12.24.08

Jesus Made Me a Better Jew

Admitting I'm a Christmas crackhead is the first step on my road to recovery. Just don't tell my dad—the rabbi.

Most likely, I’m going to hell. Not just to the heated nether regions where rank and file thieves, crooks, and Republicans hang out. If only I was so lucky. Instead, I’ll be bypassing the guest entrance to the devil’s playground and be sent, first-class, through the VIP ropes to where Beelzebub and his sidekick Andy Dick hang out.

The story of my sin is riddled with guilt, regret, and the occasional Communion wafer. But I feel a confession is in order.

I went Episcopalian, tried out Catholicism, and spoke in tongues with the Pentecostals. I broke from the tradition of my biblical ancestors —Abraham, Isaac, Joe Lieberman.

I’m an addict and they say the first step on the road to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. So here goes: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a Christmas crackhead. I’ve got a Santa fetish that is bordering dangerously close to Fatal Attraction levels. But, alas, I come with a little extra baggage.

You see, I’m a rabbi’s son. Not just any rabbi’s son, but the rabbi’s son. Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. I took everything you taught me, flushed it down the toilet, and bought a pine fir hoping it would bring me spiritual nourishment. Wait, it gets better. I married the daughter of a former Methodist minister and spent the past year gallivanting through 52 different churches. Move over, Andy Dick.

I had become the proverbial apathetic man of faith. I went through the ritual motions of an Orthodox Jew, but was lacking one key ingredient: spirituality. I’m not alone. Most American Jews do not even attend synagogue on a regular basis. But church parking lots, especially where I live in the Bible Belt, are packed each Sunday. What were they doing in there that was so much fun? Maybe I could go – just once – and tap into that spirituality. Be inspired, get jazzed about my Judaism, and then hightail it out of there. Maybe hanging out with Jesus would make me a better Jew.

For years I had looked longingly at the church across the street from my childhood home, its pristine landscape looming just outside my bedroom window -- my snake, my apple, my Garden of Eden, all wrapped into one. While I was tied down by the myriad restrictions delivered by God and my almighty father (keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, the whole megillah), I assumed my Christian counterparts led an easier life, one not choked by the yoke of faith. What’s more, Judaism’s deed over creed theology and dirge-like prayer services were blocking that ray of sunshine from the religion across the street.

That festering jealousy and religious bi-curiosity brought me to the door of my first church last year. I figured I could handle it. Just once, I justified. And besides, I could stop whenever I wanted to. (You know, like Obama and his smoking habit.) The first temptation, a large Baptist megachurch with 15,000 members, certainly lived up to the hype in my head. Like an addict getting his first whiff of a potent new drug, I needed more. And so I went Episcopalian, tried out Catholicism, and spoke in tongues with the Pentecostals. I broke from the tradition of my biblical ancestors – Abraham, Isaac, Joe Lieberman.

A full-blown addict, last December arrived and I was knee-deep in Jesus. I gave in to my primal impulses and went to a showing of The Nutcracker. I don’t even like ballet, but I was hooked from the first pirouette. The pageantry continued when I attended the tree-lighting service at a nearby Presbyterian church. After a few opening songs, we broke up into small groups and hung wreaths and garlands and tinsel (oh my).

I would go on to celebrate all twelve nights. With Dasher. And Dancer. I watched Home Alone. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Miracle on 34th Street. Ben Affleck in Surviving Christmas. Ben Affleck in Dogma. Ben Affleck in Reindeer Games. Unlike veterans of Christmas past, I celebrated the holiday as if it were going out of style.

And then, without warning, my seasonal disorder came crashing down on me. On the morning after Christmas, I sat slouched on my couch with a half-drunk cup of eggnog in one hand and a kosher gingerbread cookie in the other. I was suffering from a Christmas hangover.

My house had become cavernous in this post-Christmas malaise. Hi, my name is Benyamin, and I’m a Christmas crackhead.

I needed detox or rehab or both. I had done all of the things that Christians do at this time of year. I had gone through all the motions, and yet I was left feeling empty inside. Save for the beautiful midnight Mass service I attended, the bulk of my Christmas experience seemed to be nothing more than prepackaged kitsch.

Christmas, marketing gurus and Donny Deutsch will explain, is popular in modern society because it plays perfectly to two vast, but distinct, audiences: religious and nonreligious Christians. For religious Christians, it celebrates nothing less than the birth of their Savior and is one of the holiest nights on the entire calendar. For the nonobservant, Christmas provides a month-long overdose of mass-marketed consumption. Call it Christmas lite. I had celebrated the latter. Hence the holy hangover. “A perpetual holiday,” George Bernard Shaw once said, “is a good working definition of hell.”

But there’s another audience which is left by the wayside: The jealous Jew. The one who wishes that Wal-Mart’s one lonesome Hanukkah shelf – flimsily filled with cheap plastic decorations and random Jewish-themed magnets – would dwarf the multiple aisles of Christmas items the store stocks. On the plus side, I guess it’s good that the population of Jews in America (only 2 percent) is so small. We are not a serious target for mass-marketing efforts. There will never be—much to the chagrin of teenage Jewish girls everywhere—a Ben Affleck Hanukkah heist movie called Maccabee Games. It’s a wonder Hanukkah ever got its own postage stamp.

For me, all the tangible things I had associated with Christmas were just that – things. They were not representative of the inherent nature of the holiday itself. Indeed, I will never know what it feels like to celebrate Christmas like a religious Christian.

But I could celebrate the Jewish holidays and, yet, I had forsaken them. I was riddled with pain, regret and that most perennial of Jewish feelings, guilt. And so I did what any Jew pretending to be a Christian would do: I went to confession.

I told the priest of my unhealthy Christmas addiction, of how I got caught up in the mundane--and not the meaning--of the holiday season. As the words we’re coming out of my mouth, I realized I had made the same mistake with Judaism. I had obsessed over the ritual and ignored the spirituality. Going to church for a year taught me many things and gave me a fresh perspective on my own Judaism. Returning to synagogue, I finally felt at home.

So now I am a recovering addict. I have spent the past year attempting to wean myself off of my Christmas cravings. I still have a long road ahead of me and occasionally, I hate to admit, I get tempted to go back on the wagon -- by the likes of Santa and his freakish Starbucks Gingersnap Latte.

But I am trying.

I grew up with Judaism served to me on a silver platter. Being the son of a rabbi granted me unfettered access to the beauty of my faith. And yet, I rebelled. It took going out of my comfort zone, being a stranger in a strange land, to make me jealous of Judaism. It took a year living as a Christian to wake me into realizing that being Jewish was what’s right for me.

And I have Jesus to thank for that.

Benyamin Cohen is the author of My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith (HarperOne). He can be found at www.myjesusyear.com.