ATLANTA, Georgia. Benyamin Cohen, author of the popular memoir, “My Jesus Year,” may have logged more miles around America than we have in our 9,000-mile circle of the United States. His book is based on a year he devoted, as an orthodox Jew, to attending Sunday services at churches throughout the South. Over the past year, since publication in paperback, he has been invited to talk about his experiences in 25 cities coast to coast.
His day job in Atlanta, where he was born and raised, is as director of content for the Mother Nature Network. http://www.mnn.com/ The Atlanta-based online news magazine publishes daily stories in channels with labels such as “Green-Tech,” “Eco-Biz,” “Transportation” and “Your Family.”
Cohen is uniquely poised to watch changes sweeping across our country. Normally, he is conducting the interviews, but we turned the microphone around and asked him the questions we’ve been raising everywhere we go.
QUESTION: What does America mean to you?
COHEN: It means materialism. It means freedom. It means crazy people. It means smart people. It means diversity. I think that’s the blessing and the curse of America. There’s so much good and there’s obviously lots of bad. Sometimes we’re proud to be Americans. Yet, many of us, if we go to Europe, seem to want to hide the fact that we’re Americans. I know that feeling. There are certain things that make me very proud about our country and other things that trouble me.
America is full of people feeling so free to express themselves that we often don’t get along. I see that same thing on a micro level in my own little Jewish community here. It’s a microcosm of America. I’m talking about just one small neighborhood where orthodox Jews live here, but there are lots of different kinds of Jews who fit that definition of orthodox observance. My wife and I feel very close to some people and we just can’t get along with others. That’s what America is: We can agree to disagree. We have the freedom to make choices and to think for ourselves.
QUESTION: Are you worried about the future for yourself and your family?
COHEN: Yes, certainly. Many people live paycheck to paycheck. It is scary, no matter how secure you think your job is. I’ve been at this job for over two years, since the beginning of the company, but it’s still a young company. We have 25 or 30 employees but we could close down at some point. That’s scary. I have a mortgage to pay and my wife’s in school now so we have a one-income household. We don’t have children to provide for yet. But, yeah, I am constantly worried because I’ve seen so many people who have fallen from great heights. There’s a guy in my community who was in top senior management for an aircraft company and then his job was cut. He’s been looking for a new job for several years and he’s now working in a restaurant serving tables. You see that and it does worry you at night. This is like cancer. You know, cancer can happen to anyone—including you.
QUESTION: Where do you find hope?
I hope this recession eventually will get better. I find hope in people, too, because most people I meet are genuinely sincere, nice people with good motivations. I prefer the word “solace.” I take solace in things, like hearing about people doing charitable works. Just a couple of weeks ago there were reports about all these billionaires who decided to give away half their fortunes. That kind of news reminds me that there are positive forces at work in the world.
And, through my work at Mother Nature Network, I can see that we’re at an amazing time scientifically and technologically. I see so many great headlines cross my desk every week. Just last week, I saw news about development on some new Alzheimer’s drug. People are finding things in space, in chemistry, in technology. I’m privy to this kind of news every day and I think we’re living in a great time in human history. Just think: The Internet wasn’t a part of our lives 20 years ago. Yes, the Internet can hurt people, but mostly it’s been a great help to people. And think about it: Not too long ago, it didn’t even exist. You wouldn’t be reading the kind of news we’re providing today without it. That’s got to give you hope.
(Today’s story and photo of Cohen are by readthespirit.com Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)
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