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Am I a Jew?

November 1, 2012 Leave a comment


No, no. I’m not asking. It’s the title of a book I’m reading: Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself by Theodore Ross.

From the publisher’s blurb:

What makes someone Jewish?

Theodore Ross was nine years old when he moved with his mother from New York City to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Once there, his mother decided, for both personal and spiritual reasons, to have her family pretend not to be Jewish. He went to an Episcopal school, where he studied the New Testament, sang in the choir, and even took Communion. Later, as an adult, he wondered: Am I still Jewish?

Seeking an answer, Ross traveled around the country and to Israel, visiting a wide variety of Jewish communities. From “Crypto-Jews” in New Mexico and secluded ultra-devout Orthodox towns in upstate New York to a rare Classical Reform congregation in Kansas City, Ross tries to understand himself by experiencing the diversity of Judaism.

Quirky and self-aware, introspective and impassioned, Am I a Jew? is a story about the universal struggle to define a relationship (or lack thereof) with religion.

I know about the book only because there was a feature on it in Harper’s Six Questions series, in which they interview authors of selected new books. Four weeks ago, Ryann Liebenthal chatted with Ross, who is himself a former Harper’s editor. Here’s the first question and answer.

In your research you traveled among “crypto-Jews”—those whose ancestors hid their Judaism—in New Mexico, Orthodox Jews in upstate New York, and flag–saluting Reform Jews in Kansas City. You also went to Israel. Has your definition of Judaism changed? And have you answered your titular question?

No. I don’t think I’m in any greater position of certitude after completing the book than I was at the beginning. I didn’t set out necessarily in a literal-minded way to answer whether or not I was Jewish. By any reasonable measure, genealogically I’m Jewish; my mother’s line as far back as anybody knows is Jewish; I was genetically tested during the research for the book, and they confirmed it. I got the check, I am a Jew. For me the greater question was, What exactly does that mean? The more I drilled down into that, the more I realized that it’s a question that really can’t be answered in any particular kind of way. And the process of trying to answer it—the thought process, the critical thinking that goes into what constitutes a Jew, particularly in the United States—that, for me, is Judaism.

I downloaded a Kindle sample after reading the interview, then downloaded the book a week later. I must have read the first 10 pages four times by now, picking it up every few days and trying to decide if it’s what I want to read next. I’m still not sure, but now I’ve gotten past those first ten pages. I’m all the way to 25. I think I’m on my way.

I’m also 20 pages into a 600-page book on the English Civil War. Fascinating so far, but requiring far more concentration, which I don’t think I can give in the next week or two. So Ross first. More on the civil war book soon, unless Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave gets in the way. It comes out in the UK next week, might just arrive immediately after my upcoming New York and Chicago trips.

Categories: Books, Religion

The Choice

November 1, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve held my tongue for a while, but now that I’ve put out a post about Romney, let’s keep it going. In that post, I outsourced most of my commentary to the Toledo Blade, quoting from today’s editorial. This time, let’s turn to Charles Pierce in Esquire.

From two days ago:

Based on what the various candidates actually have told the people whose votes they are soliciting, over the past 48 hours, it has been far better for the nation that Barack Obama and Joseph Biden are running the executive branch than it would have been had those jobs been held by Willard Romney and Paul Ryan. Both of the latter are on record — and on audiotape, and on video, and all over the Intertoobz, and, for all I know, bellowing from the fillings in your teeth — as recommending that the federal government’s responsibility for things like disaster relief be either handed back to the states, or privatized entirely. They have made this argument in public. They have made this argument as part of the reason why you should vote for them. They also have similar plans for the National Weather Service, and for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and they have made those arguments as part of the reason why you should vote for them. If those ideas had prevailed, and those plans had been passed through the Congress, and signed by President Romney, more people would have died because of this storm, and more people would still be dying from this storm two or three weeks from now.

What they are saying now in an attempt to walk back their earlier arguments is almost assuredly nothing but a barrel full of lies. They’d be out there saying the very same things today if they hadn’t gotten blindsided by this storm. Do you honestly think, absent the arrival of Miss Sandra along the east coast, Willard Romney and Paul Ryan would be out there refining their opinion on federal disaster relief? That they would have abandoned the notion of handing disaster relief back to the states, or to their various corporate cronies. That they would have distanced themselves from barely camouflaged bigots like John Sununu, who repeatedly calls the president “lazy”?

And, even given all that’s happened, if a massive stimulus bill aimed at reconstruction of the infrastructure damaged by the storm somehow miraculously got through this Congress and landed on the president’s desk, and he signed it, do you think Romney and Ryan would support it and, once it passed, do you think they would miss any opportunity to use the word “boondoggle,” or to intimate a program of political payoffs to the president’s east coast supporters, despite the fact that even my casual observations have led me to believe that New York City depends rather vitally on its subway? Please, stop. No, really, you’re killing me here.

For two days now, I have heard nothing but words of caution, even from liberal pundits, about how the president should avoid “politicizing” the storm, as though that were the most important consideration. Initially, I said as much myself. But, now, after these two days, it ought not to be beyond the pale to “politicize” the simple fact that, even though the Republican half of it was an embarrassing clown show, this election has come down to a battle between two visions of the the functions of the national government and, through that, a battle over whether the political commonwealth exists at all. It is not politicizing anything to point out the obvious fact that one side of these arguments is lying as a soggy pulpish object on the beaches of New Jersey, and the other one is out there trying to get the lights back on.

And from yesterday (an excerpt again, but please, read it in full):

Barack Obama owes more than I’d like him to owe to the Wall Street crowd. He probably at this point owes a little more than I’d like him to owe to the military. The rest he owes to the millions of people who elected him in 2008 — especially to those people whose enthusiasm I neither shared nor really understood — and he will owe them even more if they come out and pull his chestnuts out of the fire for him this time around. He may sell them out — and, yes, I understand if you wanted to add “again” to that statement — but they are not likely to revenge themselves against the country if he does and, even if they decided to, they don’t have the power to do much but yell at the right buildings.

On the other hand, Willard Romney owes even more to the Wall Street crowd, and he owes even more to the military, but he also owes everything he is politically to the snake-handlers and the Bible-bangers, to the Creationist morons and to the people who stalk doctors and glue their heads to the clinic doors, to the reckless plutocrats and to the vote-suppressors, to the Randian fantasts and libertarian fakers, to the closeted and not-so-closeted racists who have been so empowered by the party that has given them a home, to the enemies of science and to the enemies of reason, to the devil’s bargain of obvious tactical deceit and to the devil’s honoraria of dark, anonymous money, and, ultimately, to those shadowy places in himself wherein Romney sold out who he might actually be to his overweening ambition. It is a fearsome bill to come due for any man, let alone one as mendaciously malleable as the Republican nominee. Obama owes the disgruntled. Romney owes the crazy. And that makes all the difference.

In his time in office, Barack Obama has done some undeniable good for people. There are auto workers in Ohio with jobs, and women making equal pay, and young people freed from the burdens of health care because of some of the president’s policies. And he is running on that record, making the case for his second term based on the good he has done for people in his first. In his only time in elective office, Romney also did some good for people. He reformed the health-care system in Massachusetts in a way that made him far more popular up here than he ever will be again. And he has spent seven years now running against the good he did for people. What kind of a politician does that? What kind of a man does that? A politician who has counted the debts he owes to the people to whom he owes them, and a man who is willing to hock everything about himself just to get even.

This is not “fear” talking. This is simply the way things are. It is important to stand against the people and the forces to which Willard Romney owes his political career. It is more important to do that than it is to do anything else. It is more important to do that than to salve my conscience, or make a statement, or dream my wistful dreams of a better and more noble politics. And that is why, today, I will vote for Barack Obama, not because of the man he is not, but because of the man his opponent clearly has become. I will do so without enthusiasm, and without a sliver of doubt in my mind.

I’ve written 34 posts so far in my Change We Can Believe In series criticizing Obama. I have tried to be critical where criticism is merited. And sadly, that’s often. Nonetheless, I agree with every word of Pierce’s endorsement.

Categories: Politics

Open and Honest

November 1, 2012 Leave a comment

Mitt called an hour ago. I’m not much into answering the phone these days. Barack called earlier, while we were out. When I got home, I listened to the voicemail, in which someone came on to say he had President Obama on the line. Or something silly like that. A few minutes later, there was a call from an unknown number that I wouldn’t have answered except that I’ve been making every effort for four days to reach family in New York, so you never know, it could be someone important using another phone.

Nope. Just Mitt, to let me know that he will lead me openly and honestly. I’m not sure which word he lost me on. Lead? Open? Honest? I have to say, even if the presidential nominee is my hero, I don’t want to be patronized by being told how he’s going to lead me. But open? I can’t remember the last president who was open. Forget that. Honest? That was too much. The most dishonest presidential candidate in my lifetime and he dares use that word?

Let’s have a look, just for instance, at what he’s up to these days in Ohio, pushing the business about Obama and Chrysler shipping jobs to China. Forget what I think. Let’s turn to today’s editorial in the Toledo Blade. How much should I quote? Maybe this is enough:

In the fi­nal few days of the pres­i­den­tial con­test, Mitt Rom­ney ev­i­dently rec­og­nizes that his op­po­si­tion to the fed­eral res­cue of Gen­eral Mo­tors and Chrysler is costing him voter sup­port he needs in Ohio and Mich­i­gan. So the Re­pub­li­can nom­i­nee is con­duct­ing an ex­er­cise in de­cep­tion about auto-in­dus­try is­sues that is re­mark­able even by the stan­dards of his cam­paign.

At an ap­pear­ance last week in De­fi­ance, Mr. Rom­ney an­nounced that “Jeep, now owned by the Ital­ians, is think­ing of mov­ing all pro­duc­tion to China.” That as­ser­tion was based on an am­big­u­ously worded news re­port.

Chrysler, which owns Jeep and in which the Ital­ian auto­maker Fiat has a ma­jor­ity stake, quickly de­nied the re­port. A com­pany spokes­man said Mr. Rom­ney’s rhe­tor­i­cal leap “would be dif­fi­cult even for pro­fes­sional cir­cus ac­ro­bats.” But the Rom­ney cam­paign launched an ad in Ohio that claimed that Pres­i­dent Obama, who pre­sided over the auto bail­out, “sold Chrysler to Ital­ians who are go­ing to build Jeeps in China.”

Chrysler CEO Ser­gio Mar­chionne re­moved all doubt about his com­pany’s in­ten­tions this week in an email to em­ploy­ees: “Jeep pro­duc­tion will not be moved from the United States to China,” he said. “Jeep as­sem­bly lines will re­main in op­er­a­tion in the United States and will con­sti­tute the back­bone of the brand. It is in­ac­cu­rate to sug­gest any­thing dif­fer­ent.”

He ac­knowl­edged that Chrysler in­tends “to re­turn Jeep pro­duc­tion to China, the world’s larg­est auto mar­ket, in or­der to sat­isfy lo­cal mar­ket de­mand, which would not oth­er­wise be ac­ces­sible.” The com­pany also wants to avoid heavy im­port du­ties. But that’s a long way from Mr. Rom­ney’s in­sin­u­a­tion that the auto­maker is ship­ping jobs from Toledo to China.

Mr. Mar­chionne noted that Chrysler is in­vest­ing $500 mil­lion in its Toledo as­sem­bly com­plex and plans to add 1,100 jobs there by next year, largely to build a suc­ces­sor to the Jeep Lib­erty sport-util­ity ve­hi­cle. He vowed “that the iconic Wran­gler name­plate, cur­rently pro­duced in our Toledo, Ohio, plant, will never see full pro­duc­tion out­side the United States.”

Regard­less, a new ra­dio ad for the Rom­ney cam­paign that has got­ten heavy play in Toledo asks whether the Pres­i­dent bailed out the do­mes­tic auto in­dus­try for “Ohio — or China?” It asks: “What hap­pened to the prom­ises made to au­to­work­ers in Toledo and through­out Ohio — the same hard-work­ing men and women who were told that Obama’s auto bail­out would help them?”

Honest indeed.

Categories: Politics