Living on a chicken farm in rural West Virginia.
Neither are places you’d expect to find the modern Orthodox son of a modern Orthodox rabbi. But…
Enter Benyamin Cohen, 48, the aforementioned stereotype breaker, who has been there and done that.
Ostensibly, the reason we Zoom is to discuss his latest project, “The Einstein Effect: How the World’s Favorite Genius Got Into Our Cars, Our Bathrooms, and Our Minds.” It’s a fun, fascinating and freewheeling account of the lasting impact Einstein has had on our lives.
But frankly, I’m just as interested in the fun, fascinating, and freewheeling life of Benyamin Cohen. He grew up in Atlanta, where his father was the principal of a modern Orthodox high school and ran a small shul out of their home. He has three brothers, all of whom are rabbis, and two sisters, one of whom married a rabbi. Benyamin, on the other hand, chose a more secular path, journalism. Largely Jewish journalism — he’s now the news director at the Forward — but secular nonetheless.
About 15 years ago, Mr. Cohen had a genius idea, which resulted in his earlier book: “My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith.”
“I believed beforehand and most certainly afterwards that there is a lot the Jewish people can learn from churches,” Mr. Cohen said. “I’m not talking about bringing Jesus in, but I am talking about the fact that they have great music. They do a really great job of marketing their services to newcomers. They do a great job welcoming new members.
“The sermons are more interesting, right?
“They do a better job of raising money, I think. There are all these kinds of ancillary things that I took as my lesson to bring back to Judaism.
Mr. Cohen scheduled some Sundays in church in advance; he visited others cold turkey. “They were all basically very welcoming,” he said. “You know, they were more interested in me than I was in them. In many instances, they asked me questions about Jews. ‘Oh, we’ve never met a Jew before. Tell us about this or that.’ I said, ‘I’m sure you’ve met us before. I’m sure you have an accountant or a doctor.’
“So I think they looked at it as a learning opportunity. Some of them did try to convert me, but you know that was in the minority.”
“The most important thing I learned personally was that before I wrote the book, I belonged to a synagogue that had several hundred members, I would go there Saturday morning, and I felt I was just one person in a big sea of people. I didn’t feel a spiritual connection.
“One of the churches I went to during this year was a small Episcopal church that had like 20 people at a small service. It was like the most spiritual experience I had the whole year. It inspired me after I finished the book to move to a smaller synagogue that also only had like 20 people on a Saturday morning.”
Going from a large shul to a smaller congregation was nothing compared to his next adjustment. His wife, Elizabeth, received a tenured professorship in the department of communication studies — “she studies what us journalists do,” Mr. Cohen explained — at the University of West Virginia.
“It was a big adjustment for both of us,” he said. “We were both born and raised in Atlanta. We spent our entire lives there and were very enmeshed in the local Jewish community.
“I was friends with people who were at my bris, my bar mitzvah, and my wedding. I hadn’t moved out of that ZIP code my entire life.
“So it was a huge difference going from a big city to a very rural place, a big change. Between me and the Chabad rabbi, we need like eight more people for a minyan.
“But I am extremely happy,” he continued. “It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in my entire life. I used to be on blood pressure medicine when I lived in Atlanta, but when we moved here and I started taking walks in nature, I didn’t have to take the blood pressure medicine anymore.”
And then there are the chickens. There are 23 of them. Individually, they are named after NPR personalities, like Nina Totenberg and Terry Gross. Collectively he calls them his Co-hens.
(And, yes, I was a bit disappointed when I asked if his Co-hens lay-vied eggs and I didn’t get a laugh. But I was far too deep into the interview to quit.)
Mr. Cohen gets up at 5 a.m. every weekday morning to prepare the Forward’s daily newsletter, and he then proceeds to his second job, as Albert Einstein. Mr. Cohen manages the many social media accounts of the long-dead Nobel laureate (and New Jersey resident, from 1933 until his death in 1955).
Every day, Mr. Cohen reaches out to Einstein’s millions of followers — 20 million on Facebook alone. It is a responsibility he takes very seriously. For all those fans, “I am Albert Einstein.”
The Hebrew University in Israel owns the rights to the Einstein name and its social media accounts. “They had a part-timer working on it,” Mr. Cohen said. “What happened was I was writing a lot of articles about Einstein, because I am just super fascinated by him. I would send every article to them and they’d post it, and that would get a lot of traffic to the article.”
When the part-time Einstein left, Mr. Cohen was the logical person to take over. “I’m posting 10 times a day to Einstein’s social media accounts, and I’m starting to see a pattern,” he said. “Einstein is just as relevant today, if not more than ever. You don’t see that with Galileo or Shakespeare, or any of these other people, but Einstein is still part of the zeitgeist.
“I started seeing all these stories, and I’m like, why don’t I put them together? I call it my unified theory of Albert. His fingerprints are on so many parts of our lives.
“So I slowly started gathering these stories, and that’s how the book slowly came together.”
The book covers the science, of course. How GPS, iPhone cameras, remote controls are all outgrowths of the genius’s groundbreaking work. He interviews a Harvard scientist who, like Einstein, believes that there is life out there. He talks to Mandy Patinkin, who joined the International Rescue Committee, founded by Einstein. He interviews people named Einstein; some are distant relatives, and most feel the name is a blessing.
And Mr. Cohen wisely recognized that his book would be incomplete if he didn’t interview the Australian actor Yahoo Serious, who played Albert in the 1988 cult film “Young Einstein.”
Mr. Cohen has a really nice, light touch, and he turns what might have been a potentially boring science treatise into a really fun read. And I say that even though he doesn’t understand that Co-hens lay-vie eggs.