My Jesus YearA Rabbis Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Benyamin Cohen
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780061245176
Son of a Preacher Man
The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents.
There's a story about my birth, and I'm told it's not an apocryphal one. Eight days after I entered this world, the morning of my circumcision, my father and I had our very first bonding experience. Just me and him in the back room of a butcher shop. Allow me to explain. Please.
I was a tiny baby, and our rabbi was unsure if I weighed enough to medically handle a circumcision. My dad, a man who holds multiple graduate degrees, was getting medical advice from our rabbi. That's like getting a chef's opinion on Middle Eastern politics. Or Paris Hilton's thoughts on anything.
Nobody in our neighborhood, the story goes, had a proper scale to weigh a baby. So my dad took me to the butcher.
Early on the morning of my circumcision, in the dark stillness before daybreak, my dad drove me in our family's brown Plymouth Volare to Sam's Kosher Meats and Deli. This was a depressing place. Sam was a cantankerous old man, always yelling at his wife in his thick eastern European accent. The place was in a constant state of disarray. Bad vibes abounded. Don't bring babies here. This is not a manger.
In the back room, deep inside the frigid meat locker, my dad took my little baby body and placed it on the ice-cold metal meat scale. The scale read 5.2 pounds. At least that's what he thought it read. It was 1975, and digital scales wouldn't appear on the scene for years.
For years afterward, members of our tight-knit Jewish community would come up to me, pinch my cheek, and call me "Butcher Boy." At my bar mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage into manhood, someone brought a rubber chicken to the party thinking it was funny. It wasn't.
My dad called the rabbi and woke him up.
"Five point two pounds," he said. "Will that work?"
"Yep," said the rabbi, in a bleary daze. He was surely still half asleep and completely oblivious to what he was agreeing to. And in that moment, my fate was sealed. There was no turning back.
Circumcision is more than just a minor surgical procedure. It is what ties a Jew to his ancestors. It's a remembrance of the covenant between Abraham and God made back in Genesis. The only difference between Abraham and me is that he had a choice. I didn't. At eight days old, I wasn't given a vote. And now I'm stuck with this religion for life.
Hours later, in the company of a couple hundred of our closest friends and family, I officially became a member of my people. The ceremony involved a scalpel, a lot of pain, and an emotional dent that would leave me reeling for years to come.This was how I was introduced to religion. It was forced upon me, beginning in the frigid meat locker of a kosher butcher.
The Cohens are a clan of rabbinic rock stars. My dad's a rabbi, and from the very beginning we were brought up to join him in the family business. Of us six kids only my younger sister and I didn't either become a rabbi or marry one (although, for the record, she does work in Jewish education).
Religion was served to us on a silver platter—whether we wanted it or not. We kept kosher, we observed the Sabbath, we prayed three times a day. No questions asked. These were all givens. I went to a preschool called the Garden of Eden. Except in this kindergarten, sin was not an option.
What's more, as religious as we were growing up, I never actually understood Judaism's fundamentals. After I was circumcised, like a prepackaged product coming off an assembly line, I felt haphazardly heaved into the deep end of the Jewish religious pool with the rest of them.
I tried to rebel at every turn. In preschool, I'll now finally admit, I tasted the sweet nectar of forbidden indulgence by gobbling up nonkosher Nerds candy behind my school building, crumpling its sin-soaked box back into my knapsack just before my carpool ride arrived. My dad once caught me yanking my tzitzit off one hot summer morning when I was about ten. What are tzitzit? you ask. The term literally means "fringes" and refers to the heavy wool garment with string and fringes on its corners that Jewish males are supposed to wear under their clothing at all times. Yes, let's say it together, that's crazy. I know.
In my childish eyes, my dad was someone who treated my siblings and me all the same, trying to raise us all in the same mold—with what appeared to me to be an ironclad fist of religion. With clenched teeth, he told us not to overdose on television, not to talk a lot with those of the opposite sex, and to avoid just about anything else that sounded like fun to a pre-pubescent kid. My brothers and sisters seemed to be fine with the religion we were born into. I, on the other hand, felt it as an unbearable weight upon my shoulders.
The fundamental basis of Judaism is that we're the chosen people. But what if we didn't choose to be chosen?
Don't get me wrong. I still did everything I was told (well, except for the now infamous Nerds candy incident of 1980). To the outside world, I was the rabbi's son, and no one would think otherwise. But a look inside my psyche yielded a different picture—one glossed with a gnawing sense of envy of those who could have what I couldn't. No bacon cheeseburgers. No girlfriends. No Cosby show.
Alas, these were the halcyon days of my childhood. And yet, I wondered: Why was I being denied a typical American upbringing? What had I done to deserve this?