Am I a Jew?

Hudson Street Press  2012


Theodore Ross's mother, a Jewish doctor from Queens, upon moving to the South after her divorce, instructed her young children to tell no one that they were Jewish and, if asked, to say that they were Unitarian. In the wake of her reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich at age twelve, and learning that much of her father's family had perished in the Holocaust, she had resolved that being Jewish was a bad thing to be.

Ross, now in his late thirties, grew up to be a professional writer and editor with a nagging sense of Jewish identity. He often felt discomfort amongst Jews of any level of observance, and had persisting concerns about whether he would be accepted by them as a Jew, given his mother's drastic apostasy, and he was perplexed about why he cared at all. Is there, he wonders, such a thing as a “pintele yid,” an essential point or spark of Jewishness in a Jew that makes the identity somehow ultimately ineradicable? And how could he reconcile the tension of feeling Jewish despite not being religious and of still feeling fully modern and American? Ross consequently launched a series of small, tentative investigations into several contemporary American Jewish phenomena in the hope that he might find answers.

He explores the phenomenon of Hispanics from the Southwest United States discovering or believing that they have Jewish roots from ancestors in Spain who had converted to Catholicism, and learns about people from all walks of life getting genetic testing to discover whether they have Jewish ancestors.

He drops in on an array of secular Jewish outreach events and interviewed leaders of organizations designed to sell identifying as Jewish, but not Judaism per se, as cool to “ ... influential, connected young people... who still want to engage with Jewish identity in ways that they are free to define.” Although he himself identifies with the no-requirements type of Jewish affiliation these organizations focus on encouraging, he questions whether these events are authentically Jewish in any significant way. The president of the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, a major sponsor of outreach activities answers him directly, “I don't think there's any such thing as inauthentic Judaism.”

Ross also goes undercover as a Jew interested in becoming more religiously observant, at various Orthodox-run Shabbat events. He feels uncomfortable at these events, both because of his lack of experience and knowledge, because of the perceived presupposition of Orthodox authenticity and superiority, because of duplicitous tactics such as those one rabbi used to attempt to draw him in, clearly with an “ends justifies the means” philosophy, and presumably also because of his own conscious duplicity. Ross has a knack for caustic portraiture, applied throughout the book, including a sketch of a profane Orthodox outreach Rabbi (whose identity Ross has disguised at the rabbi's request).

Ross spends a significant portion of the book hanging out with another vulgar and contentious, but this time Reform, rabbi in Kansas City, who is on the verge of not having his contract with his congregation renewed. Although this rabbi is a colorful figure, and Ross uses his story as a backdrop for explaining how the Reform movement developed in the U.S., struggling to reconcile modern American identity with Jewish identity, the extended focus on this rabbi doesn't advance Ross's question much at all.

Lastly, Ross looks at Israel as a factor in Jewish identity, and travels there, looking not only at the phenomenon of Americans making Aliyah (emigrating to Israel), but at the phenomenon of Ethiopian Jews emigrating to Israel as well, and examines the motivations of the people who advocate for Aliyah and for the recognizing of more lost tribes, discerning that, as with American outreach efforts, they often seem more concerned for Jewish demographics, than for the specific individuals they're bringing in.

Ultimately Ross's question remains not merely unresolved, but barely directly touched. The book might have glowed had it been more fully a memoir, or had its focus been more concentrated on just one of the subjects Ross glossed. Almost any one of the chapters would stand alone as an interesting article. Ross's last chapter is an expression of his ongoing ambivalence toward both his Jewishness and Judaism.

Read Theodore Ross's Posts for the Visiting Scribe

Looking Up in New York

Revisions for the Paperback

Mr. Expert on God

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