Benyamin Cohen doesn't remember his circumcision. He was only eight days old. But he still feels the indelible scar left by that single slice.
"The ceremony involved a scalpel, a lot of pain, and an emotional dent that would leave me reeling for years to come," Cohen writes in his memoir, My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith. "This is how I was introduced to religion."
The Cohanim are religious royalty in Judaism: their place in the rabbinate stretches from God's first priest, Aaron, to Cohen's father. Against expectations, however, Benyamin chose a career in journalism, not Jewish spiritual life.
By most measures, Cohen, the founding editor of American Jewish Life magazine, remained a super-Jew. But over time, Orthodox Jewish observance began to feel stale; attending synagogue daily and saying blessings for business as mundane as using the restroom suffocated his spirituality.
So the lifelong Atlantan went looking for Jesus.
Cohen wasn't looking to convert. In fact, his wife, whose father was a Methodist minister, had done the opposite, converting to Judaism before they married. But he wanted to know what all the fuss was about, why so many Christians, particularly evangelicals in the megachurches dotting his hometown, were so jazzed for Jesus.
In the spirit of Mark I. Pinsky's A Jew among the Evangelicals and A. J. Jacobs's The Year of Living Biblically, Cohen set out to be a stranger in a stranger land. Over the course of 52 weeks, Cohen, wearing a yarmulke and his press credentials, attends a Pentecostal revival where cancer is cured and the pastor prays for miracles in the form of gold teeth fillings; goes all out celebrating Christmas and Easter; appears on "Jesus' JumboTron" at an African American megachurch; takes Communion; and enters a Catholic confessional.
His Jesus journey left him "feeling born-again" — as a Jew.
"I'm getting a fresh start and being reborn," he writes. "At the Georgia Dome, among forty thousand Christians, on Easter, the day of resurrection."
I had anticipated reading Cohen's memoir since learning of it in the spring. I saw in its premise, and in Cohen's portrait, a mirror image of myself. Bizarro Brad, if you will.
Borrowing a characteristically short phrase that Cohen repeats throughout his book: Let me explain.
Both my grandmothers were Jewish. So too was my paternal grandfather, from whom the name Greenberg comes. But my mom was confirmed Catholic and my dad never became bar mitzvahed. When I was young, my parents met at Protestantism, and I continue today to be a God-fearing, church-going Christian.
Last year, though, I joined The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, making the move from the Los Angeles Daily News with an impetus as personal as it was professional.
I had been fascinated since becoming a religion reporter a few years before with understanding my split identity: To the outside world, I was Jewish, but to anybody who knew me, I was Christian. I thought working in the Jewish community would help me sort myself out.
"Be careful, man," a Daily News colleague told me. "That community will change you more than you'll change them."
I considered that an unfair warning. For one thing, I wasn't looking to change anyone but myself. I'm not with Jews for Jesus; I've never felt called to evangelize Jacob's children in particular. As a Christian, I would like to see the whole world come to a saving knowledge of Jesus, but evangelism wasn't the job for which I was hired, and I considered using my employment to do so as professionally indefensible.
Instead, I saw the new gig as an opportunity to grow culturally as a Jew while strengthening my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. I did this mostly in subtle ways: reporting on Christian Zionists and their close relationship with Jews, immersing myself in Jewish culture and history and learning to see the world through that lens, walking the Holy Land, watching Jon Stewart.
I took a big step this fall when, for the first time, I attended services on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest 25 hours on the Jewish calendar.
At the evening service, there was no mention of the Messiah, but the sermon was filled with godly exhortations and calls to holiness. I found myself surprisingly comfortable in this room full of people who considered my Savior about as believable as Santa, worshiping, in an ancient language, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.
Cohen's experiences were certainly different from mine, but the life lesson — that there is a lot Christians and Jews can learn about themselves from the other — was the same.
What's missing from Cohen's tale is any sort of transformative experience. Where evangelicals see a personal relationship with Jesus as more important than any degree of religious observance, Cohen sees valuable lessons for making Judaism more inspiring.
In the final pages of his memoir, Cohen thanks Jesus for changing his life. But this is no Damascus revelation. Cohen has not become a believer in Christ. Instead, he believes he has discovered in Christianity values that he sees as transcending religion. He doesn't conclude that Jesus was just a good teacher or a great philosopher. Instead, Cohen says, the way people worship Jesus opened for him new channels to communicate and connect with the God of Creation.
"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."
But this is not the gospel. Cohen remains a reporter throughout his memoir. In fact, the only way he could get an Orthodox rabbi's kosher stamp of approval was if he wore a press pass and yarmulke at all times. And there's a big difference between spending a year with Christians and spending a year with Jesus.
Brad A. Greenberg, senior writer at The Jewish Journal, blogs at TheGodBlog.org.
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My Jesus Year is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Cohen's My Jesus Year website has a blog, excerpt, and other information about the book.
Mark Kellner reviewed Mark I. Pinsky's A Jew among the Evangelicals in December 2006.