September 14, 2012
Who is a Jew, anyway?
Perhaps nobody who reads book reviews in The Jewish Journal would ever ask herself or himself, “Am I a Jew?” Perhaps the act of reading The Jewish Journal answers the question. After all, would somebody unsure of her or his Judaism seek out such a publication? On the other hand, maybe seekers are attracted to The Jewish Journal looking for clues, if not definitive answers.
Probably even sophisticated demographics available to the publisher of The Jewish Journal cannot reveal definitively what percentage of the readers are devout and what percentage are uncertain about their religious identity.
The conundrum I have posed in those opening sentences reflects the book being reviewed here, “Am I a Jew? Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself” by Theodore Ross (Hudson Street Press, $25.95).
Theodore Ross, a journalist in Brooklyn, N.Y., is unsure at the beginning of the book whether he considers himself Jewish. Spoiler alert: By the end of the book, Ross is still uncertain. Perhaps the value is in the quest, because the question is ultimately unanswerable for lots and lots of spiritual folks with at least a tad of Jewish heritage.
Ross is a writer comfortable with humor, much of it grounded in self-deprecation. Writing effective humor is a rare gift. Devout Jews might not appreciate the author’s light touch, as when he shares what he calls an “old joke, which goes “The history of Judaism can be summed up in nine words: They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”
Deep in his brain, though, Ross knows the answer to the question raised by the title matters—maybe to the point of life or death. As he notes in a telling sentence, the title question might sound silly, “except millions have lost their lives depending on their response.” That is an obvious allusion to Nazi Germany, but its meaning goes way beyond two or three decades of recent European history.
So, who is this guy Ross (apparently born Theodore Rosenzweig), an author who dares write a book that some readers will surely find unforgivably irreverent? Well, let’s listen to him, in the opening paragraph of the book:
“I was nine years old when my mother forced me to convert to Christianity. We had just moved from New York City to a small [Mississippi] town whose local hospital had recruited her to open a medical practice. My new faith was a ruse—I never formally converted—but if anyone asked, I was instructed by my mother to say I was Unitarian. She also required me to keep these sectarian machinations secret from my father, who was still in New York and who would have filed a court order demanding custody if he had the slightest notion of what she was up to…For the years of my childhood in Mississippi, I lived a minor sort of double life: fake Christian in Mississippi and secular Jew in Manhattan, where I returned for holidays and summer break.”
To an extent, Ross in retrospect defends his mother’s subterfuge, noting her perhaps legitimate concern that a Mississippi town “would reject a divorced, Yankee, female doctor who was also Jewish.”
As the Hebrew and Yiddish speakers among Ross’ ancestors died, the younger generations professed a faith that was no faith, “but rather a culture, a sensibility, a form of humor, an array of tastes, a canon of literature, a philosophy of work and education.”
As Ross reached adulthood, he thought any issues stemming from his faux conversion had disappeared. He occasionally wrote about Jews, just as he wrote about many other topics. He felt no stake in those stories.
Then subtle changes crept in. “I began to realize just how uncomfortable I [had become] with most practitioners of my birth religion,” Ross confesses. I worr[ied] that if they knew of my past they might not accept me as Jewish, and, with some of my mother’s scorn cutting through the unease, I wonder[ed] why I would want their acceptance in the first place.”
The result of the subtle changes: “a furtive fascination with Judaism, one that compels and repels in equal measure.” Hence, Ross felt compelled to look into his mind, and try to figure out the answer to what became to question of the book’s title.
Ross explains some of his personal confusion by suggesting Judaism seems to sow such confusion: “Do you speak Hebrew? Great if you do, but if you don’t you can still be a Jew. Were you bar mitzvahed? Nice (such a good boy!) but plenty of Jews weren’t. Kosher, not kosher; kosher at home; kosher only if there are no Catholics around; kosher except for bacon , except for shrimp, except for cheeseburgers, only on the good china, never in school, never when it’s embarrassing.”
During his quest as set out in the book, Ross seeks to understand differing varieties of Jewry in New Mexico, in Kansas City (on both the Missouri and Kansas sides of the river), and, of course, in the myriad boroughs of New York City as well as the precincts of Israel. The journeys are capably told and filled with interesting research into the varied religion called Judaism.
All that said, the exploration by Ross is most interesting when he travels inside his mind. “I have asked the question,” Ross writes in closing. “I will continue to do so. That will have to be enough.”
Steve Weinberg, a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications, is the author of eight nonfiction books.