ve just seen it and I’ve been a fan of Bill’s TV work, but his movie really disappointed me because — well, it didn’t have much of a point. It was sort of two hours of Wild ‘n’ Crazy religious odd balls and he was able to throw some pointed darts at people from nutty self-proclaimed Messiahs to religious hucksters.
    We should let readers know that your adventures in the religious landscape are quite different than “Religulous.”
    BENYAMIN: I was just listening to an interview with Bill Mahr and he was talking about this question he asks in the movie, “How can I believe in these people who believe in a talking snake in the Bible?”
    Well, for me, I’m someone who does believe in that talking snake. So, I’m not a cynic walking around like that. I haven’t seen the film, but from trailers and interviews and stories about the film, it seems he went out with the idea of shining a light on a lot of crazy people. That wasn’t my mission. In fact, my mission was the opposite. I’m saying these people are not crazy and I want to learn something from them.
    DAVID: There are some pretty colorful moments in your book — like your visit to Ultimate Christian Wrestling where people are saved in an instant. I gather this is one of the big differences you see between Judaism and Christianity: the idea that salvation can be instantly produced.
    Here’s an example from your book. You write: “People can accept Christianity into their lives and become saved in an instant. In Judaism, however, the process of connecting with one’s faith doesn’t happen instantly, but occurs over months or even years of effort. This is simply because there’s no magic ‘accept God’ statement; instead, there’s a long list of rules to learn and incorporate into your life.
    BENYAMIN: What I mean is that Christianity can get to be like LensCrafters for the soul. You know: “It’ll be ready in an hour!”
    I don’t want to denigrate this method. In a certain sense, I’m jealous of this. I’d like to be saved and healed in under an hour. Obviously, when someone says they’re going to be saved at one of these events — whether it’s Ultimate Christian Wrestling or a Christian rock concert — there is a follow up that’s done. People do commit their lives to Christ and they are expected to attend church and do other things.
    But in Judaism, I find that it’s more of a religion of deed over creed. We talk about how many of God’s commandments we keep. Do we keep the Sabbath? Do we keep kosher? These are barometers people use to talk about Jewish life.
    DAVID: OK, so you’re being very generous in pointing out that some of these large-scale altar calls really do lead to long-term pastoral care and there’s a long road for most Christians to fully live out their faith. But there’s also a lot of razzle-dazzle marketing involved, too, in some Christian revivals, right? In Judaism, a convert really and sincerely has to want to become Jewish and has to work hard at it. In Christianity, we tend not to look too closely at how the converts are doing, once we’ve got their membership on the lists and we’ve handed them offering envelopes.
    BENYAMIN: It can become a numbers game for a lot of Christians, especially evangelical Christians. They like to say: Here’s how many people we’ve saved this year. At the Christian rock concert I went to, they proudly proclaimed how many people had been saved on their tour.
    For us, it’s not that kind of a numbers game.
    But we have challenges, too. One problem with Jewish prayer is that we are literally saying some of the same words — in Hebrew mind you — day in and day out. How can that be spiritual? How in the world can you do that every day, day after day, and not start thinking about your Blackberry when you’re repeating the prayers for the thousandth time.

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    DAVID: You’ve got certain big advantages in Judaism, though. You point out that, because Judaism is a minority, your holidays haven’t been taken over by mass marketers quite the way Christian holidays have been commercialized.
    BENYAMIN: It’s difficult for Christians. It’s easy for people to get misled about the real spiritual messages when they’re transformed into other things — like Christmas movies or Bible figurines or all of that other stuff that is marketed to Christians. Jewish holidays take you away from the world. Most holidays are spent in the synagogue or with family and we’re having festive meals. We don’t think of going to the mall as part of the holidays. We don’t have to try to figure out how going to sit on Santa’s lap in a mall relates to our holidays.
    As a kid growing up, I wished there was more Jewish stuff out there in the world to buy. I grew up in the Bible Belt, so I was jealous for those kinds of things that Christian kids had in the stores. But looking back on all that now, I can see it’s very easy for Christians to miss the original spiritual point because there are so many other distractions out there. We don’t have as many distractions like that.
    DAVID: Another wise point you make in the book is that everybody shares the difficulty, these days, of attracting people into services. You point out that Jews struggle with this all the time. You write: “Many Jews pay their synagogue dues, but only attend a few times a year.”
    And you point out that a lot of Christian churches face the same problem.
    BENYAMIN: I do think that we should remember: The grass is not greener on the other side. I went to some exciting Christian events, but I went to a plenty of boring churches, too.
    When I went to this one megachurch, I had to go to the bathroom and, when I walked out into the hallway, I found all these kids out there running around the halls — not in the service. That’s the same thing that happens in synagogues. It’s tough to get kids into services.
    DAVID: You point out that everybody can learn more about hospitality.
    BENYAMIN: A lot of churches I visited do a great job of making visitors feel welcome. In one of these huge megachurches I visited, a lot of people had to come in on these shuttles from satellite parking lots. But the church had all these “Visitor” parking places marked out right next to the handicapped spaces. That was good to see.
    But, for Jews, if a newcomer walks into a synagogue — and I’m talking about even a Jew walking in for the first time — you find the service is in a different language. Nobody talks to you in a lot of synagogues. There need to be more efforts made at welcoming people. I’m not talking about trying to bring in and convert Christians. I’m talking about making synagogues more welcoming for Jews.
    You know, I saw a video of Rick Warren meeting with rabbis and telling them how to be more welcoming and there were all these rabbis furiously scribbling down notes. I think there’s a lot we can learn from each other about this.

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    DAVID: So, if somebody reads about your adventure — or, better yet, actually buys your book and reads it — then they’re likely to want to try a road trip something like the one you undertook. The truth is, millions of Americans are making spiritual road trips all the time. It drives religious leaders nuts, but it’s the way a lot of Americans approach faith these days. They want to choose the right congregation, the right flavor of faith.
    So, if someone decides to set out on the road like you did — give us some tips about packing for this kind of spiritual adventure.
    BENYAMIN: Go with an open mind and leave your preconceived notions at the door. If you go out there and you’re thinking: I know this is going to be X or Y — you won’t be able to truly see through the fog.
    Eventually, you want to find what’s right for you. You may wind up back with the faith of your parents or it might be the faith of your spouse — or you may end up with your own hybrid: a little bit of this, a little bit of that.
    But we live in troubled times form terrorist attacks to the financial crisis we’re facing now and religion should be a stabilizing force in our life. It shouldn’t be something that causes friction between people.
    Religion should ground us. It should show us the purpose in life.
    DAVID: What do you plan to do next as a writer?
    BENYAMIN: Next? I don’t know. Maybe “My Muslim Year”? No, I’m kidding. I’ve started working at an environmental news company that’s starting here in Atlanta. Chuck Leavell, the keyboardist for the Rolling Stones started this. He lives on a 2,000 acre tree farm outside Atlanta. It’s going to be a Web site for general readers about the latest environmental news.
    DAVID: Impressive. From one timely project to another. From grace — to green.

CARE TO READ MORE?

    A Note on Today’s Photos: One thing Benyamin enjoys — as a proud first-time author — is collecting snapshots of his book displayed in various stores. There are a couple of those images above. The portrait of Benyamin was taken by Fernando Decillis.

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