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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    JNS.org – Today’s comedy superstars, especially those whose careers are driven by television, may very well owe their success to pioneering Jewish entertainer Milton Berle. Born Mendel Berlinger in Manhattan in 1908, Berle became America’s first small-screen star. Aptly nicknamed “Mr. Television,” he influenced and helped promote the work of hundreds of younger comics. “Milton Berle was deceptively successful and very Jewish,” says Lawrence Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, published the year [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    JNS.org – Idan Ravin’s friends chipped in to buy him a humble but life-changing bar mitzvah gift—a basketball hoop his father attached to the roof of his garage. Little did his friends know that years later, he would be the personal trainer of National Basketball Association (NBA) stars Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, and Stephen Curry. Ravin’s new book, “The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Head of Basketball’s Best Players,” details his rise from a Jewish upbringing [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs 10 New Hollywood Movies That Aim to Show Support for Israel (SATIRE)

    10 New Hollywood Movies That Aim to Show Support for Israel (SATIRE)

    Ten major film studios are currently in production on projects that promote a decidedly pro-Israeli narrative. In famously liberal Hollywood, such a development has left mouths agape and set tongues a wagging. Since the Jewish State began defending itself from the thousands of rockets that Hamas has hurled at it – as well as ongoing terror attacks and murders, the overwhelming number of Tinseltown’s producers, directors, actors, and studio moguls have remained indifferent to the plight of millions of Israeli [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Israel Sports So Close: Israeli Judoka Loses Crown in World Cup Final, Finishes With Silver (VIDEO)

    So Close: Israeli Judoka Loses Crown in World Cup Final, Finishes With Silver (VIDEO)

    Israeli Judoka Yarden Gerbi (63kg), 25, of Netanya, on Thursday lost the final round at the Judo World Cup, and her world title to Clarisse Agbegnenou of France, at a match held in Russia. “I have mixed feelings,” Gerbi told Israeli Army radio. But, “I shouldn’t assume that I’d win the world Judo championship twice in a row,” she admitted. Gerbi won gold in Rio De Janeiro last year. “When I made my decision, I knew it was going to [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity Surviving the Holocaust by Hiding Their Faith (REVIEW)

    Surviving the Holocaust by Hiding Their Faith (REVIEW)

    “Jews Out!” was just the name of a child’s game that three little girls played in World War II Europe. But all is not as it seems because the three girls were Jewish, but hiding their true identities. In award-winning author R. D. Rosen’s riveting non-fiction work, Such Good Girls, “Jews Out!” wasn’t a game; it was a struggle for survival. The girls, Sophie, Flora, and Carla, grew up at a time and a place that did not allow them [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities Twenty Years On, the Real and Radical Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

    Twenty Years On, the Real and Radical Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

    JNS.org – “He was part hippie, part yippie, part beatnik, and part New Age,” wrote Elli Wohlgelernter in a Jerusalem Post eulogy in 1994, following the Oct. 20 passing of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Twenty years later, more robust accounts of Carlebach’s life have come to the surface. Earlier this year, Natan Ophir published the book Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission & Legacy. This past summer, Rabbi Shlomo Katz’s The Soul of Jerusalem hit the shelves. But even the authors will admit [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Music Beatlemania Invades the Gaza Strip (SATIRE)

    Beatlemania Invades the Gaza Strip (SATIRE)

    As Hamas loses its grip on power in the Gaza Strip as a result of war, poverty and disillusionment, the Islamist terrorist group has developed an ingenious way to raise the morale of the 1.7 million Palestinian Arabs it was elected to serve. While currently focused on delivering a rocket into every Israeli home, Hamas has not left its own people behind. To gently wipe away the tears of children strategically placed inside kindergartens as human shields, the Hamas Interior Ministry [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    In a strong statement that challenges the historic divide between Christianity and Judaism, Pope Francis recently proclaimed, “Inside every Christian is a Jew.” But if you look at Renaissance artworks that depict Jesus, you will not find any evidence of a Jew inside the Christianized Jesus — even though the Gospels in the New Testament tell us that Jesus was Jewish to the core. Getting that point across to the public is a daunting task, as I learned in interviews I [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.