Am I a Jew?

  • Review
By – April 23, 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

Revi­sions for the Paperback

Mr. Expert on God

Discussion Questions