By Theodore Ross
Hudson Street. 275 pp. $25.95
When Theodore Ross was 9, he moved from New York City to Mississippi, where his mother instructed him that, instead of being labeled a secular Jew, he was now to tell anyone who asked that he was a Unitarian Christian. What worried her, a newly divorced mother of two, was the possibility that her relocated family would face anti-Semitism in the 1980s South.
“She was convinced that the ceaseless shtick that defines Judaism in this county — the wry exceptionalism, the ironic fatalism, the false socialism, the Zionist apologetics, the Yiddish jargoning, the hand-wringing over the Holocaust — barred her from the full American experience.”
Now a parent himself, Ross goes on a religious and cultural tour of his heritage to answer the question “Am I a Jew?”
It’s a provocative question. And Ross, a freelance journalist, explores some interesting corners of Judaism. He visits Jews in New Mexico who are believed to be descendants of those who practiced Judaism in secret after the Spanish Inquisition. He communes with hipster Jews in Manhattan who build avant garde sukkahs, temporary structures to celebrate the fall holiday of Sukkot. He spends the sabbath with an Orthodox family who tries to reach unaffiliated Jews much like himself. He submits to a DNA test to determine the science behind his search. And he even takes a quick trip to Israel, where he gets acquainted with the “lost tribes” of Jews from Ethiopia and India.
These are all good places to look for a connection to Judaism, and Ross does a good job of explaining how varied and scattered modern Judaism is. But he tackles his premise — determining his religious identity — only superficially.
“Am I a Jew?” is a bit like a worship service in which all the obligatory prayers are said and rituals completed, but the worshipper is just going through the motions. In a book that sets out to be personal, Ross doesn’t say much about how he feels about what he finds. Sure, he interrogates his mother as to why she was so terrified of being Jewish in the South, but he fails to turn that interrogation inward. And isn’t that the best place to look for the answer to his title’s question?
am i a jew?
Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews,
and One Man’s Search for Himself
By Theodore Ross
Hudson Street Press. 275 pp. $25.95.