In 2008, Benyamin Cohen won the Georgia Author of the Year Award for the hardcover edition of “My Jesus Year.” The book was also selected by Publisher’s Weekly as a Best Book of the Year. The Atlanta-born son of an Orthodox rabbi—the scion of a clan of “rabbinic rock stars”—Benyamin Cohen embarked on a series of adventures in a year-long exploration of Christianity and found his Jewish faith revitalized as a result. Married to a minister’s daughter who had converted to Judaism, Cohen himself wasn’t looking to convert. Rather, he sought universal answers and common truths about the way people experience faith in America. His search landed him in the midst of a mosh-pit at a Christian rock festival and among a sea of 15,000 spirit-filled African-Americans at a megachurch service, where he ended up seeing “my Jewish face 20 feet tall on Jesus’s JumboTron.”
Cohen says his adventures—and misadventures—“cross-pollinating” among people of faiths different than his own were a life-altering experience that taught him to appreciate his faith more deeply. In the end, Cohen found 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.”
Getting High on the High Holiday – an excerpt from “My Jesus Year.”
And Moses declared the appointed festivals of God to the children of Israel.
I have a red-and-green Starbucks coffee mug with Christmas decorations drawn on it along with the phrase “It only happens once a year.” I’m not really sure what that slogan means. Elizabeth thinks it refers to the special Starbucks holiday flavors—the pumpkin spice latte, the gingerbread latte, the Tazo chai eggnog latte, and the popular peppermint mocha—which are only sold during the Christmas season. My guess is it has to do with Starbucks’ attempt to pull on people’s heartstrings, reminding them ever so cleverly that the holidays they love and the traditions they cherish only happen once a year. So embrace them. Enjoy them. And have some smooth Arabica coffee while you’re at it.
If only I shared such similar sentiments for the season of Jewish festivals known as the High Holidays. Held each fall, they are something that in years past I rarely looked forward to. For me, thank God, they only happen once a year.
Call me a glutton for torture, but Elizabeth and I belong to two synagogues, both just a few blocks from each other. They each have slightly different ideological bents (You love Israel? We love Israel), both of which speak to us on certain levels. So we’ve decided, like many in our community, to support them both. Which means that come the High Holidays, they each ask us to pay for tickets. In addition to their annual membership fees, which often exceed a thousand dollars, synagogues ask that their members pay for High Holiday admission. Just think of asking for God’s mercy as a premium service.
Both requests came in the mail today. I tossed them both aside. I just can’t go another holiday season pretending to enjoy these services. They’re crowded (one synagogue actually holds the services in a nearby gymnasium), they’re hot (which is not good considering Jews are forbidden to shower during the holidays), and they’re long. All in all, it doesn’t add up to a conducive environment for conversing with God.
The Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Day of Judgment, also known as the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which usually occur near the end of September or beginning of October, are the two festivals that even the least observant Jews celebrate. It’s the Oscar season of Jewish festivals. Collectively known as the High Holidays, these two days are the holiest days on the Jewish calendar. Even the Jews who eat pork and intermarry 363 days of the year muster up the strength and fortitude to proudly proclaim their Jewishness and spend those days immersed in prayer at synagogue.
But not me. No, the guy who was born into a rabbinic superfamily and has said a blessing on everything he has eaten since the day he learned how to speak wants nothing to do with these holidays. Indeed, my favorite day of the year is the day after Yom Kippur.
In general, Jewish holidays can usually be boiled down to one simple formula: Somebody tried to kill us, God intervened, now let’s eat. Although being divinely rescued from a death sentence is certainly something to celebrate, it doesn’t carry the inherent festive mood of a day originally intended as a joyous occasion, like, just as an example, the birth or resurrection of a Savior.
The High Holidays, in particular, are very solemn days. It is on these days that Jews believe God determines our fate for the coming year. Will we be inscribed in the Book of Life or sealed in the Book of Death? At synagogue, we don a special white robe on these holy days so that we can approach God and beseech His mercy with a pure spirit. It is telling, though, that this is the very same white robe that dresses those from our religion when they lay in their coffins. It’s as if God is telling us, Be careful. You’re already on thin ice. You’re already dressed for your funeral. All I need to do is close the casket. Indeed, these are heavy—not festive—times.
Yom Kippur is a Sabbath on steroids. It goes a little something like this. The night before, we stop eating a half hour before sunset. And that includes water. In fact, we won’t be able to put anything in our mouths until the following night. That includes toothpaste, mouthwash, and Tic Tacs (although, technically, Tic Tacs are always forbidden since the gelatin in them renders them unkosher). We’re dressed to the nines—except for our feet. We can’t wear leather shoes because it’s apparently not the best idea to proudly wear a dead animal on our feet when we’re asking God for mercy. So you see men in fancy suits walking to synagogue in Chuck Taylor canvas high-tops. Or plastic sandals. Or just their socks. You get the point. It looks odd, to say the least.
So we head off to synagogue that night in formal wear and flip-flops and pray for at least two hours. We walk home (like the weekly Sabbath, we don’t drive) and catch some shut-eye. We wake up, can’t take a shower, can’t even put on deodorant (all part of the laws meant to make us suffer during this holy day), and saunter off to synagogue again. And that’s where we stay the entire day. Most synagogues’ Yom Kippur service starts early in the morning and doesn’t end until nightfall. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
But this is only the beginning. The High Holidays mark the beginning of an entire month of Jewish festivals, ones that require us to be even more different than we already are. I don’t like being different.
Take, for example, the festival of Sukkot. This is an eight-day holiday that begins a week after Yom Kippur. In commemoration of the booths the Jewish people inhabited during their time in the desert, during these eight days we are required to move out of our house and live in a hut. Indulge me while I repeat that. For eight days, we move out of our house and live in a hut. We eat there. We sleep there. We watch Monday night football in there. And God said to Moses, Let’s go camping.
The difference between the customs of Jewish festivals and those of Christian ones can be summed up like this. Come December, you guys put a Christmas tree in your house. If this were a Jewish tradition, it would turn rather quickly and depressingly into a Talmudic dissertation on forestry. What kind of tree? How tall is it required to be? How many branches does it need to have? Can we outsource the purchasing of the tree or is the commandment itself the actual action of buying said foliage? But I digress.
Nonetheless, I still feel some of our holiday customs take the cake. Most modern-day Americans do not spend a week every year living in an eight-by-twelve-foot hut built on their driveway. Normal American holidays mean turkey. Presents. Garlands. Why couldn’t I just be normal? That’s really all I ever wanted. Can’t a Jew get a little tinsel?
And yet it will never happen. There will be no tinsel in my future. Because I am, for better or for worse, burdened for all eternity by my religion. The yoke of heaven is squarely upon me, and my shoulders are starting to get sore.
Thank God, it only happens once a year.
Note: Benyamin Cohen is among the many authors at this year’s Decatur Book Festival. He will be appearing at the First Baptist Decatur Carreker Hall Stage, Sunday, 1:15 pm – 2:00 pm. Reprinted from My Jesus Year by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. The paperback goes on sale this week.
Take a look at Benyamin’s YouTube…