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Am I a Jew?

November 1, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

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.

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