Author Blog: Looking Up in New York
Theodore Ross is the author of “Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself.” His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
As this is my first post, please allow me to introduce myself: I am the author of “Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself,” which tells the story of a secular Jewish kid (me) who moves from New York to Mississippi, where he is forced by his mother to pretend he is a Christian. As an adult, I determine to understand what place, if any, there is in the religion of his birth for a kid who sang lead in an Episcopal school choir, studied the Bible, and took Communion. There’s more to it — everything from Jewish Catholic priests in New Mexico to my 10-minute bar mitzvah as a 38-year-old — but that’s a fair start to understanding where I’m coming from.
I sometimes struggle to explain what renewed my interested in Judaism. As I write in the book: “I visited a Holocaust Memorial site on vacation in the Czech Republic (it moved me to be sure, but not in this direction); I had children (I love them but that didn’t do it either); I lost members of my family (I miss my grandparents but I’m not [doing this] for them). The truth, banal as it might sound, is that I simply wanted to know. Or, more precisely, I needed to. Like my mother, I had my own myth to make real. Only mine, instead of entailing the abandonment of a specific and defined heritage, would require its embrace.”
So I lack a simple answer for what motivated the project and process of answering my question. I do, however, remember the specific thing that convinced me re-enter the world of Judaism, in my own way: the Manhattan eruv. Most readers of this blog, I assume, are familiar both with the concept of eruvin as well as the unique history of the one located in Manhattan (You may not, however, know, that a certain Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side holds a — admittedly ceremonial — 99-year lease on the entire island, at the bargain price of just one dollar), but I didn’t, and when I happened one day some years ago to notice the wires of the Manhattan crisscrossing the avenue outside of my office, I was inspired enough to learn.
The presence of this massive, symbolic Jewish household suggested something a few, very important things to me: first, I was in a Jewish world already and I didn’t know; second, that world was complex and meaningful, even if I couldn’t really accept its spiritual underpinnings; and last, and most important, if I didn’t make the effort to see that house — that world — it would, for all practical purposes, not exist. Now, I wander the city doing something very un-New York: looking up, scanning the streetlights for evidence of eruvin.
Read more about Theodore Ross here.
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