What a Day For an Auto-Da-Fé

Hunt for Lost Tribes, Crypto-Jews and Forcibly Converted

You’re Not a Jew, Are You? Theodore Ross tries to confront his Jewish identity crisis.
Matthew B. Gross
You’re Not a Jew, Are You? Theodore Ross tries to confront his Jewish identity crisis.

By Josh Rolnick

Published August 22, 2012, issue of August 24, 2012.
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Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search For Himself
By Theodore Ross
Hudson Street Press, 280 pages, $25.95

There are hooks, and then there is the first sentence of Theodore Ross’s new book, “Am I a Jew?” which grabs you by the lapels and makes you instantly uncomfortable and intensely curious, all at once.

“I was nine years old,” Ross writes, “when my mother forced me to convert to Christianity.”

The sentence itself seems to strain credulity. “Forced conversions” evoke images of the Spanish Inquisition and auto-da- fé. Moreover, Jewish mothers will do anything — absolutely anything — to force their children to remain Jewish. For proof of this, I need look no further than my own mother, who brimmed with worry when I dated a Catholic woman in college, and who proudly saw me off to live in Jerusalem a few years later, despite her real fears about my living in any city where terrorists were blowing up commuter buses. (She did send me with a double chai bag, 36 cents in a small sack that she’d sown, which I was to keep with me at all times for protection.)

A Jewish mother would force her son to convert to Christianity? Ross must be kidding. But the author is deadly serious.

Ross’s mother, Diane, was a physician and the child of a Jew who fled Nazi Germany. She grew up in Queens, N.Y. During a 1960s college road trip, she fell in love with the South the moment she “surveyed the antebellum mansions, the Spanish moss.” And so, later in life, after divorcing Theodore’s father and failing at a Manhattan medical practice, she moved Ross and his brother from New York City to a flyspeck town in Mississippi to open a medical practice.

Concerned about anti-Semitism, she instructed Theodore to tell everyone he met that he was Unitarian. While he never formally converted, she enrolled him in the Christ Episcopal Day School, where he studied the Bible and attended church each week. His mother also ordered him to keep the ruse from his father. And so, on holidays and summer break in New York City, he lived as a secular Jew. The rest of the year he sang in a church choir and received Communion.

Ross, features editor of Men’s Journal and co-founder of the parenting blog DadWagon, has wrestled with the impact of this “huge moment in his life” ever since. Neither his first nor his current wife is Jewish (one’s Catholic, the other Buddhist). He has two children, one from each marriage, and he says that he wants them to “practice the same religion” as each other “or none at all.” He has “no particular affinity for God,” and frets about whether other Jews would accept him. His relationship with Judaism is one of “furtive fascination… one that compels and repels in equal measure.” His book is an attempt to come to terms with his early “double life,” reconcile his conflicted attitudes, and answer the identity question that sits unsubtly as the book’s title.


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