Six Questions — October 5, 2012, 1:31 pm

Am I a Jew?: Six Questions for Theodore Ross

tedross275
Theodore Ross is the features editor at Men’s Journal and a former associate editor at Harper’s Magazine. When he was nine years old, his mother moved him and his brother from New York to Mississippi and attempted to erase all traces of the family’s Judaism, identifying them as Unitarians to their new neighbors. Ross wrote about the experience in a 2009 Harper’s essay titled “Shalom on the Range.” In his just-published book, Am I a Jew?, he tracks the history and evolution of American Judaism, detailing his efforts to reconcile with his childhood alienation from his heritage by traveling to Jewish communities across the U.S. and Israel. I asked him six questions about the book over non-kosher beverages near his apartment in Brooklyn:

 

1. 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.

From Am I a Jew?:

There is, admittedly, a certain Hebraic quality in even asking such a question. What other faith conjures up so much doubt in its adherents? It is fundamental to the religion itself. Do you speak Hebrew? Great if you do, but if you don’t, you can still be a Jew. Were you bar-mitzvahed? Nice (such a good boy!), but plenty of Jews aren’t. Kosher, not kosher; kosher at home; kosher only if there are no Catholics around; kosher except for bacon, except for shrimp, except for cheeseburgers, only on the good china, never in school, never when it’s embarrassing. Have you been to Israel? Did you wail at the Wailing Wall? Do you consider Israel a fascist state? Was your mother Jewish? When was the last time you went to temple? Quick—what’s the difference between the Talmud, the Mishnah and the Gamara? (Hint: it’s a trick question.) Do you believe in God? Are you a Jew for Jesus? A Crypto-Jew? Are you a cultural Jew, and if so, what is your opinion of Woody Allen’s latest film? Do you find Heeb Magazine amusing? Sammy Davis, Jr.? Were you born Jewish? Did you convert? Did the rabbi send you away three times before he gave you the secret codes to the international bank accounts? Where do you get a bagel in this town?

 

2. At one point you traveled to New Mexico to visit a community of people who grew up Catholic and have come to believe they’re Jewish because of various family legends or customs they’ve later learned to be traditionally Judaic. Are they really Jewish? Is their practice Jewish if there’s no specifically Jewish intent behind it?

Or even, if there is a Jewish intent behind those rituals, does that make it Jewish? You could be a self-identified crypto-Jew in Albuquerque whose grandmother lit candles on Friday night and didn’t move around on Saturday, and she communicates to you, “We do this because somos judíos”—which is a very typical crypto-Jewish story—you know, your grandmother, your aunt is on the deathbed, and she pulls you over, she says, mijo, come here, and then she tells you that you’re Jewish as she expires. But what if she’s wrong? What if she’s not Jewish? She believed it. Is that Jewish?

For me the crypto-Jews who were willing to say to themselves, “This is my history, this is my heritage, I’m going to live as a Jew now, and perhaps even convert”—I was certainly not going to argue with them. I didn’t go to New Mexico to determine the validity of what they were saying. I was interested in what it said about the broader question of Judaism, and also about myself. Because I felt like, even in the fictional aspect, if these lost Jews could be reclaimed in some conceptual way, well, what about me? Someone who had been disconnected from the faith in a much more linear fashion—maybe I could be redeemed.

 

3. In the book you seem puzzled by your mom’s logic in keeping your Jewishness hidden, and you have a brief dialogue with her about it. She had this idea that you couldn’t be “all-American” if you were Jewish. To what extent do you find that longing common to other American ethnic groups?

My mother had a desire to create this American myth for herself. And having to be this Other, even if it was accepted, wasn’t good enough. She wanted to be American on her own terms, in her own way, without asking permission, without making apologies. Today, in our more heterogeneous society, we’re farther away from our European backgrounds than we were fifty years ago. So for me the way to define myself as American is to claim some of that specificity, some of that history. Whereas for the Fifties generation it was to claim some of that anonymous, restless, rootless American ideal.

When I started writing my crypto-Jews piece for Harper’s, my initial instinct was to make it about Jews in America, but I think the things I set out to understand and define could be transported along the ethnic and religious spectrum in the United States. And I feel like the questions I’m asking are a byproduct and a result and an animating part of the American social experiment.

 

4. Many of the Orthodox people you talk to came to their religious practice in adolescence or adulthood. It was surprising to read about families in Brooklyn who had grown up secular and were now Hasidic; I had always thought of Orthodoxy as being passed down from a long, iron-clad historical tradition.

Orthodoxy is a relatively new phenomenon. Reform Judaism is at least as old, if not older. Both came out of reactions to the Enlightenment—in very different ways, obviously. Some of the Jews who came to the United States during the great period of migration from Europe, from the 1880s to 1920, were Orthodox to an extent. Here, it didn’t quite work for them. So you might find a “residually Orthodox” person living out in Flatbush who was a member of an Orthodox temple, and when he was out among his peers, was kosher, and keeping the Sabbath. But at home he’s flipping on the radio and having a BLT.

The idea in the Fifties was that Orthodoxy would disappear. That was a period in which Reform Judaism and liberal Judaism seemed ascendant. And to an extent it did disappear. Those residually Orthodox people, they died; their children became Reform or Buddhist or “just Jewish.” The thing they didn’t anticipate was that there would also be a group of people who would return to Orthodoxy in a much more vibrant and spiritually directed way, where that outside-of-the-house/inside-of-the-house thing doesn’t exist. And many of those people were not descended of the residually Orthodox. They came from any number of backgrounds.

 

5. You visited an old-school Reform community in Kansas City that was battling a new rabbi who was shifting it away from its traditions and toward a more religiously oriented practice, and you also spoke with Reboot, a New York City organization selling hipster Judaism to a younger generation. Each of these groups is struggling to define Judaism for Jews who associate more with the culture than the religion, and who may not view preserving American Jewish identity as an essential task. Do their experiences suggest that cultural Judaism in America will someday die out?

amiajew150
Both the Rebooters and the Kansas City people are trying to address the idea of whether or not an organized but not observant form of Judaism really has a reason to exist, I think. So when the Rebooters are encouraging you to observe the Sabbath, but in a very, very mild way, for example with the National Day of Unplugging, where they tell you to drink wine, go to the park—all things that I would probably be doing anyway—how useful is that? The alternative side of that is the very liberal Reformists in Kansas City who are not changing with the times. There’s no guarantee that either of those formulations of essentially secular Judaism have a valid reason to be around.

Douglas Rushkoff wrote a very smart book on Judaism called Nothing Sacred, in which he says he wouldn’t be bothered if Judaism as a formal and organized religion were to disappear from the face of the earth. What he’s interested in is the ethical system, the things upon which the religion we call Judaism is constructed. As long as those still exist and are disseminated into the world and have passed on through the generations, then he’s okay with it. I go back and forth on that question. There is something to be said for the ethical motivation for Judaism and why it exists. But there’s also identity, and being a people.

 

6. Were there other Jewish writers or books that you looked to as influences or templates for Am I a Jew?

From the Guide to the Perplexed:

I do not presume to think that this treatise settles every doubt in the minds of those who understand it, but I maintain that it settles the greater part of their difficulties. No intelligent man will require and expect that on introducing any subject I shall completely exhaust it; or that on commencing the exposition of a figure I shall fully explain all its parts. Such a course could not be followed by a teacher in a viva voce exposition, much less by an author in writing a book, without becoming a target for every foolish conceited person to discharge the arrows of folly at him.

Well, let’s look in the back here . . . There’s an impressive and long literary tradition with Jewish writers that I wanted to stay away from. I didn’t try to live up to the great novelists, and I intentionally didn’t read them during the course of my research. I needed to fill in gaps; I didn’t have much in the beginning. I needed to understand a very wide variety of things.

There’s an Orthodox group that will match you with a study partner—normally they want you to study the Talmud or the Torah, but I told them I wanted to read the Guide for the Perplexed, which is an impossible-to-read philosophical treatise by Maimonides. It’s set up as a letter to a rabbinical student of his who’s having doubts, and he’s trying to explain the religion writ large to somebody feeling confused about his greater role in the rational and scientific world. And that appealed to me in a couple ways. I like the word perplexed, I felt perplexed, I wanted to write my own guide for the perplexed, and I think that inhabited a lot of my understanding of the formal religion. The Guide for the Perplexed was probably the closest thing I had to a literary guide.

Share
Single Page

More from Ryann Liebenthal:

From the July 2015 issue

Bleakness Stakes

Weekly Review May 19, 2015, 8:00 am

Weekly Review

An Amtrak train derails, a Bangladeshi blogger is hacked to death, and an African-American boy who was maced at an anti–police-brutality protest is grateful he wasn’t shot

Weekly Review February 17, 2015, 8:00 am

Weekly Review

A Muslim family is killed over a parking space in North Carolina, Netflix launches in Cuba, and an Indian woman who is 95 percent genetically male gives birth to twins

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2019

Where Our New World Begins

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Truce

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Lost at Sea

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Unexpected

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Where Our New World Begins·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The river “flows up the map,” they used to say, first south, then west, and then north, and through some of the most verdant and beautiful country in America. It is called the Tennessee, but it drains some forty thousand square miles of land in seven states, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Alabama, and from Mississippi to the Ohio River, an area nearly the size of En­gland.

Before the 1930s, it ran wild, threatening each spring to flood and wash away the humble farms and homes along its banks. Most of it was not navigable for any distance, thanks to “an obstructive fist thrust up by God or Devil”—as the writer George Fort Milton characterized it—that created a long, untamed run of rapids known as Muscle Shoals. The fist dropped the river 140 feet over the course of 30 miles, and therein lay the untapped potential of the Tennessee, the chance to make power—a lot of it—out of water.

Article
Slash Fictions·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1. As closing time at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery approached on May 25, 2018, Igor Podporin, a balding thirty-seven-year-old with sunken eyes, circled the Russian history room. The elderly museum attendees shooed him toward the exit, but Podporin paused by a staircase, turned, and rushed back toward the Russian painter Ilya Repin’s 1885 work Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581. He picked up a large metal pole—part of a barrier meant to keep viewers at a distance—and smashed the painting’s protective glass, landing three more strikes across Ivan’s son’s torso before guards managed to subdue him. Initially, police presented Podporin’s attack as an alcohol-fueled outburst and released a video confession in which he admitted to having knocked back two shots of vodka in the museum cafeteria beforehand. But when Podporin entered court four days later, dressed in the same black Columbia fleece, turquoise T-shirt, and navy-blue cargo pants he had been arrested in, he offered a different explanation for the attack. The painting, Podporin declared, was a “lie.” With that accusation, he thrust himself into a centuries-old debate about the legacy of Russia’s first tsar, a debate that has reignited during Vladimir Putin’s reign. The dispute boils down to one deceptively simple question: Was Ivan really so terrible?

Article
The Truce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I met Raúl Mijango, in a courtroom in San Salvador, he was in shackles, awaiting trial. He was paunchier than in the photos I’d seen of him, bloated from diabetes, and his previously salt-and-pepper goatee had turned fully white. The masked guard who was escorting him stood nearby, and national news cameras filmed us from afar. Despite facing the possibility of a long prison sentence, Mijango seemed relaxed, smiling easily as we spoke. “Bolívar, Fidel, Gandhi, and Mandela have also passed through this school,” he told me, “and I hope that some of what they learned during their years in prison we should learn as well.”

Post
Civic Virtues·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Green-Wood Cemetery, where objectionable statues are laid to rest

Article
Lost at Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A few miles north of San Francisco, off the coast of Sausalito, is Richardson Bay, a saltwater estuary where roughly one hundred people live out of sight from the world. Known as anchor-outs, they make their homes a quarter mile from the shore, on abandoned and unseaworthy vessels, doing their best, with little or no money, to survive. Life is not easy. There is always a storm on the way, one that might capsize their boats and consign their belongings to the bottom of the bay. But when the water is calm and the harbormaster is away, the anchor-­outs call their world Shangri-lito. They row from one boat to the next, repairing their homes with salvaged scrap wood and trading the herbs and vegetables they’ve grown in ten-gallon buckets on their decks. If a breeze is blowing, the air fills with the clamoring of jib hanks. Otherwise, save for a passing motorboat or a moment of distant chatter, there is only the sound of the birds: the sparrows that hop along the wreckage of catamarans, the egrets that hunt herring in the eelgrass, and the terns that circle in the sky above.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The Cairo, New York, police department advised drivers to “overcome the fear” after a woman crashed her car when she saw a spider.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today