Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Thoughtful Adventures of Jewish Identity

November 19, 2012 11:51 pm 1 comment

Theodore Ross, author of "Am I a Jew?" Photo: Plume & Hudson Street Press.

“Union Square Park in Manhattan was the scene of a nighttime festival,” author Theodore Ross excitedly remarks, as he seeks out the 2010 “Sukkah City” exposition presented by the Jewish nonprofit “Reboot.”

Beyond the “mobs of bicycle and skater punks, chess hustlers, and artists hawking paintings,” a modern architectural spectacle attracts the interest of prominent designers worldwide as it is assembled overnight. Workers busily unload oddly shaped, themed huts that incorporate some modern materials and yet manage to fulfill the biblical regulations surrounding the ancient Sukkot harvest holiday. When Ross meets up with Roger Bennett, one of Reboot’s leading fundraisers and chief organizers, he inquires whether the organization has a specifically Jewish agenda, to modernize Jewish faith and ritual.

“Meaningful identities have to have something to offer the individual. Judaism hasn’t done that. It hasn’t adjusted because it’s always felt it had a monopoly,” Bennett answers, critical of other philanthropic efforts to reinvigorate religious participation among American Jews.

“If Judaism disappears it will be because it has stopped being meaningful for its target audience,” Bennett adds.

Ross’s new book—Am I Jew?—documents its author’s spiritual journey. “I was nine years old when my mother forced me to convert to Christianity,” the author writes to explain an imposed spiritual conflict that has troubled him since childhood. His confrontation with his mother regarding her decision to hide the family’s Jewish identity after moving from New York City to rural Mississippi is the centerpiece of his soul-searching work. Ross’s project is an inquiry into the peculiar status of many Jews living on the fringes of mainstream Jewish life, either intentionally or by accident.

Seeking believers with similarly confused histories,  Ross visits New Mexico to meet so-called Crypto-Jews, people with a genetic claim to Jewish ancestry dating back to the Spanish Inquisition. Despite growing interest in Judaism among members of start-up congregations that draw their rituals and traditions from an intricately mixed Judeo-Christian religious background, the rabbinate of New Mexico refuses to recognize their authenticity.

Ross makes several Manhattan cross-town trips, visiting with Orthodox families and experiencing the rigidly structured and complex tradition of synagogue services. He experiments with Jewish community websites and even attends the risqué “Heebonism” Christmas Eve party on the Lower East Side, where Jewish hipsters play “Strip Dredel.” He explores the modern online Jewish dating scene.

Ross travels to Israel, where he investigates the difficulties of integrating Ethiopian Jewish immigrants into modern society. Readers will appreciate Ross’s honest and thoughtful analysis. The author desires to learn about Judaism and to develop a working definition that explains his connection to the religion. His command of secular vernacular and his sympathetic curiosity help Ross mix among diverse audiences. He is never afraid to let readers know when Jews’ behavior disappoints, embarrasses, bores him, or exhausts his energy to partake.

At times it is difficult to follow the precise timeline of Ross’s life. The author neglects to supply dates of important meetings. What is clearly documented, however, is his portrayal of the past two decades of cultural crisis that have left America’s disparate Jewish communities reeling.

Ross reports on a 1991 National Jewish Population Survey that painted a bleak outlook for the future of Judaism. Jews were intermarrying, ignoring rituals, and abandoning their membership in synagogues at an alarming rate. “In short, their connections to the historical conventions of Jewish life were tenuous at best; at worst they had been wholly severed,” he writes.

By 2010 little had changed. A study conducted by Brandeis University found that “a full 60 percent of American Jews identify themselves not as Orthodox, Reform, or Conservative but as the more nebulous ‘just Jewish.'”

As the labels that once defined degrees of religious commitment begin to vanish in the face of assimilation and changing attitudes, Ross finds himself caught in the middle. He humorously observes the culture’s arbitrary rules and the exceptions Jews make to clear their conscience whenever they have behaved in an “un-kosher” manner, yet he is also troubled by a decline in ritual Jewish life and community values.

Charting the rise of foundations like Birthright and the inspirational messages of congregation leaders across the country, the author appears to accept a point emphasized in a 2007 report on the effectiveness of Jewish outreach programs by Stephen M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman. “Judaism” today,” the pair argues, “operates in a competitive marketplace for what is essentially people’s leisure time.”

As Thomas Jefferson recognized, education should be men’s joyous pursuit during their “leisure” hours. Am I a Jew? offers a poignant view of how Judaism forever has been changed and challenged by uniquely American values. How will the religion adapt and accommodate to appeals for greater independence, anonymity, and freedom to engage on one’s own terms?

Ross devotes considerable time and effort following his own “spark” of Jewish interest, made all the more intriguing by his rather unconventional Jewish early education. He finds comfort in the self-realization that he has profited spiritually from the experience of writing his book. Readers will delight in his thoughtful adventures.

Jeffrey Barken, Cornell University graduate and University of Baltimore MFA candidate, frequently reports on Israel news topics and Jewish-interest literature. He is currently writing a collection of stories, “This Year in Jerusalem, Next Time in America,” based on his experiences living on a kibbutz in Southern Israel from 2009-2010.


1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Jewish former CNN host Larry King asked a Saudi Arabian fan if taking pictures with Jews is allowed in his country, before agreeing to pose for a photo with the man, The New York Times reported on Wednesday. The world-famous interviewer was leaving the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C. with a New York Times reporter when a “dark-skinned man” approached and asked to take a picture with him, according to the publication. Whereupon, King asked the fan where he was from. When the man said Saudi […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    British-Jewish business tycoon Lord Alan Sugar joked on Wednesday that London synagogues will likely be empty during Yom Kippur with congregants fleeing to watch the match-up of two leading English soccer teams known for having hordes of Jewish fans. “Spurs V Arsenal cup game drawn on most important Jewish festival,” Lord Sugar pointed out on Twitter. “Both teams have loads of Jewish fans. Conclusion Synagogues will be empty.” North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal FC will go head-to-head in the Capital One Cup third-round […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Two Jewish men were the only unwitting participants in a social experiment conducted by Jimmy Kimmel, for his popular TV show. As part of a candid-camera-like sketch featured Monday night on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the host devised different street scenes to observe human behavior — in particular, to see how long it would take people walking down California’s bustling Hollywood Boulevard to notice and interact with others in distress. One scene involved a man in a Spongebob Squarepants costume who had “fallen down” on the sidewalk and needed help […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    A major Jewish organization rebuked actress Natalie Portman on Monday for saying in a recent interview that Jews put too much emphasis on teaching about the Holocaust relative to other genocides. The Israeli-born movie star told the U.K.’s Independent that the Jewish community needs to examine how much focus it puts on Holocaust education over other issues. She said she was shocked when she learned that a genocide was taking place in Rwanda while she was in school learning only about the horrors of the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    JNS.org – A new book that draws parallels between the Holocaust and the Palestinian Nakba (the Arabic term for the displacement of Palestinian refugees during Israel’s War of Independence) has sparked outrage ahead of an official book launch, to be hosted by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute on Sept. 7. The Zionist organization Im Tirtzu wrote a letter to the institute demanding that it cancel an event it planned in honor of the book’s authors, under the title The Holocaust and […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Famed actress Natalie Portman warned on Friday against the use of Holocaust education to evoke fear and paranoia. In an interview with the U.K. Independent she added that the trauma should make Jews more empathetic to others who have also experienced hatred. “Sometimes it can be subverted to fearmongering and like ‘Another Holocaust is going to happen,’” the Israeli-American star said. “We need to, of course, be aware that hatred exists, antisemitism exists against all sorts of people, not in the same way. I […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    The Tribalist, by Louis Marano, is ostensibly a work of fiction but at its core a kind of love song by a gentile journalist for the State of Israel, and especially its secular Zionist core. (Because of the relentless attacks by left-wing polemicists on Israel’s allegedly “messianic” fringe, it’s often forgotten that most of Israel’s founders and all its leaders have been secular Zionists.) The author, the product of an Italian-American family in Buffalo, served two tours of duty in […]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    JNS.org – Rugelach (singular: rugala) are a beloved traditional Jewish pastry, with a quirky history to boot, but they often present a kosher conundrum. Though parve rugelach are often a preferred dessert after a meat meal for those observing kosher laws (which stipulate a waiting period between eating meat and dairy), some of today’s most popular rugelach are known for their dairy fillings. Pastry chef Paula Shoyer—author of the books “The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-free Recipes from Traditional to Trendy” and […]

    Read more →