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...

  • Blogs Features Israel and the Apartheid Narrative: 2 South African Student Leaders Weigh In

    Israel and the Apartheid Narrative: 2 South African Student Leaders Weigh In

    JNS.org – About two-dozen people file into Dodd 175 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus on a Thursday night, scouting out seats and picking at the kosher pizza in the back of the lecture hall. Miyelani Pinini knows the drill. A former student president of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, she’s attended and even organized her share of free-pizza events. But now she and a fellow South African student leader were the stars of this […]

    Read more →
  • Food Spirituality/Tradition The Brewish State: Israel Taps Into Growing Craft Beer Bazaar

    The Brewish State: Israel Taps Into Growing Craft Beer Bazaar

    JNS.org – It’s widely known that Israel has penetrated the wine market, with some of its sophisticated Israeli blends surpassing historically excellent wines from areas such as the Napa Valley or Bordeaux. But what about beer? For decades, Israel has offered solely the Maccabi and Nesher brands. Not anymore. “There is a huge push of people making beer at home. The country is approaching over 30 craft breweries in the last year or two, making nearly 200 beers,” says Avi Moskowitz, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Natalie Portman Says She Behaved Like ‘Average Everyday Jewish Mother’ on Set of Latest Movie

    Natalie Portman Says She Behaved Like ‘Average Everyday Jewish Mother’ on Set of Latest Movie

    Actress Natalie Portman acted like a typical “Jewish mother” on the set of her latest movie, Jane Got a Gun, the Israeli-born star told the New York Post‘s Page Six on Sunday. The 34-year-old, who also co-produced the western, said she made it her job to look out for everyone involved in the project, because the film has had to overcome “so many obstacles,” such as losing its director early on. She explained: “Actors changed. We suffered financial and legal challenges. We endured so many replacements. There were delays. […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Music Scorpions Lead Singer Sends Message to Israel Ahead of World Tour, Tel Aviv Performance (VIDEO)

    Scorpions Lead Singer Sends Message to Israel Ahead of World Tour, Tel Aviv Performance (VIDEO)

    “We’re looking very much forward to coming back to Israel this summer,” said the lead singer of the German rock band Scorpions in a video on Monday. “Make sure you don’t miss it because we rock you like a hurricane!” said a jovial Klaus Meine, quoting the band’s seminal 1984 anthem, “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” The hard rock band lands in Israel for a show at the Menorah Mivtachim Arena on July 14 as part of its 50th anniversary tour. It will be the band’s third time […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)

    The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)

    Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were the two most immediate and authentic literary voices who gave witness to the Holocaust. Wiesel was an extrovert and a very public figure who wrote initially in French. Levi was a modest retiring chemist who wrote in Italian. Whereas Wiesel was rooted in the Eastern European Jewish Hassidic world, Levi was the product of an assimilated, secular Italian society that saw itself as Italian first and Jewish as an accident of birth. As Levi himself said, “At Auschwitz I […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Lifestyle Wine Brings Judea and Samaria to Tel Aviv

    Wine Brings Judea and Samaria to Tel Aviv

    JNS.org – Wine has long been considered a social lubricant, and it’s Nir Lavie’s hope that wine from his Har Bracha Winery in the Samarian hills will serve as a social lubricant between the city-goers of Tel Aviv and the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria, two locales split geographically, and often politically, on the left and right of the country. The new flagship store of Har Bracha has recently popped its corks on 190 Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Gentile Actor Zachary Levi Says He’s Denied Roles for Being ‘Too Jewish’

    Gentile Actor Zachary Levi Says He’s Denied Roles for Being ‘Too Jewish’

    Actor Zachary Levi said casting directors have denied him roles for being “too Jewish,” despite the fact that he is not a Jew, the New York Daily News‘ Confidenti@l reported on Wednesday. “I guess they were looking for more of a corn-fed, white boy look,” he said. “My family is from f****** Indiana! Come on, I’m like dying here!” The Thor star clarified that he is Welsh, and that Levi is actually his middle name, while his real last name is Pugh. He said he […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Spirituality/Tradition Tracing Chabad’s History and Success (REVIEW)

    Tracing Chabad’s History and Success (REVIEW)

    The secret of Chabad’s worldwide success is revealed by veteran Chabad shliach (emissary) Rabbi David Eliezrie in his new book, The Secret of Chabad. The Chabad movement was founded by Rabbi Schnur Zalman of Liadi, Belarus, in 1775. Years later it came to the US with the arrival of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn in 1940, after his escape from Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Upon his arrival in New York, a number of his co-religionists advised him that there was no place for traditional […]

    Read more →