Am I A Jew?

New York author spends 18 months exploring, here and in Israel, the meaning of Jewish identity.

11/06/2012
Staff Writer
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At first glance, a children’s book about Crypto-Jews in the Southwest, which tells the story of descendants of Spanish Inquisition survivors who clandestinely pass along some Jewish traditions within the religious freedom of the United States, would seem to have little in common with the adult life of Theodore Ross, a Jewish New Yorker. 

He was born here and lives here now, after a notable detour along the way — he has worked as a journalist for some high-power publications.

But a notice about Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s “Abuelita’s Secret Matzahs” a few years ago drew Ross’ interest.

He sent away for the book, saw a similarity between Abuelita — and her ilk whose claims to being part of the Jewish community are open to question — and his own one-time life as a hidden Jew in the South, and started asking questions.

Are they Jewish? Is he?

Ross turned his spiritual quest into a book, “Am I a Jew: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews and One Man’s Search for Himself” (Hudson Street Press), which documents the 18 months he spent looking inward and outward, meeting with actual Crypto-Jews in New Mexico, Orthodox Jews in Monsey, N.Y., a very Reform rabbi in Kansas City, some Jewish genealogist in the States, and Jews of various stripes in the States and Israel.

He picked people and places, he says, that would help him tell “an American story” — about Jewish identity and self-identification in an American Jewish community where, according to recent studies, about 60 percent of Jews in this country don’t officially affiliate with a denomination of Judaism but consider themselves “just Jewish.”

As Ross, 39, does.

Now.

“I was 9 years old when my mother forced me to convert to Christianity,” are the first words of Ross’ book. His parents were divorced; he lived much of the year with his mother. “We had just moved from New York City to a small southern town whose local hospital had recruited her to open a medical practice,” Ross writes. His mother, the child of a Jew who had fled Nazi Germany, didn’t want to stick out in her Bible Belt surroundings. So, as far as the family’s neighbors and Ross’ mother’s colleagues knew, the Rosses were not Jews.

“My new faith was a ruse,” Ross writes. “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,” an identified but not observant Jew, “who was still living in New York and who would have filed a court order demanding custody if he has the slightest notion of what she was up to.”

Young Ross was enrolled at the Christ Episcopal Day School, where he studied “the Bible,” attended weekly church services, received Communion “and even sang in the choir.”

Summers, he spent with his father back here.

In neither place did he receive a Jewish education. No Hebrew School, no bar mitzvah, no Hebrew name. (An Orthodox rabbi in Monsey who arranged an impromptu “bar mitzvah” for Ross one Saturday morning gave Ross the Hebrew name Moishe ben Abraham, which he never uses.) His primary exposure to things Jewish were seders and Chanukah celebrations at relatives’ homes. “My focus” as an adult “never strayed from the secular aspects of the holidays, allowing me to view them as not substantially different from, say, Thanksgiving, or the Super Bowl. (In fact, there have been years when I skipped Passover, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving – but never the game.),” he writes.

“I lived a minor sort of double life,” Ross writes — “fake Christian in Mississippi and secular Jew in Manhattan.”

He says his mother, who has remarried and converted to the Episcopal faith (but is not a practicing), is proud of her son’s book.

Ross says he’s not a believer. “Although I am not an atheist, at least not exactly — drop me in the proverbial foxhole and I will pray with commensurate fervency — I have no particular affinity for God,” he writes.

Ross, who has three young children, has intermarried twice; his first wife grew up Catholic; now he’s married to a woman from a Buddhist home — they’re not raising the kids in any particular faith.

Faith? “I’m not a fan of the term,” he wrote on his blog (theodoreross.net) a few weeks ago. “I have faith in a great many things — death, taxes, the futility of man and the Mets, the rain in Spain falling primarily in the plain — but ‘faith’ strikes me as an indeterminate word used in the service of a vague state.” 

But the children’s book had sparked his what am I? Who am I? questioning. Which is why he embarked on his journey of self-discovery.

His travel choices veered towards to what he calls the extremes, the periphery, the “oddities” of Jewish life, he says in his cramped Midtown office, where he works as articles editor at Men’s Journal. For reasons of time and funding, he couldn’t follow his interests everywhere he wished: “The world of Jews is too big.”

Ross’ background is admittedly atypical of most American Jews, he says. He doesn’t purport to speak for other Jews; but his position as someone with a strong Jewish identity but no formal connection to the “mainstream” Jewish community (a resident of Park Slope, Brooklyn, he’s not a member of a synagogue) makes him, demographically, makes a typical American Jew.

Just don’t’ imply that he comes from “a weak” Jewish background. He bristles at the implication. Who, he asks, propping his loosely tied running shoes on a pulled-out drawer of his desk, says that someone who grew up in a city with a large Jewish population or who went through a standard religious school education or who now lives an Orthodox lifestyle has a stronger Jewish background?

Many Orthodox Jews, he says, operate “by rote,” following strictly delineated rules of behavior: “There’s no thought that goes into” what they do.

He says a Jew like him, secular, who makes occasional forays into Jewish tradition (for example, he erects a “pop-up” sukkah at his home every year), is “constantly confronted by choice. Everything you do is a process of conscious thought.”

In Israel, researching his book, Ross met an official of the Jewish Agency. At the end of the interview, Ross asked him “a final question, one that I resisted asking most people.”

“So tell me, what do you think? Ross asked.

“About what?

“Am I …?”

Am I a Jew?

“He shrugged,” Ross writes. “Why not?”

Yes, you’re a Jew.

What’s Ross’ own answer to his question? “By any reasonable measure, I am Jewish,” he says. “I am,” he writes on the last page of his book, “a Jew. I believe that. I am entitled to believe that. I could not make it otherwise even if I wished.

“I have asked the question,” Ross writes. “I will continue to do so. That will have to be enough.”

At the speeches he’s given since the book came out, he hears two questions frequently. “Lots of people ask, ‘Now that you’ve done this,” written the book, “what do you do?” That is, what Jewish practices have you taken on? “That’s a fair question,” Ross says.

Then they ask, “Are you…?”

Are you Jewish?

“I tell them,” he says, “to read the end of the book.”

steve@jewishweek.org
 

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