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Discussed: Am I a Jew?

by Theodore Ross

(Hudson Street Press, August 2012)

theodore ross

Photo of Theodore Ross courtesy of

Theodore Ross imagines that his childhood was very strange. I don’t blame him for pitching it that way; in the world of memoirs and creative nonfiction, strangeness trumps thoughtfulness every time. That’s a shame, though, because Mr. Ross’s book reveals a thoughtful, self-critical examiner of modern religious life, and there should be no pretext of oddball anecdotes about a crazy childhood necessary.

Am I a Jew? is useful and enjoyable precisely because the rough contours of his life aren’t actually particularly unusual. Don’t let the hyper-specificity of the title mislead you—the book is much less about the author’s own quirky relationship to Judaism than it is about the uncertainty and fragility of any community that dares to stand erect in the face of the homogenizing forces of modern life. For Southerners, this uncertainty of cultural survival, mixed with internecine scuffles, should feel familiar. As a study of a Jew in search of his place within Judaism, the book has a limited value for Gentiles (e.g. “oh, so that’s what ‘sitting shiva’ means”). As a study in what it means to be a member of a religious or ethnic minority, or a member of a traditional culture that is trying to make sense of its place in the modern world, or of someone seeking to re-graft himself to the tree that the last generation so unceremoniously cut itself off from, it is of more general value. His search is familiar to anyone who has ever been annoyed with his mom for losing Grandma’s apple butter recipe.

To be fair, Mr. Ross’s childhood was odd. As the first sentence of the book explains, when he was nine years old, his Jewish mother forced him to convert to Christianity. The conversion did not take place seventy years ago in Europe, in the grip of the post-Kristallnacht panic, but a mere thirty or so years ago because his recently divorced mother was moving the two of them to Mississippi. It’s like a Horatio Alger book in reverse: The happy Jewish boy from New York gets sent to Episcopal Sunday school in small-town Mississippi. 

Though Mr. Ross sees the Deep South of his childhood as the antithesis of his latent Judaism (Mississippi Sunday school being the supposed opposite of New York Judaism), I found myself recognizing many of the struggles he describes. The Southerner, especially the religious Southerner, knows the self-doubt, the fear that “demographics is destiny,” the battles between conservative and liberal factions within denominations (PCA v. PCUSA, anyone?), and the problem for non-believers in sifting God from a culture that is full of Him. 

am i a jew theodore ross

For most types of Jewishness described by Mr. Ross, I could identify Southern equivalents almost without thinking. The crypto-Jews of New Mexico, convinced beyond all bounds of normal hereditary evidence of their Semitic ancestry, reminded me of the Old South’s firm conviction that the Planter class was comprised of descendants of the monarchical Cavaliers of England. The hipster Jews of New York, taking over Union Square with avant-garde sukkahs (sukkah: a booth or shelter with a roof of branches and leaves that is used especially for meals during the Sukkoth; Sukkoth: a Jewish harvest festival beginning on the 15th of Tishri and commemorating the temporary shelters used by the Jews during their wandering in the wilderness) reminded me of those Pentecostal Holiness youth pastors convinced that there is no cultural or spiritual divide so great that it can not be bridged with an outreach program involving ping-pong and selected excerpts from The Matrix. As for the religious moderates and accommodationists, they are the same everywhere, fretting about their relevance to the next generation and checking their hair in the mirror. And the staunch conservatives? Between religions, only their books and their clothes are different from one another. 

Even with his odometer-spinning exploration of American Judaism, Am I a Jew? does not attempt to offer a representative survey of the faith; the Jews he spends time with don’t represent a cross-section of American Judaism. His interest is in two different groups: those gathered at the gates trying to get in, and those just inside the gate, trying to get them through. It is with this rag-tag bunch, lingering on the perimeters of Judaism (often with those trying to prove their Jewishness with methods that border on historical or genealogical fantasy), that Mr. Ross oddly has his greatest affinity. And it is to those rabbis and community leaders whose self-appointed task it is to swell the numbers of Judaism that Mr. Ross poses the questions of his own identity. Those safely through the door, living quiet lives of piety within the historical bounds of their religion are mostly ignored. It’s an effective angle. Rather than defining Jewishness by leaping into its clear, bright center (whatever that might be) and taking samples of what he might find there, his book consists of a tour around the outer wall.

The ethnic nature of Judaism complicates the work of evangelism for Rabbis and activists who are alarmed by dreary demographic statistics. It’s not as simple for them as it is for your local tent revivalist, whose altar calls do not involve questions about the penitent’s family tree. The focus for many evangelical Jews, then, is on bringing back into the fold those ethnic Jews who have wandered religiously. For the more radical—and for those officially given the task, for Israeli immigration purposes, of sorting out the real wannabes from the fake wannabes—reversing seven or eight centuries of forced conversions from Judaism to Christianity is a common occurrence. On its face, it would seem odd that Mr. Ross chooses to identify his religious position as analogous to the mostly poor and dubiously educated crypto-Jews of the American Southwest and the “lost tribes” of South Asia and Ethiopia clambering for a way into Israel. Their commonality comes from the shared belief that if left to themselves, they would have all been safely in the gates of Jewishness. For the crypto-Jews, it was the Spanish Inquisition that supposedly did them in. For Mr. Ross, it was his mother and the fear of being different in Mississippi. The specter of the history of forced conversions hangs over these considerations, and perhaps strangest of all, the thought that Mr. Ross underwent a kind of forced conversion of his own—not one with the pomp and horror that we see in the final scene of Merchant of Venice, but a much more mild one, one uniquely American and post-boomer, one that dresses up the traumatic elimination of historical identity and calls it self-determination and freedom. In the minds of many this last half-century, the privilege of a being a chosen people has been deemed to be inferior to the privilege of being a people free to choose whatever they want.

What Mr. Ross describes is a new kind of Jewish Diaspora, one that is not the result of persecution or war, but of modernity and success. He isn’t necessarily critical of these things; he isn’t advocating a return to cultural ghettos or strict religious observance. And while it is true that one gathers he would have preferred it if his mother had not placed such a high value on assimilation, that’s about where the critique ends. Once it is duly noted that children should not be forced to hide their cultural and religious identities from their elementary school classmates, Mr. Ross moves on to simply chart the many different ways of being Jewish and almost-Jewish, all with the aim of finding a place and way for himself to be Jewish. It’s the kind of task one would assume could belong only to a generation that has come after a great war, plague, or persecution. Who knew that the greatest threat to cultural survival might, in the end, be material comfort and self-actualization? This is my stance, not Mr. Ross’s. He is a committed and self-identified liberal and, one suspects, quite comfortable in the world the sixties wrought. But it remains true, nonetheless, that in the Old World, what we call “the sixties” would have gone by the name of disaster.

Even in Israel—the final stop in his tour—Mr. Ross remains resolutely unmoved and consistent to his earlier claims of emotional ennui when confronted with artifacts of his ancestor’s historical faith. He visits the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and writes that he had ample opportunity “for realizations, understanding, clarity, certainty, and life-altering determinations made in the shadow of the Dome of the Rock. Yet nothing came.” It’s a startling moment. For most other memoirs (and certainly the ones written by men and women with truly shocking childhoods and who end up being rewarded for it by hawking their books on weepy mid-morning television talk shows), the Wailing Wall moment would have been epiphanal: clouds would have parted, an elderly stranger with beautiful eyes would have told him to forgive his mother, the name of his not-yet conceived child would have appeared on the wall in fiery script. Yet none of this happened. He simply ate a falafel and left.

And though Mr. Ross is untroubled by his emotional flatline (he suspected all along that he would be unaffected by the trip), I remain confused by his complacency and by the present tense of his book’s title, which seems to forestall any possibility of a spiritual or ethnic future that is meaningfully different from his spiritual or ethnic past. Give me something. Anything. Even the faintest spiritual or hereditary fluttering in his stomach would make me happy. But Mr. Ross is too honest a writer for that. He tells it like it happened. And at the Wailing Wall, nothing happened. Maybe in that non-event, Mr. Ross receives the answer that his title poses.

But back home, after the inevitable settling down of life again into its natural rhythms of leaf raking and carpools, Mr. Ross finds himself shopping for a sukkah—the ceremonial tent-like structure central to the celebration of the Jewish holiday, Sukkoth. There had been no sukkahs at his family’s home in Mississippi and there were none in his pre-Mississippi days in New York. Since food or gifts aren’t prominent at Sukkoth, and it doesn’t give Jewish kids a convenient alternative to celebrating a Christian holiday, Sukkoth celebrations aren’t popular among casual Jewish observers. Think of it like Ash Wednesday. Your twice-a-year Catholic just doesn’t care. For Mr. Ross, observing Sukkoth is the closest thing we get to a change of heart. 

Sitting alone in his pop-up sukkah in his backyard, Theodore Ross doesn’t strike us as a man fully comfortable in his religiosity. But for a man ill at ease with the authorized theology of his ancestral faith, an icon that amounts to little more than a sanctified pop-tent is a good fit. It symbolizes features he recognizes in himself: unmoored, unsteady, unsure, yet always moving toward what he calls the “process of continual, conscious, purposeful becoming.” You can pick up and move a sukkah. Move it from New York to Mississippi and back again, if you want. It is a symbol of that which he shares with his Jewishness. Something, in the end, that Judaism shares with any community for whom the demographic trends predict obsoletism, for any culture at odds with the dominant one, and for any religion that bestows rewards to which the secular world is blind.


Listen to Theodore Ross talk to Michel Martin on NPR about this memoir.

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