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...

  • Book Reviews Personalities How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    JNS.org – What would you do if you found out that you had only three more months to live? Gordon Zacks was a successful businessman, a leader of Jewish life, and a confidante and adviser to President George H.W. Bush. He knew that he had prostate cancer, but doctors advised him that it was very slow-growing and nothing to worry about. Then came the day when the doctors told him his cancer metastasized to his liver, and that he had [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater 10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    Last month, my one-man show Hoaxocaust! Written and performed by Barry Levey with the generous assistance of the Institute for Political and International Studies, Tehran ran in the New York International Fringe Festival, where it won an Overall Excellence Award. The play has now been selected to run in the Fringe Encores Series at Baruch College’s Performing Arts Center, for four performances which started on Thursday, September 11. Getting the play to the stage was not easy, however. Here are [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Phenomenon: Tel Aviv-based musician and “sampler” extraordinaire, Kutiman (aka Ophir Kutiel) has hit another one out of the park with “Give It Up,” a fully-functioning song in its own right, assembled from hundreds of ameteur and instructional music videos. The Jerusalem-born musical prodigy is best know for his diverse online musical projects. In the latest video, uploaded to YouTube on Sept. 12th, Kutiel thanked most of the musicians and individuals he chose to include in the meticulously-edited clip, which opens with [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    A recently released behind-the-scenes reel of Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Exodus: Gods and Kings shows just how far the director has gone to portray one of the Bible’s most famous narratives. In the clip, which shows scenes involving up to 4,000 extras, the visionary director discusses what drew him to the biblical tale of Moses. “The Moses story was a massive challenge, which I really love. I wanted to explore the complexity of his character and I was stunned by [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    JNS.org – Since 2006, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable and satellite TV network has hosted “The Projected Image,” a month-long showcase examining how different cultural and ethnic groups have been portrayed on the big screen. At last, after previously covering African Americans, Asians, the LGBT community, Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, and people with disabilities, the annual series is delving into Jewish film this month. “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film,” whose first segment aired Sept. 2, runs [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    The sight of young girls in pinafores and young boys wearing peyos – sidelocks – dangling over their ears is a sure sign that you have entered the enigmatic precincts of the Hasidim – the pious ones. Veteran New York Times journalist Joseph Berger’s new book, THE PIOUS ONES: The World of Hasidim and their Battles with America, takes the reader on a journey into the enclaves where various sects of Jews live a seemingly outmoded way of life in [...]

    Read 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 →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.