Every once and awhile a book concept hooks you in the first sentence. Such was the case with Benyamin Cohen‘s My Jesus Year. “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.” Next month the book will be released in paperback. With that in mind, I recently email interviewed him. My thanks to Cohen for his time and to Kelly Hughes of DeChant-Hughes & Assoc Inc. for arranging it.
Tim O’Shea: What was the hardest part of the journey for you, both in terms of the actual experience and/or writing about it?
Benyamin Cohen: The hardest part of the journey for me was when I went to Confession: The entire year, wherever I went, I let people know I was Jewish. But at Confession, since technically only Catholics are allowed, I had to pretend to be someone else. And I’m not an actor. The other hard part about Confession was that it was an audience of one. At all the other churches, I could sit in the back and be a fly on the wall, watching what was going on and taking notes. But in the confines of the Confession booth, it was just me and the priest. Scary stuff.
O’Shea: Has your family read the book–and if so, what has been the reaction in general to it and your experience?
Cohen: Yes, my family has read — and enjoyed — the book. When I first started the journey, they were all a bit skeptical. And I guess that was to be expected. But once they saw that I was doing this pilgrimage as a means to become more jazzed about my own Judaism, then they were very supportive. My dad, the rabbi, even introduced me at one of my recent speeches. It was a nice moment.
O’Shea: How much did it help when USA Today picked your book as one of the “8 books to help rekindle the Hanukkah spirit”?
Cohen: Any PR is good PR, but this brought some great mainstream attention to the book. The USA Today article actually led to the book being mentioned on ‘Good Morning America’. I’ve got no complaints with that.
O’Shea: Have you heard from some rabbis or other spiritual leaders interested in using your book in classes they teach?
Cohen: That’s an excellent question. I’ve spoken at several synagogues about what I’ve learned and they’ve been very appreciative — although not all of them have followed through with even some of the simple changes I suggested. That being said, I’ve actually been invited to speak to a group of rabbinical students in New York about transforming the synagogue experience. I’m looking forward to the presentation.
O’Shea: You were warmly welcomed by all the churches you visited, it seemed. Since the book’s been published have you heard from any of the churches?
Cohen: Yeah … I was even treated like a rock star at a few. I’ve heard from many of the churches and have been invited to speak at them now that I’m on tour. It’s all come full circle. Here’s an interesting story: Ever since I “tricked” the priest at Confession (by pretending to be Catholic), I’ve felt really guilty about fooling a man of the cloth. But I’ve come to find out that the priest has read the book, loves it, and has given it as gifts to some of his congregants. Hearing that made my day.
O’Shea: In promoting the book you had a rather interesting encounter with Stephen Baldwin, but I’m wondering if there were any other encounters in the green room that surprised you.
Cohen: Yep, that Stephen Baldwin incident was pretty bizarre. (You can read more about it here).
O’Shea: I’m an Atlanta native like yourself, so when you mentioned your journalistic mentor Vincent Coppola–that byline rang a bell for me. How would you say Coppola influenced your journalistic approach/philosophy?
Cohen: I met Vince about 10 years ago when we both worked at the Atlanta Jewish Times. To my knowledge, he was the first and only Catholic editor of the paper. Vince, who has written several books and used to be a Newsweek correspondent, has a certain writing style that appealed to me. He taught me how to write a 2,000-word article on a story that could be boiled down to 500 words. Meaning, there are two ways to write every story — a short version which is just the facts and a longer version which is embellished by inserting yourself into the story, pontificating on the psychology of the experience, and adding visual details that really enhance the storytelling. He empowered me when I was just an up-and-coming journalist and, to this day, I am eternally grateful. I’m honored to consider him my mentor and fortunate that we stay in touch on a regular basis.
O’Shea: Given that this book is, while humorous, is also an examination of your spiritual journey–was there ever a point where you felt it got to painful and you hesitated to pursue this as a book?
Cohen: There was certainly times when I was staring at a blank screen with writer’s block, unsure of what the next sentence would be. It was painful at times, but in the end proved to be a very cathartic experience for me.
O’Shea: At book signings or elsewhere have you had anyone confide that your book helped them on their spiritual journey?
Cohen: Absolutely. At almost every event I’ve done, people of all faiths come up and tell me how much they related to the book and how much it inspired them. It’s mind-boggling because, for me, this book was really a love letter to Christians, to show them how much they made me a more spiritual person. So to have a Christian tell me that I was able to inspire them means the world to me.
O’Shea: ere there any stories you had to edit out for space?
Cohen: Ha … good question. The book was actually nearly a 100 pages longer when I turned it in. Thankfully, I had a smart editor who helped shave off the excess fat and made it a more marketable book under 300 pages.
For more info, readers can visit www.myjesusyear.com