When Theodore Ross was just a boy, his mother took something away from him and never gave it back — his Jewish identity.
“If you have a tumor, you cut it out,” his mother tells him when he brings the subject up many years later. “Judaism was a tumor?” he asks. “Well, it can kill ya” she replies.
Looking back on the decision his mother made for him, Ross is compassionate. “For her, being a Jew meant being cheated of a piece of this country’s restless, rootless anonymity,” he writes in “Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself” (Hudson Street Press: $25.95). “She didn’t hate Jews or Judaism, and she certainly didn’t want to hurt me. She just wanted to be one of us.”
So Ross was raised as a Unitarian by his single mother, a physician from New York City who took a job at a hospital in Mississippi. Back in New York, the boy’s new faith was kept a secret from his father, who was not observant but embraced his Jewishness more warmly than his ex-wife did. “For years of my childhood in Mississippi,” Ross explains, “I lived a sort of double life: fake Christian in Mississippi and secular Jew in Manhattan, where I returned for holidays and summer breaks.”
Ross now sees himself as the victim of a “forced conversion” who suffered in adulthood from “a furtive fascination with Judaism, one that compels and repels in equal measure.” The circumstances of his upbringing prompted him to ask a familiar question from an unfamiliar stance: “Am I a Jew?”
He knows enough about Jewish history to observe that the question is “as ancient as the First Temple and as contemporary as this week’s bestseller.” Indeed, his interest in his own Jewish heritage was sparked by an article he wrote about the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico that introduced him to the distinction between forced to convert and willing conversion, in the wake of the Inquisition.
The Brooklyn-based Ross, a journalist of long experience, has written a confessional memoir, but it is cast in the mold of a journey of self-discovery across the American landscape, where he encounters Jews of every shade of belief and practice, from hip young urbanites who build their own sukkot to Lubavitchers who put on an impromptu dance show for a crowd of African-American kids, to the Schlep Sisters, a troupe of aging Jewish ladies who perform in a burlesque festival to the Yiddish songs of the Barry Sisters.
The travels amount to a cavalcade of the varieties of Jewishness in contemporary America. He partakes of a traditional Shabbat dinner in Brooklyn: “To Orthodox Jews, their practice was not a form of Judaism,” he acknowledges. “It was Judaism.” But he also dines on pork ribs and a cheese-and-corn casserole at a barbecue joint in the company of a Reform rabbi in Kansas City. The rabbi, as it turns out, shuns the carbohydrates but gnaws with gusto on the ribs. “He was on a strict and complicated diet that involved herbal remedies and near-starvation,” Ross writes in a moment of profound irony, “and although meat was a departure from the regimen, allowed in my honor, there were limits to how much he was willing to cheat.”
But he is also drawn to theological inquiry and debate, soberly considering what Maimonides has to say to someone, like him, who is “not an atheist, at least not exactly,” but who frankly admits to his own “religious indifference.” He ventures into the most observant Jewish communities that he can find: “Most Orthodox would not consider me ba’al teshuvah,” he writes, “but I would argue otherwise, because I had in fact taken steps toward a level of observance that was new to me.” One Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn grants him the honor of a bar mitzvah by leading him phonetically through the blessings before the Torah reading. “The children joined us and had a high time pelting me with sucking candies, a symbolic stoning, [Rabbi] Klatzko explained, to remind me of the punishments for those who contravene their responsibilities as a Jewish adult.”
Ironically, he feels none of the “anxiety of identity” that prompted his mother to look on Jewishness as an obstacle to being “All-American.” He feels entirely at home as an American, and it is as a Jew that he sometimes feels like “an outsider, an imposter — someone acting the Jew.” But his book, so courageous and thus so challenging, is ultimately an affirmation. “The multiple layers of upbringing, education, culture, and class imposed on me through the course of my life only conceal the true Jewish nucleus, the atomic Judaism, the Jewish spark that persists despite all efforts to extinguish it.”
As Ross discovers, there is an expression for it in Yiddish: “pintele yid,” which he translates as “little point of a Jew.” He is willing to write honestly of his doubts, struggles and failings, but he is unwilling to cede his Jewishness to anyone else. “According to tradition and argument,” he insists, “that ‘little point’ is me.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at email@example.com.