It is hard to hear the world laugh at the Jewish American Princess. It is not her fault if she has been taught that her role in life is to catch a rising man and that she has learned the more money spent on her outsides, the more chance she has for success. Her shallowness is not her cultural error and her future promises to be no laughing matter. -- Anne Roiphe in "Generation Without Memory."

There but for the grace of, well, not God, maybe, but some entity -- luck, maybe, or timing -- went Anne Roiphe herself.

By all rights -- with her family wealth, her governess, her dancing lessons, her party dresses -- she should have been the archetype. And not the least because she had "a good nose."

Instead, here she is in her 45th year, wrestling, on a deeply personal level, with the question scholars have wrestled with through the ages, from Abraham on down.

What is a Jew?

This is shocking, unthinkable, to large segments of the Jewish population for one or more of several reasons:

The wrestlers through the ages have not, by and large, been women.

Roiphe has been wrestling for only a few years, since 1978, not for a lifetime, as Jewish scholarship traditionally demands.

She's seen as an "outsider" by some because she is not religious, by others because she's not poor, has not suffered.

She is doing her wrestling (and this is the biggest shock) in public: She is telling them, the non-Jews, the goyim, about things they shouldn't know, things it might be dangerous for the enemy to know.

"It is," says Anne Roiphe, soberly, "a double-edged problem."

Anne Roiphe is a successful novelist ("Up the Sandbox," "Torch Song") and journalist, born and reared in Manhattan, a graduate of Sarah Lawrence.

She and her second husband, a (Jewish) psychoanalyst, have five children between them, all girls; two his, one hers and two theirs. Their family Christmases in a mostly Jewish household were the subject of a rather lighthearted newspaper article in 1978 in The New York Times and neither Anne Roiphe nor her family has yet recovered from its aftermath.

So intense was it, so often hotile (death threats, wishes that her children would "die of leukemia" and 900 other letters, phone calls, snubs), that Roiphe was caught up short, felt compelled to find out why.

"Generation Without Memory: A Jewish Journey in Christian America" is a progress report on her education.

Anne Roiphe grew up to be what she calls a "humanist."

Writes Roiphe of her (now 12-year-old) daughter Kate:

"We have told her that we are Jewish because our parents were but that we don't go to a synagogue because we don't believe in ritual. We are humanists, I explained, although we don't expect too much of humanity. We are agnostics, I explained."

Or she writes:

"Our family has no house of worship and we don't send our children to Sunday school. Can we get away with this arrogance or do we pay too high a price for independence? Are we still Jews? Do we dare not be Jews?"

This is the crux of Roiphe's dilemma, the dilemma of countless Jews who no longer accept the religiosity but cannot shed whatever it is that makes one Jewish.

She set about the task of identifying that something, as a journalist. She interviewed Jewish leaders and teachers, rabbis and rabbis' families, religious friends and assimilated friends.

"Generation" is not so much what she found -- because she is still seeking -- as it is how she has sought. She did find how, for instance, a lot of Jews in different walks and states of Jewishness regard themselves in relation to the world around them.

She sampled the greatest Jewish thinkers of the ages and especially those who were emerging into the 20th century and out of the ghetto -- Kafka, Freud, Marx, Einstein. "I know it irritates deeply rooted people," she says, "but it is true that there is this creation moment in the pushing out of the old tradition."

Roiphe does not see herself pushing out of tradition. In a way it is quite the contrary. She has rediscovered a kind of "connection" to Judaism she hadn't quite realized was there.

And as surprised as she was (although she will tell you that unconsciously it was probably no accident) at the response to her Christmas article, she is just as surprised at some of the reaction she gets from her public appearances.

She is still shaken and clearly troubled by a radio interview in Chicago in which a caller challenged the existence of the Holocaust itself (based on a book Roiphe says she "barely knew existed and you would think nobody would read it, much less believe it"). Indeed, said the caller, "even if the Holocaust were real, then the Jews must have done something to cause it . . ."

"Then there I was," says Roiphe, "suddenly saying different things than I might have in my living room, because there was a threat, a real palpable threat. New York is so comfortable."

The threat is part of the connection. She writes:

"I question whether this Jewishness of mine is mere masochistic identification with the victim. Jewish history has some heroic tales to tell, the Maccabees, Judith, Esther and Joshua and David, Samson and Saul, but it is also filled with endless tales of suffering, and the more modern history becomes, the more ghastly the stories and the more vivid the details. The Book of Job is just a prelude to other tales of bloodletting and plague-inspired massacres. The autos-da-fe recounted are endless. . . . It appears the world is divided into good and bad, goy and Jew, and it is the goy who harms the Jew, not the other way around. . . . Moral decency, sympathy for the victim, sympathy for those who suffer, these are building blocks of the mystical connection to Judaism. It seems not so much to be a matter of indulging in masochism as to be a matter of aligning oneself with innocence. oIn Christianity, Christ suffers for everyond. In Judaism, everyone suffers, and it is quite clear who for. It cannot be denied that suffering is one of the chief glues of group unity. It works."

As much as anything, Roiphe's passionate feminism is offended by the essential sexism of Judaism.

"Judaism is in a peculiar kind of bind," she says, "because it is a religion that consists of recreating the past. You can paste over it a feminist position, but what you're discussing all the time -- the way it was, the things that happened, the stories, the reading of the Talmud, the reading of the Torah, the things the rabbi said -- the whole structure has excluded women for so long that it isn't easy to change it. The only thing that can happen," she says, with a kind of serene confidence that it will, "is that after 2,000 more years there will be a gradually increasing female role that will be incorporated into the liturgy." As will, she feels, the Holocaust.

Anne Roiphe and her family still have a tree at Christmas. "I feel it is an American holiday as much as anything," she says. "but now we have a menorah too. We're working our way as a family toward some sort of Jewish identity, but probably not religious."

Roiphe's humor is gentle and tempers all of her judgments, however harsh.

What it all comes down to, in the final analysis, is this passage from her book:

"My nephew climbed to the top of a small slide when he was 2 years old. He looked around him, up at the sky and down at the waiting ground. 'Oy vay,' he called out and cautiously backed down the steps. Is this story evidence of our Jewishness? My nephew's for his world view and mine for laughing?"