Like other children of intermarriage, Joshua Boettiger struggled with the issue of religious identity, but he said that his clearest connection to Judaism surfaced during his junior year in college, which he spent in Damascus, Syria.
By then, he had already been to Israel several times, had asked himself some of the large questions about which faith to follow, but there was something about being in Damascus, where he was working on Muslim-Jewish dialogue, that clarified the matter for him.
"Most of the people I worked with closely knew I was Jewish," he said, "but for security reasons, I couldn't tell everyone. And so I was aware in a powerful way that I was repressing something that meant a great deal to my sense of self. It became clearer to me in Syria than it ever had been in Israel," said the Bard College graduate, who has a degree in comparative religion.
It took Boettiger several more years of questioning and struggle before he decided conclusively to choose Judaism -- and then the rabbinate as his profession. He is now in his first year at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
This may sound like a fairly typical contemporary story, shared by many young people searching for answers, with only the details varying from case to case. But does it seem in any way typical when you learn that Boettiger happens to be the great-grandson of Franklin Delano Roosevelt?
Asked how his parents have reacted to his career path, Boettiger said that his father is "thrilled" with his choice.
As for his more famous forebears, Boettiger imagines that "Eleanor would have gotten a kick" out of his decision to become a rabbi.
"But I'd have to ask my dad how he thought FDR would react," he said. "Eleanor, it was clear, was more able to transcend her upbringing and the prejudices of her class. FDR was less able to eclipse the world he came from. In the world they lived in, it's something they couldn't imagine. It's much easier in the world we live in now."
Boettiger said he's close with "selected folks" on his father's side of the family. He hasn't been to a reunion in a long time, but looks forward to doing so and discussing his future with his relatives. Boettiger is also fully aware of the controversy that swirls around his great-grandfather.
"The relationship of the Jews to FDR is extremely complex," he said. "Roosevelt was a champion of the dispossessed who had real courage, a voice for the voiceless.
"But, on the other hand, if he knew what they say he knew about the slaughter of Jews in Europe and he did not act, that is very serious, inexcusable.
"It's important to explore these questions," he said. "I think I'm uniquely qualified because of my heritage, and I hope to do it one day."
Robert Leiter is literary editor for The Jewish Exponent.
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