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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Ross embarks on a journey across the country and around the world. He travels to Albuquerque, N.M, to speak with “Crypto-Jews,” descendants of the medieval Spanish Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism. He spends a night in Manhattan’s Union Square as high-concept sukkahs are installed in a “Sukkah City.” In Kansas City, he visits with members of a rare synagogue that practices Classic Reform — a “stripped-down” variant of Reform whose adherents don’t wear yarmulkes or bar or bat mitzvah their children. He scrapes the inside of his mouth to get a DNA sample for a genetic screening company that can purportedly tell him if he hails from Jewish ancestry. Though he finds Orthodoxy irritating, he spends a great deal of time seeking out Hasidic Jews.

“There could be no avoiding it,” he writes. “To understand if I am a Jew requires that I learn how faith works among the faithful.”

And so he wangles an invitation for Shabbat dinner with an Orthodox couple in Brooklyn, attends a shabbaton at an Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side, and then accepts an invitation to the Boro Park wedding of the couple’s daughter.

When Ross trains his eye on his subjects, he does not miss. Here’s his description of the davening at the Brooklyn shul:

Their bodies moved with each prostration to God, some swaying with boredom, others jerking in fervent release. Every few moments the inchoate streams of Hebrew murmuring would overlap and the men would bark amein at the same time. I couldn’t make sense of the pace or the order of the prayers.

Mainly, as he travels from place to place, he is a journalist, not a participant, investigating different types of “being a Jew” — hidden, genetic, religious, cultural — and at times I wondered why he wasn’t observing less and engaging more with like-minded, striving Jews.

When Ross finally answers his question, it seems less like he has arrived, through his journey, at someplace definitive, and more like he’s dutifully wrapping things up. (If the central question is also the title, don’t you have to answer it?) I found myself flipping backwards to a footnote that appears halfway through the book. After a Mississippian says to him, “You’re not a Jew, are you?” he responds, “Well, actually, I am.” As he explains in the note: “Regardless of the title of this book, I am Jewish in Mississippi. Anything else would be a betrayal.” Spend more time there, I thought. Interrogate that.

Yet in the end, Ross’s earnestness as he romps around Judaism’s edges, his willingness to look unflinchingly at himself and ponder tough questions about identity that most of us never tackle, makes his journey compelling.

In a way, all of Ross’s travels and seeking lead to a confrontation with his mother that exists at the book’s emotional core. In a powerfully written scene, he finally puts all of his questions to his mother, point blank.

Her answers are stunning, uncomfortable and sad. They provide an honest portrait of Jewish fears (“I did not want my kids to be lampshades”) and assumptions (“everybody hates the Jews”) that we ignore at our peril. And they remind us that our own tussles with and choices about Judaism are perhaps more heavily influenced by our parents than we might like to admit.

At one point, Ross asks his mother — given that his book is about her lie — why she told all her friends he was writing it.

“Because I’m proud of you,” she says.

And, suddenly, just as we were about to write her off, just as we were ready to label her eccentric or cowardly or odd, there she is — the Jewish mother we all recognize.

Josh Rolnick is the author of “Pulp and Paper,” winner of the 2011 John Simmons Short Fiction Award. He is publisher of Sh’ma, a Journal of Jewish Ideas, and fiction editor of Unstuck, a literary annual.


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