2:56 pm Oct. 1, 2012
The writer Theodore Ross usually fasts on Yom Kippur, but as he was preparing to give a reading last week at Pacific Standard bar in Brooklyn, he admitted he’d slipped up this year.
“Well, I had lunch,” Ross said. Later it came out he’d had breakfast too. These were appropriate admissions, as Ross was there to read from his new book, Am I a Jew? Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man's Search for Himself, in which he investigates the nature of Jewish identity, from the devout to those who skip their Yom Kippur fasting.
The book’s central question originated, for him, in childhood, when he was presented with a very confused notion of his heritage.
After his parents’ divorce, Ross moved with his mother to Mississippi, where she decided they would have an easier time adjusting to life in the Bible belt if they discarded their religion. At age 9, Ross was enrolled in Episcopal day school, and after that he attended church every week and even sang in the choir.
Years later Ross, an editor at Men’s Journal, decided to confront this odd break with the religion of his ancestors by seeking within and without himself the nature of Jewishness. The resulting book doesn’t aspire toward a comprehensive delineation of Jewish culture, religious thought, and identity throughout the world, but rather seeks Jews on the margins of Jewish identity, those for whom the titular question is a real one. He ended up traveling to eclectic Jewish communities and asking them the same question, and how they seek to answer it.
The reading was put together by the fatherhood website DadWagon, of which Ross is a co-founder, and had him in conversation with another co-founder of the site, Matt Gross, a travel and food writer for The New York Times, Saveur, and other publications. In addition to DadWagon founders and fans, several of Ross’s own family members were in attendance. Before he got started reading, Ross exhibited that the interrogative mood suggested by his book’s title hasn’t left him.
“Do you observe [Yom Kippur]?” Ross asked his uncle Gene.
“No…no…I just do it in my own way.” Gene responded.
Nathan Thornburgh, the third co-founder of Dadwagon and a contributing writer and former senior editor at Time Magazine, moved from table to table to light tea candles just before the event was to start.
“This just seems like a Jewish thing to do,” he said. “I think it’s the wrong holiday but I’m just going to say, it’s making me feel more Jewish.”
Is Thornburgh Jewish?
“I’m in the yeah sort of Jewish column,” he said. “I’m behind Ted.”
Ross began the reading with the introduction to the book. For Ross’s family, even before he was stripped of his religion, Judaism wasn’t necessarily about faith, he explained. It was about culture. It was a guide by which they could define their values.
“What other faith conjures up so much doubt in its adherence?” Ross read aloud. “It is fundamental to the religion itself. Do you speak Hebrew? Great if you do, but if you don’t you can still be a Jew. Were you bar mitzvahed? Nice, such a good boy, but plenty of Jews weren’t. Am I a Jew?... it’s an obvious question but one even the most sophisticated minds struggle to answer.”
He went on to describe some of the travels he took and people he met in attempting to examine his identity. Of all the different communities he visited—from Crypto-Jews in New Mexico to Ethiopian Jews in Israel—Ross was most perplexed by the Orthodox Jews right here in New York City.
“I found the Orthodox to be some of the strangest Jews that I came into contact with.” Ross said, “They are the ones that I knew the least about and found the most mysterious.” He detailed the eccentric nature of the recruitment dinners he attended with some evangelical Orthodox Jews—the songs, the dances, and the copious consumption of alcohol, all meant to sway him from being a lapsed Jew to a devout convert.
He found, in his travels to Israel, that the sort of significance routinely placed on such trips was far less mysterious, and felt somewhat hollow for its expectedness.
“As an American going to Israel, there is this great pressure to have something happen to you,” he said, “You’re supposed to go to the Wailing Wall … and break down in tears, grow your hair out of the sides, and that didn’t happen to me,” he said. Thus what might have been another book’s climax becomes this book’s fitting anticlimax. Ross travels to the Holy Land but has no conversion experience. He returns home feeling pretty much the same, and that, in part, is the point of Am I a Jew?
Ross finds by the end of the book that, after examining the many different ways of being Jewish and being Jewish-ish in hopes of finding an existing place to fit himself into the great pantheon, it’s, at least in part, his curiosity and devotion to examining it in the first place that solidifies his identity. He is a Jew—despite the episcopal childhood, the lack of an emotional epiphany in front of the Wailing Wall, or even the fast-less Yom Kippur.
And besides, most years, he said, he does fast.
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