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Book Review: My Jesus Year by Benyamin Cohen (4/5)

21 Nov

I got sucked into a genre I’m calling religious memoirs. If there’s a better name for these books, I haven’t heard it. The first I read was A.J. Jacob’s book The Year of Living Biblically. From there, I read The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose. This one was next on my list and I’ve been looking forward to it for a while. I love memoirs because they let you look through someone else’s eyes for a bit. A chance to look at Christianity through the eyes of a Jew sold me and I’m glad I found a copy of this book on the sale shelf at the library.

Cover image via Goodreads

My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith by Benyamin Cohen

Summary from Goodreads:

One day a Georgia-born son of an Orthodox rabbi discovers that his enthusiasm for Judaism is flagging. He observes the Sabbath, he goes to synagogue, and he even flies to New York on weekends for a series of “speed dates” with nice, eligible Jewish girls. But, something is missing. Looking out of his window and across the street at one of the hundreds of churches in Atlanta, he asks, “What would it be like to be a Christian?”

So begins Benyamin Cohen’s hilarious journey that is My Jesus Year—part memoir, part spiritual quest, and part anthropologist’s mission. Among Cohen’s many adventures (and misadventures), he finds himself in some rather unlikely places: jumping into the mosh-pit at a Christian rock concert, seeing his face projected on the giant JumboTron of an African-American megachurch, visiting a potential convert with two young Mormon missionaries, attending a Christian “professional wrestling” match, and waking up early for a sunrise Easter service on top of Stone Mountain—a Confederate memorial and former base of operations for the KKK.

During his year-long exploration, Cohen sees the best and the worst of Christianity—from megachurches to storefront churches; from crass commercialization of religion to the simple, moving faith of the humble believer; from the profound to the profane to the just plain laughable. Throughout, he keeps an open heart and mind, a good sense of humor, and takes what he learns from Christianity to reflect on his own faith and relationship to God. By year’s end, to Cohen’s surprise, his search for universal answers and truths in the Bible Belt actually make him a better Jew.

Cohen has a great writing voice that really helped me enjoy this book. He doesn’t assume a Jewish or Christian audience for this book which is good because he explains almost everything where needed. He often refers to laws in Judaism and he gives both the Hebrew and English words while explaining the tradition or law. He also doesn’t assume the reader knows about Christianity which I found helpful when he explored denominations different from my own. He was funny without being demeaning, which was a good touch.

Benyamin has only one other consistent character in the book, his wife Elizabeth. He speaks about his father occasionally and touches on his siblings from time to time, but Elizabeth is the only other person who appears regularly. Even so, he doesn’t go into a lot of detail about her, leaving the impression we get one of a loving wife who is tolerating her husband’s travels through Christianity. She’s not discouraging him, but not encouraging either. As someone who’s been a Christian and decided on Orthodox Judaism, she doesn’t’ see the point; she’s already done the reverse journey.

Benyamin made himself very likable. I wondered how much of this was really his personality and how much was good editing. He was observant, polite, and questioning without ever seeming condescending. He seemed open-minded, which someone on his journey would need to be. He seemed to doubt himself a lot, though. He needed someone’s approval, his rabbi, his wife, or God’s, to do almost anything. I felt a bit bad for him. OK, a lot bad for him in parts.

I’m not afraid to say I’ve doubted my faith for a time in the same way Benyamin did. I never considered leaving it, but I wasn’t as strong and convicted as I’ve been at other points. While I didn’t explore other religions, I could relate to the lost feeling Benyamin had. He was looking for the fire and vigor he saw in others and wanted to get it back. I think he had it again before the year was over, but I’m glad he finished his journey.

Benyamin Cohen
Image via From the Grapevine

The story of him dating before he began the journey was one of my favorites. I found it hilarious that he’d fly to New York to look for a wife. That just seemed ridiculous to me and I had to tell my husband so we could shake our heads together. I also liked the Christian Wrestling show. It seemed like such an odd concept but as Benyamin experienced it, I saw how it could be used to call others to God. It wasn’t a traditional ministry, but sometimes the unusual gets people.

I waited the whole book for Cohen to get to my denomination, Catholicism. I guess as a Catholic, I should be offended that he went to confession and didn’t tell the priest he was Jewish. Honestly, I’m not. I think he got more from the experience than many Catholics do. I wish he’d gone into a little more detail about the mass, though. He went into a lot of details about the Baptist and Evangelical services he went to that it was a bit of a let down for me. It was still nice to feel represented, thought!


Cohen says several times that he wants to explore Christianity to make him a better Jew. I feel the same way about reading religious memoirs and books on religious understanding. It helps me to have my faith convictions when I can see why other people have theirs. I understand why what I believe is different from what a coworker or friend believes. Rather than tempting me to convert, it helps reinforce my own beliefs. I don’t know what I’d do if I ran into another religion that made sense to me, the way Elizabeth did. I haven’t come into that situation yet so I don’t know.

I love memoirs that read like a conversation with the author and Cohen did an excellent job of that. I admired how conversational he was about a topic that divides so many people.

This was a really enjoyable book about a topic that I find fascinating. Four out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

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