Entries Filed Under “Book Tour”
The following article appeared in the San Antonio Jewish Journal, December 14, 2009:
The Jesus Journey
by Linda Kaufman
If you didn’t get to hear Benyamin Cohen when he spoke at the JCC during Jewish Book Month, you missed a real treat.
On a national book tour to promote his memoir, this delightful young man regaled us with snippets from his yearlong adventure exploring different churches as he sought to reconnect with his own faith.
Seems crazy, no? But in his book, MY JESUS YEAR, he reveals his difficulty in finding a spiritual connection to God within the Orthodox religion he grew up in.
Born into a family of “rabbinic rock stars,” our hero struggled from his youth with feelings of doubt and apathy concerning his Judaism. The church across the street from his home in Atlanta became the object of his desire as he wondered what life would be like without the endless rules that marked an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle.
Moving away from home during his college years, he couldn’t shake his nagging attraction to things worldly and Christian, even considering a Big Mac with cheese as a rebellion against his totally kosher upbringing.
But Jewish guilt kicked in and instead he visited a smoke-filled bar, exiting quickly after the smoke made him gasp for fresh air.
With characteristic self-deprecating humor, he added, “Years later a doctor confirmed what every Jewish male already knows - we’re allergic to everything.”
But his desire to look elsewhere for a meaningful religious experience could not be quieted. After obtaining the blessing of a rabbi who required him to wear a press pass and a kepah whenever he visited churches, the author set out on a Woody Allen-like journey.
He first found himself in a 15,000 member African-American megachurch where his presence is announced by the bishop (a friend has tipped off the spiritual leader of the church that he will be there) and his face appears on the two huge in-house TV screens as the congregation whoops and hollers, “Bless you, brother!”
His inner Jewish voice cries out, “Oh, God, forgive me.”
As the four-hour service continues with spirited music, animated dancing and loud preaching, Benyamin wonders whether the Jews at Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments might have been the first megachurch.
For the next year, he visits countless Christian denominations, awed by the different
expressions of the original New Testament church that have sprung up in the last two thousand years.
Completing his pilgrimage at the very church across the street from his boyhood home that first drew him to Christianity, Benyamin finds that it is a sparsely attended, dying church, hardly worthy of the fantasies it produced years before in his mind. It wasn’t the Garden of Eden after all.
His journey completed, like Dorothy before him, he clicks his heels together and whispers, “There’s no place like home.”
The prodigal son has satisfied his desire to explore Christianity and life outside the Orthodox confines, and happily resumes his place in the Jewish community.
His journey has made him able to be the Jew he always wanted to be, “one who’s jazzed about his Judaism.” Though he chronicles a serious journey of faith, he does so with characteristic Jewish humor and honesty.
In our family, there are those who are going the other direction, leaving their liberal Jewish upbringing and embracing a more orthodox Jewish lifestyle including becoming strictly kosher and “shomer Shabbas”(keepers of the Sabbath.)
With two of my husband’s post-college single grandchildren opting for kosher living as well as my first cousin’s son and wife (a young couple with their first child) choosing a strictly Orthodox path, I am fascinated with their choices as they seek to find meaningful Jewish lives.
The young people in our family who have chosen to be kosher say that it connects them to the generations before them who followed these same restrictions.
A friend recently told me that his choice to observe the rules of kashrut is to imbue every act, no matter how insignificant, with a sense of the sacred.
For one thing, keeping kosher is not as difficult as it once was. As I’ve learned from reading HADASSAH MAGAZINE, almost every city has restaurants that serve kosher meals.
They also are running an ad for a Kosher Cruise (wouldn’t Kruise be better advertising?) during the Passover holidays. You can experience keeping kosher while “kruising “the high seas in a luxury ship.
As I finish reading Benyamin Cohen’s book, I realize he never broke the rules of kashrut during his Jesus year. Since there are so many kosher restaurants available, I wonder if I should consider the opposite of what many in my generation did. Instead of keeping a kosher home, what if I only eat in kosher restaurants? It couldn’t hurt!
For more articles about the book, check out the media page.
I recently gave a 30-minute talk to the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta which Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters recorded. Below is the recording, divided into 3 easy-to-digest videos:
For more videos, visit the Media page and scroll to the bottom.
Of course I had a copy of My Jesus Year with me and autographed a copy for him. Now, if I could only get him to blurb my next book....
“My Jesus Year” comes out in paperback this week and, to celebrate, I created a book trailer to help promote the new edition. Hope you enjoy it...
8/26: Virginia Beach, VA
10/22: Colgate University
11/3: San Antonio, TX
11/4: Louisville, KY
11/7: Boulder, CO
11/12: Rockville, MD
11/15: Kansas City, KS
12/3: Deal, NJ
2/9: Rochester, NY (with AJ Jacobs and David Plotz)
For complete book tour information, visit the My Jesus Year events page.
Follow My Jesus year on Twitter.
I had the opportunity to speak at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta last night. It was a lot of fun. Above is a brief video clip from the event where I talk about going door-to-door with two Mormon missionaries.
A photo from the bathroom of the Stamford JCC promoting my talk there.
I spoke about the “My Jesus Year” journey this morning at my synagogue in Atlanta -- the one where I had my bris, my bar mitzvah, and my wedding. I was fortunate enough to have my dad -- the rabbi of the book’s subtitle -- be in town, so he introduced me at the event. The above video is a short clip from his introduction. And below is a photo of he and I at the book signing table (he was autographing copies of his book, Kosher Parenting). Also below is a photo of a “My Jesus Year” cookie cake which they served at the event. The cover, by the way, is edible.
Sunday, January 11: Beth Jacob Men’s Club
Monday, January 12: Fulton County Public Library
Wednesday, February 11: Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta
Tuesday, February 17: Greenfield Hebrew Academy
Tuesday, March 17: Congregation Etz Chaim
Wednesday, March 18: Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta
Tuesday, May 12: Emory University
A complete list of all future speaking engagements can be found on the events page.
Benyamin Cohen gets Jewish with Jesus
Los Angeles Jewish Journal
by Brad A. Greenberg
Benyamin Cohen is not someone you’d expect to find at church.
The son of an Orthodox rabbi, the founding editor of the now-defunct American Jewish Life magazine, Cohen committed to marrying within the faith to the point that during his 20s, which preceded JDate, Cohen flew from his home in Atlanta to the deeper Jewish dating pool of New York twice a month.On a scale of Yiddishkayt, Cohen was a super Jew.
And yet there he was one day, projected 20-feet-tall, for all to see, on “Jesus’ JumboTron.”
“Oh, God,” Cohen thought, “forgive me.”
This scene, which took place at a black megachurch in Atlanta, opens Cohen’s just-released memoir, “My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith” (HarperOne, $24.95), named by Publishers Weekly as one of 2008’s best religion books. Cohen’s experience on the first Sunday of his year-long spiritual quest makes clear that he won’t just be able to blend in as he visits Baptist churches and Pentecostal revivals and Christian wrestling events.
His story is also laden with Jewish guilt, a theme that runs throughout Cohen’s Jewish journey, as if hell hath a special place for wandering Jews.
Cohen, 33 (the “same age as Jesus when he died”), never thought he would find himself worshipping God with the help of a gospel choir. Yet all his life he had been tantalized by Christianity, gazing from the outside at the seemingly easier lives that Christian children led. While Cohen observed the Sabbath, his Christian neighbors played baseball; while he kept kosher, they ate bacon cheeseburgers; while he said a blessing after using the bathroom, they just washed their hands.
“I am, for better or worse, burdened for all eternity by my religion,” Cohen writes.
And over time it began to feel it was for worse. Judaism’s rules and ritual left Cohen feeling a bit crazy. Attending synagogue, praying, worshipping God, all these things had become rote, stripped of value. Cohen felt spiritually suffocated by tradition.
“What kind of religion was it that worshiped minutiae over meaning?” he writes. “Don’t get me wrong. There are brilliance and beauty in this faith. I just haven’t found them yet.”
Jesus, as you can imagine from the book’s title, helped Cohen find that brilliance and beauty. Cohen kept his journalistic guard up and didn’t drink the Jesus juice, though he did take communion. But by spending a year with Christians, Cohen’s own faith was invigorated.
“Stepping outside my comfort zone and hanging out with other people gave me a fresh perspective,” said Cohen, who will be on a panel and sign copies of his book on Sunday as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books at American Jewish University.
In a phone interview, he told The Journal that his journey got out of his system what had been gnawing at him for years. “I finally got to taste the forbidden fruit. I think that was always a hurdle in my spiritual growth. No matter what, I was always looking across the street at the Christians. I was finally able to experience that, and I learned the grass isn’t always green at the church across the street. And I learned to appreciate my own Judaism.”
His Jewishness was, in essence, born again.
“I’m getting a fresh start and being reborn,” Cohen writes a little more than halfway through his journey. “At the Georgia Dome, among forty thousand Christians, on Easter, the day of resurrection.”
I had looked forward to reading Cohen’s memoir -- written in the Jewish tradition of A.J. Jacobs’ “The Year of Living Biblically,” Mark I. Pinsky’s “A Jew Among the Evangelicals” and Daniel Radosh’s “Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture.” Cohen’s tale seemed particularly poignant for me because it was, at heart, a mirror image of my own travels.
I joined The Jewish Journal last year for reasons that were as personal as they were professional. It wasn’t until I became a journalist that I learned more than the most basic details of Judaism and Jewish history -- this despite three Jewish grandparents and a face that can’t evade the advances of Chabadniks.
On my own Jewish journey, I’ve learned a lot about my family history, but I’ve also learned how to be a better Christian; not by pretending to keep kosher or observe the Sabbath -- not through some Messianic hybrid -- but by applying Jewish cultural values to Christian observance and appreciating the common ground between two faiths that worship the same God.
Cohen’s experiences have been quite different from mine, but the life lesson -- that Christians and Jews can learn a lot about their own faiths from the other -- is the same.
Cohen’s interest is not in celebrating “Jon Stewart Judaism,” though he worships in that temple every night. Cohen wants to engender, or at least encourage, excited-to-be-observant Jews. And, after 52 weeks spent going to church and to Christian rock concerts and even to confession, Cohen found that Christianity can reveal many secrets to the Jewish kingdom.
In the way Christians use pop culture, such as the cartoon “VeggieTales,” to teach biblical stories and spread the gospel; in the way megachurches are so welcoming to newcomers -- even being greeted by a stranger with a kiss made Cohen feel uncomfortable -- and in the way Christians get big organizations, like the Atlanta Braves, to target them with Faith Night at the ballpark.
“We shouldn’t take their theology,” Cohen said, “but just from a marketing perspective, there is so much we can learn from Christianity.”
Near the end of the book, Cohen thanks Jesus for changing his life, for breathing new life into an ancient faith that’s been in his family since Aaron. And he sounds a lot like a Christian in free-form prayer.
“Thank you, Jesus, for making me less of a cynic,” Cohen writes. “Thank you for teaching me that prayers can be recited in many ways and in many languages, and that God listens anyway. Thank you for miracles, even those of the golden dental variety. Thank you for small synagogues. For big churches. For gospel choirs. For holidays. Thank you for gratitude. For sickness and health. For repentance. For the lessons gleaned from death and loss. And, most of all, thank you for rebirth.”
Link to the original article: http://www.jewishjournal.com/books/article/benyamin_cohen_gets_jewish_with_jesus_20081106/
After speaking in Atlanta on Sunday, I quickly hopped on a plane and headed to Tampa on Monday. I had a great time down there. It was my first trip to Tampa and the community welcomed me very warmly. Especially one Lori Brody. Apparently, she’s my #1 fan. I had the privilege of Lori introducing me at the event at Congregation Beth Am. She regaled the audience with stories of how much she enjoys watching my YouTube videos and reading my blog (who knows what kind of time-space continuum I’ve altered by actually mentioning her in such a meta way on this very blog -- Hi Lori!).
Returned back to Atlanta this morning and now getting back to work at my day job. No more traveling for a few weeks so it’ll be nice to actually sleep in my own bed tonight and not wonder what city I’m in. Reminds me of my church-hopping days...
The Marcus Jewish Community Center threw a book launch party for ‘My Jesus Year’ yesterday. We had a lot of fun. About 150 people attended the event which was set up like “Inside the Actor’s Studio” with me being interviewed by my good friend and local radio personality Jimmy Baron. Below are two video clips from yesterday’s shinding:
Now I’m off to Tampa where I’ll be speaking tonight...
This morning, my aunt and uncle (who’s the president of the St. Louis chapter of the American Jewish Congress) hosted a small breakfast for me at his office for some of his board members and friends (including a member of the Supreme Court of Missouri) and gave me the chance to talk about my book with them.
Then we went to the Jewish Community Center for the main event -- a one-hour speech to a crowd of about 125 about all things Jesus. The audience enjoyed the talk (I hope) and asked a lot of interesting questions at the end, which was followed by a book signing.
Now back to Atlanta where I’ll be on Good Day Atlanta at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning...
Books on display in the conference room
My St. Louis family
At the book festival
I arrived at baggage claim to find one of those guys holding up a sign with my name on it. Ah, the joys of being a quasi-VIP for the day. He kept calling himself “my driver” and referring to me as “Mr. Cohen” and hoping the ride to the hotel would be “satisfactory to my liking.” It was all pretty surreal.
At the hotel, I was promptly informed that they had accidentally overbooked the hotel. So Olympian Shaun “The Flying Tomato” White and I (we were both stuck in the same situation) walked across the street and got rooms at the Luxe Hotel.
Got about four hours of sleep and in the morning met my aunt, uncle, and cousin for breakfast at Delice Bistro, an amazing kosher French eatery in LA. I had the super-tasty hash brown pastrami in case anyone’s interested.
At the “Celebration of Jewish Books” on the campus of American Jewish University, I hung out with Joel Stein, Adam Mansbach, Matthue Roth, Simcha Weinstein, Brad Greenberg (aka Bizarro Me), and even uber hipster Jewish author Jonathan Safran Foer. It was like a meeting of the boys club of the Jewish Literatti.
I was on a memoir panel with Mort Zachter, David Matthews, and Jessica Queller. Afterward, we all signed books for festival-goers (as well as for each other), then it was back to the airport where I just happen to run into Ron Wolfson, the head of Synagogue 3000, who is mentioned in my book.
As I write this, I just landed in St. Louis for the second leg of the book tour. More tomorrow...
Olympian Shaun White
Me and Cousin Jonny
Uncle Michael and Aunt Sherry
Delice’s hash brown pastrami
Books on display at the festival
At the end of my CNN interview early Sunday morning, I jokingly mentioned that I had to get to church. That was actually true. After CNN, I spoke to about 200 Episcopalians at the All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta. Above is a clip of some highlights from the talk. I’ll post more parts of the 45-minute speech in a later post. In the meantime, enjoy.
My first TV gig was a smooth experience. CNN sent a car to pick me up from my house. Got to the studio 15 minutes later, was in and out of makeup in five minutes, and was on set with plenty of time to spare. Got to chat a bit with the anchor, TJ Holmes, during commercial breaks leading up to our segment. He’s a cool, laid back guy. And the producers wired me up with a mic, earpiece, and enough confidence boosting to make me not too nervous. Before I knew it, the taping was over, the car took me back home, and I was in my living room watching a Tivo’d recording of the interview just an hour after I left my house. All said, it was a productive hour.
10/26: All Saints Episcopal Church
12/6: Young Israel of Toco Hills, Atlanta
12/9: Atlanta Press Club Holiday Author Party, Georgia Aquarium
12/14: Temple Adath Yeshurun, Syracuse, NY
4/22: Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta luncheon
Also, my Friday night speaking engagement at the Manhattan Jewish Experience on 12/19 has officially been moved a week earlier to 12/12.
And we’re still adding more events. You can see a complete listing on the events page.
I’ll be talking about ‘My Jesus Year’ at the All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta this Sunday morning. I’ll be speaking around 10:15 for about 45 minutes between their early service and their later service. Should be a lot of fun. I’m sure I’ll tell them about my year-long journey into Christendom, but I’ll also likely tell some funny stories about what’s it like to be an Orthodox Jew ... like the fact that I’ve been living in hut for the past week.
Finding Judaism in the Bible Belt?
Jewish Book Fest author pens hilarious, compelling memoir
St. Louis Jewish Light
By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus
In his fascinating book, My Jesus Year, Benyamin Cohen, the Atlanta-born son of an Orthodox rabbi, who married a Protestant minister’s daughter who had converted to Judaism, describes his year-long plunge into an in-depth exploration of the beliefs and practices of Christianity.
Cohen shares his journey with remarkable candor and considerable humor, and makes it clear that he was not considering coverting to Christianity in his quest, but to “seek universal answers and common truths about the way people experience faith in America.” At the conclusion of his exploration of a sister faith, Cohen’s own commitment to Judaism had been sharpened and deepened.
Cohen will be a featured author-speaker at the upcoming 2008 St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, appearing at 1 p.m., Monday, Nov. 10, at the Jewish Community Center for what is billed as “a hilarious and inspirational exploration of identity, religion and interfaith relations.”
The description rings true for the reader, with whom Cohen shares not only his observations on such events as being plunged into the midst of a mosh-pit at a Christian rock festival; attending an Ultimate Christian Wrestling match and hanging out with two princes of the polygamous African Hebrew Israelite Community, but also a stream-of-consciousness retelling of his innermost thoughts and memories, including youthful crushes and the songs which provided the soundtrack for his formative years.
In title, format and structure, Cohen’s My Jesus Year invites comparison to another memoir, The Year of Living Biblically, by A. J. Jacobs, himself a previous featured author at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. Jacobs spent a year attempting to fulfill as many of the 613 mitzvot enumerated in the Torah as he could, including “stoning an alduterer,” which he accomplished by tossing some pebbles at a confessed philanderer in a public park.
Jacobs himself has praised Cohen’s book in a blurb on its dust jacket: “(My Jesus Year) is a witty memoir that should appeal to Christians and Jews alike (as well as Wiccans, Jains and Bahais, for that matter).”
Jacobs is right, of course. Too few Jews and Christians have any substantive knowledge of the similarities and differences between the two monotheistic religions and even fewer have any meaningful knowledge of Islam.
Too much of what passes for “interfaith dialogue” consists of mouthing safe platitudes about brotherhood and sisterhood, and people talking past each other when it comes to a true understanding of religious similarities and differences.
Cohen’s book, like a handful of others, provides considerable useful information about the tenets of both Judaism and Christianity, and the book has potential as a discussion-group focus for a true and respectful exploration of the two faiths.
Several decades ago, the late and esteemed Rabbi Ferdinand M. Isserman of Temple Israel delivered and later published a sermon called “The Jewish Jesus and the Christian Christ,” which to this day provides clear and concise explanations of the Jewish origins of Jesus of Nazareth, and how many of the beliefs of Jesus and his followers were directly adapted from the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call “The Old Testament.”
Similarly, in The Misunderstood Jew, Amy-Jill Levine, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University, who was a visiting scholar at Traditional Congregation last year, published an in-depth exploration of the Jewish background of Jesus which has “prompted much-needed conversation and debate about how Christians and Jews should understand Jesus, the Gospels, the New Testament, and each other.”
Still other books, like Christ Killers: The Jews and The Passion From the Bible to the Big Screen, by Jeremy Cohen, a professor and three-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award, are designed to refute anti-Semitic canards against Judaism that result from anti-Jewish versions of the Passion Play and its depiction in the controversial Mel Gibson Film The Passion of the Christ.
Benyamin Cohen’s book, in contrast to Rabbi Isserman’s clear and concise pamphlet, which can still be obtained at the Temple Israel gift shop, free of charge, and to the scholarly works by Amy Jill-Levine, Jeremy Cohen and others, is much more “here and now” and frankly laugh-out-loud funny.
The author describes his various adventures, which include: his feelings being among a group of 15,000 spirit-filled African-Americans at a mega-church service, where he ends up seeing “my Jewish face 20 feet tall on Jesus’s JumboTron”; posing as a Roman Catholic in order to attend confession, where he receives valuable advice about his boring approach to prayer and feelings of guilt for hiding his true identity; and trying to “embrace the Christmas spirit” at a tree-lighting service at a Presbyterian church, and attending midnight mass at an Episcopal church.
Cohen also writes of attending the largest Jewish service on any U.S. military base, which is made up of mostly non-Jews. He attends a sunrise Easter service at Stone Mountain, a theme park which memorializes the Confederacy, and which was the birthplace of 20th century version of the Ku Klux Klan.
Cohen, who says he is descended from a Jewish family of “rabbinic rock stars,” manages to resist the seductive pull of the warm embrace provided at Christian gatherings which has caused some Jews to “go over” and become “Jews for Jesus” or to fully convert to Christianity.
He describes the theme underlying his yearlong quest is that “many paths lead to the Almighty,” and that “No one holds the copyright on a connection with God. Not the Catholics, not the Episcopalians, not the Baptists and not the Jews.”
He adds: “The gestalt of religious practice in America is simply this: between the Buddhists and Baptists, the Muslims and the Mormons, the pagans and Pentacostals, I found more similarities than differences.”
At the end of his adventure-filled year, Cohen says that his experiences taught him to appreciate his Jewish faith more deeply. In the end, Cohen says he finds his way to being “the Jew I always knew I could be, one who’s jazzed about his Judaism. I found a renewed connection to my faith, and I had Jesus to thank for it.”
As the reader shares Benyamin Cohen’s “Jesus Year,” one cannot help being infused with the good humor and enthusiasm which carried him along his winding path back to a deeper commitment to his own faith, based on his full exploration of another religion.
Link to the original article: http://www.stljewishlight.com/news/306650595410874.php
Last week I had the pleasure of being on the “Busted Halo” show on the Catholic Channel on Sirius Satellite Radio. I’ve got to admit, it was by far my favorite interview (and by that I mean I didn’t screw up at all). It’s actually a pretty cool show ... picture a morning drive time show with a host and sidekicks (except the host is a priest and one of the sidekicks is a guilt-ridden Jew) and you’ll get the idea. It’s a fun show and I hope they invite me back. In the meantime, below is the audio from the show. Sit back, listen, enjoy, and post your thoughts in the comments section below.
“My Jesus Year” Launch Party
featuring Jimmy Baron as the Master of Ceremonies
Manhattan Jewish Experience
Friday night dinner event
Register for the event here.
For more info...
New dates are constantly being added to the book tour. For a comprehensive listing of all the events planned so far, please visit the events page.