“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.