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Mistaken Identity

My mother pretended we weren’t Jewish when we moved to the South—but couldn’t resist kvelling over my book about it

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Because I am a Jew, and a New York Jew at that, and because I am furthermore employed in publishing, I am, as is well known, bound by tradition and perhaps even natural law to sign a book deal. And so I have. It’s a rather pleasant thing to do, entering into a writing contract, despite the mental labor required to produce a book (I grow weary even now as I think of it). I do, however, work for a monthly magazine at which several colleagues have either written a book, are currently writing one, or are mulling the idea of it. I am therefore expected to behave as though securing a publishing deal is a good, but not overly momentous, event. In this regard I have undoubtedly failed to uphold the standards of my industry. I talk incessantly of my project, to all and anyone foolish enough to listen. And my literary self-commendation is not limited to work fellows: My girlfriend hears much of my project, as does my 4-year-old boy, my ex-wife, both of our divorce attorneys, my neighbor, my college friends, the folks who only hear from me via social media, my cheesemonger, close and distant relatives, and yes, my dog, Frankie.

One person I am rather loath to discuss it with is my mother. I know it would provide her with that sweet satisfaction of bragging about my success: my son the writer, she might say to someone, apropos of nothing; or, my son’s agent says, she might tell the man who mows her lawn; or, to her mother-in-law, Ted hasn’t called in three weeks because he’s on deadline. I don’t do it largely because she is the inspiration for the work.

When I was a child my mother moved with my brother and me from New York City to a small town in Mississippi. She had divorced my father, and, after struggling for some time to establish herself as a doctor in Manhattan, she had accepted an offer by a local hospital to start a private practice. Once there, she made what proved to be a key decision in my life: She forced my brother and me to keep our Judaism secret. She enrolled us in the Christ Episcopal Day School, where the curriculum included study of the Bible, weekly church attendance, and the recitation each morning, after the Pledge of Allegiance, of the Lord’s Prayer. For the years of my childhood, until I moved back to New York as a teenager to live with my father, I lived a minor sort of double life: fake Christian in Mississippi and secular Jew in Manhattan, where I returned for holidays and summer break. My mother’s reasons for doing this were complex, and I don’t know even today if I understand them fully, but I presume that she felt that her peers would reject her because she was a Jew. Of the many things our Bible Belt town might accept, my mother reasoned, Judaism was not among them.

My mother remarried when I was 14, to a Catholic man, and they chose to convert to Episcopalianism before the wedding. There was no discussion of my converting or participating in her new religion at all. Judaism became something we didn’t discuss, and I didn’t really think about it all that much. Children are eminently adaptable, and it wasn’t until much later that I began to reckon with this episode in my childhood. My stepfather, for his part, knew that my mother was Jewish, but his rather conservative family didn’t (my stepfather moved in with us before they got married, and his parents were upset by his “living in sin”), nor did my mother’s employees, her colleagues at the hospitals, or her friends. My stepfather is a good man; he didn’t care about our religion—converting was my mother’s idea, not his, and the move signified a social change, the spiritual equivalent of joining the right country club. The secrecy about our Jewish origins, of course, had to be maintained for two reasons: First, my mother was still convinced that she would face discrimination for her past; and second, it was impossible to go back on the lies. Also, there never seemed to be any reason to undo the prevarications—her religious past was a topic that simply didn’t come up. In recent years, however, as some of my writing has turned to Jewish topics, I have warned my mother that I would be disclosing considerable personal information, and that she should take care not to discuss my writing career with people she knows down south.

Then this summer I traveled to Mississippi with my son for a vacation. My mother hosted a barbecue for about 25 friends and relatives, none of whom, I thought, knew anything about my book. How could they? For my mother to tell them would mean disclosing the truth after 20 years of concealing it. Worse yet, what would it say about them? My mother had hidden her Judaism because she believed, at least on some level, that they were bigots unable to accept a Jew in their midst. I never imagined my mother would choose to expose herself.

Yet over dinner, an old friend congratulated me on my publishing deal. Reed is old-school Southern in the way you generally imagine from the movies: gregarious, unfailingly polite, handy with a pot of gumbo.

“Quite an achievement there, Ted,” he said, drawling an “a” into my name (Taed), as Southerners tend to do. I struggled not to choke on my ribs. His wife, Susan, a Texan, agreed, as did the rest of the folks at the table, each murmuring their best wishes.

I turned to stare at my mother, who was also at the table. She returned my look with a vague smile that did nothing to communicate the direction in which I should take the conversation.

Ever humble, I replied, “Yes, it is.”

“Now, maybe you can tell me what it’s about,” Reed said.

Again, I hadn’t imagined that my mother had shared my news with them. That would be foolish. But if she had, I could only assume that she had told them what the book was about. How do you tell a person about a book without telling them about the book? Southern manners helped, I suspect. My mother didn’t mention the subject, and they were simply too polite to inquire. But with me it would actually be rude not to ask.

A long moment passed as I blinked vacantly and tried to organize my thoughts. I decided to hedge.

“Well, Reed, I guess you can say it will be about eccentric Jews”—more glaring from me at my mother—“and, you know, communities of odd Jews, kinda, writing about them, that sort of thing, their practices, I don’t know, identity?”

Seen from the outside, this was, I knew, hilarious—a table full of people all trying to parse what the hell all that blather meant, their congitive wheels slowly squeaking along, while I, too, gamely tried to determine what to say next.

“But you’re not a Jew, are you,” Susan asked. (The working title of my book is: Am I a Jew? There are times I am convinced I am living in a sitcom.)

“Well, actually, I am.”

“But your mother isn’t?”

“Is that what she told you?”

“Yes, when we read your earlier articles”—another surprise! Apparently my mother had been going through the process of not keeping her mouth shut for some time—“we asked her and she said no.” This was technically true, but certainly misleading.

Despite my discomfort, both at having to cross my mother in public and being placed in a position where I couldn’t be fully honest, I remember feeling great affection for her at that moment. Here was this crazy woman, this mother, who had moved her family to the Bible Belt and built a life founded on a falsehood. I imagined that she knew there were real things at stake for her if the old inventions were revealed—no one likes being lied to. Yet she loved me enough, had taken enough pleasure in my achievement, to risk it. I kept silently repeating to myself: She’s a Jewish mom. She can’t help herself.

I should explain more of what I mean when I write about these things as inherently Jewish. It would be easy enough in reference to my mother to replace Jewish with Italian, or African-American, or Armenian, or Martian, or just mother. I use the term not because I believe there is something unique to the Jewish maternal instinct. What mother isn’t happy when her child finds a measure of success, even if enjoying that success takes something from her? Jewish mom, in this instance, is merely an idiom for a type of inclusion that I missed out on when I was young. I didn’t have a Jewish mom as a kid, not one that anyone knew about but me. I’m well aware that in claiming these clichés I am relying on shorthand, a lazy kind of cultural in-notation, built on stereotypes. But surrounded by people who didn’t know me in this context, and who may not know any Jews in any context, I feel entitled to insist on the Jewish specificity of my mother’s reaction.

I managed to offer a very limited answer, something about my father being Jewish but not my mother (technically true, as my mother converted), and the conversation moved on, thankfully. I had protected her to the extent that I could. (Such a mensch!) But I also believe my mother was signaling to me that in the future she didn’t need or want to be protected anymore, at least not by me. Her obligations as mother, Jewish or otherwise, compelled her to let me say what I felt needed to be said.

Theodore Ross is an editor at Harper’s Magazine.

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J Carpenter says:

How sad that our culture has been so intolerant that one could not openly, freely, innocently practice one’s faith and “be”—
I’m looking forward to reading your book.
Peace and blessings—

I wonder if we can, or should, make distinctions between a Jew by birth and one who is a “practicing” Jew. What really makes us distinctive. Does being an “observant” Jew in an unorthodox sense, a sense that through looking at the world, observing it, we unfold ourselves to take on Jewish practices. These practices have always been the glue connecting Jews all over the world.
So as the short ribs are shared at the Southern BBQ what really makes Ted’s Judaism distinctive?

This is a beautiful piece. My own father changed his last name to something less-Jewish sounding and both my parents had a conflicted relationship with Judaism which is so confusing when you’re a kid. Many of us ask in different ways: Am I a Jew or not?! Especially when we grew up in this odd tribe of the “Eccentric Jews.” I can’t wait to read this book. Gigi

SACnPhilly says:

Reading your fascinating story, I can not help but think of the analogy of gay men and lesbians hiding their sexuality for fear (sometimes real; sometimes imaginary) of reprisal. They are our modern Marranos.

Since my family moved to North-West Florida 20 years ago. I have spent a great deal of time around Southerners of various faiths. Sometimes they say something inappropriate, but they are by and large polite if condescending about my family’s faith.

I am often surprised by the range of misinformation non-Jews (like Jews themselves) have of Judaism. Some wonder if we believe in G-d. Others have asked how we worship (this being a mystery to most Gentiles). Most often people have asked why I don’t believe in Jesus. I usually reply that I do believe in him — as an historical figure — but that I do believe in the miracles attributed to him, because that would be a violation of the tenets of my faith.

In the South I am often conscious of the fact that my family may be the only Jews that they have ever met. I try to use these as “teachable moments,” an opportunity to improve everyone’s religious literacy by explaining what contemporary Jews do and do not believe. While refraining from proselytizing, I do try to convey some of the grandeur and diversity of Jewish thought.

From time to time a Christian will try to persuade me of the flaws in my precepts; sometimes they will want me to understand their faith. I listen eagerly because to understand the deep feeling that emanates in decisions of faith is to know something profound and meaningful about them. If they believe that I am going to hell for my beliefs; they never tell me about it.

SACnPhilly says:

Errata: but that I do not believe in the miracles attributed to him, because that would be a violation of the tenets of my faith.

Rivka says:

I think people do what they “think” they have to do. People are the same the world over. So?

Jeannie says:

I am looking so forward to reading this book. As someone who was raised as a Baptist in Kentucky (not necessarily “the South”, but the same norms), and who converted to Judaism at the age of 28, I am amazed at, in many ways, how far we have come, and yet in some ways how things have not changed at all. I certainly can understand how someone can fear the impact of ignorance and keep their faith a secret in some areas of our country. It is just a shame that in 2010 we are still there. Even though the book is obviously about someone older who grew up in somewhat different times, unfortunately, in may ways, not a lot has changed.

My conversion to Judaism came after living in NYC for a few years and I am so grateful to have been going from the South to NY instead of the other way around.

Thank you for writing the book…looking forward to it.

David J says:

You’re lucky. My mom threatened to disown me. I stopped writing.

A.L. Bell says:

I can understand why your mom made the decision she made, but, to some extent, maybe she was discriminating against the people in the small town in Mississippi by assuming that they were less tolerant than people in New York.

One problem with efforts to speak up for white folks in the South is that, obviously, there are some well-organized intolerant people in that region, not to mention outright kooks. But my guess is that most people associated with a hospital in the South would be worldly enough to have seen episode of Rhoda or Seinfeld. Some of them must be stunned by the idea that your mom thought they were too backward to accept the concept of a Jewish doctor.

I don’t think the mother’s choice was about oppression by external forces – not truly, no matter what she told herself. Instead, she was running from her own identity – hence the conversion. What a sad way to be.

RJS West Hollywood says:

What I don’t understand is why Mr. Ross’ mother never alerted him before his arrival home that she had told her social circle of his impending book. Having myself once been in a school where the students were primarily from the South, I can fully understand his mother’s reluctance to reveal her actual religion to her colleagues and friends; my Southern school experience was the first and only time I ever experienced overt anti-Semitism. But in Mr. Ross’ situation, his mother could have easily explained how much personal information she already divulged to the dinner guests and avoided burdening him with having to discern how much he could say without fear of creating for his mother what he thought could be a deeply embarrassing scene by which he would have then appeared to have failed and disappointed her — guilt that no good son would ever want or should have to suffer.

This leads me to wonder about Mr. Ross’ mother’s mental state. It’s cruel, despite my understanding of why she did it, to place a child in the difficult position of keeping a family secret. The cruelty was compounded in my view when Mr. Ross, as an adult and successful writer, returned to her home without her bothering quite simply to inform him to what degree her circumstances had changed. Remember, this is a highly educated, intelligent woman, a practicing physician, who should know better. Instead, she let her son wade into an even deeper (and totally avoidable) pool of deceit, uncertain of how to keep faith (pardon the pun) with her. At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if she takes credit for giving him a topic for a column for Tablet!

Something about her motivation strikes me as being less than, dare I say it, kosher.

Your mother is an idiot. (Sorry, Ted, I’m sure there’s more to her than that as well)

Michael R says:

Peace and long life to all those reading this. I’m not Jewish, but I do believe that I can empathize with some of your sentiments being designated an African American. At least in most of your cases Jews can be assimilated into the mainstream culture by simply changing your names. However, my beautiful caramel colored complexion prohibits me from being readily accepted into the so called mainstream society. Instances of Exclusivity aren’t as pronounced but as we all know distinction still persist. I’ll leave you this parting thought. Out of ALL nations the man (woman) who does the will of G-d is well pleasing to him that is father to us ALL!

This is a piece by a gutless n.y. jew (very small J) writing about a lousy, gutless mother. Altogether, a disgusting article. And this nebish has the gall to think he can write a book on Jews! And all the talkbackers are saying, oh, what a wonderful story, I can’t wait to read the book. What thoughtless crap. The country, and Jews, are getting dumber by hour.

Dorothy Wachsstock says:

Phil, I just love what you wrote. Ross had me going for awhile but in the end,,his mother was gutless.

Moving down to Va. from New York, We have come in contact with people who have never met a Jew, personally. They have seen those democrat Jews screaming on television from Congress and think that all Jews are the same. Thus, we are the Public Relations for the Jewish people and they keep asking us if we are sure we are Jewish.

I wear my star of David and have found it depends on who you meet and who they are. Most people are the same decent people in all religions. For those who do not like Jews..their problem not ours, but we will not hide what we are and have been accepted by various decent ethnics.

I’d love to hear from Stephen Dubner on this. Both his parents born Jewish (his father Orthodox), were converts to Catholicism and brought up their eight children in a strict Catholicism. Yet today, Stephen is a practicing Jew.

mikayla says:

When is the book due to come out?

Lily Brull says:

This pathetic mother should have had more trust and respect towards her new southern compatriots, and not assumed that they would all be bigots. Wherever she came across the small-minded and ignorant, her accomplishments would have given her an opening to present us in a positive light. Instead, she gave the impression that Judaism is a birth defect which needed to be hidden, and this is fundamentally unforgivable. How does one compare her cowardice to the courage and beauty of the 6 million who were annhilated by the Shoa, and of those who rose from the ashes and remade their world as proud Jews? She had a fortuitous opportunity to introduce Jews and Judaism accurately to a society which did not know them nor understand their uniqueness. What a missed opportunity.

Jane C. Durango says:

At first, I could kind of identify with the mother trying to not be a stereotypical Jew, but by the end, I found her and the son totally loathsome in their attempts to hide behind an identity that is not their own. Another reader mentioned the 6 million annhilated by the Shoa whose memory would be best served by being proud of their heritage. They should also honor the glory of the State of Israel whose citizens are exposed to constant violence to preserve our Jewish homeland. I will not read the son’s book. I can’t help thinking the words “pathetic cowards” for mother and son.

As a Jew who lives in the South, I don’t know which is more pathetic, the article or the responses to it.

“But I also believe my mother was signaling to me that in the future she didn’t need or want to be protected anymore, at least not by me.”

But did you, by any chance, *ask* her?

It is a shame, but I have found that many Jews, myself included, really don’t appreciate or are proud of their heritage until they are older. As a teenager, I wasn’t sure how I fit into the whole high school scene. Being older, I have a real appreciation for the Jews as a race known for our intellectualism, and for being jewelers, doctors, and other high professions. I recently found out that this was due to having to constantly move during the Holocaust and the need for a job that didn’t take much materials, like a painter or a bricklayer where physical materials are necessary to do the job.

Deborah says:

Sounds like the bigotry was in your mother’s mind, assuming that all Southerners would be intolerant of her Judaism. Do you realize Jews have lived in the South for generations? Even Mississippi? Did Mom seek out a Jewish community?

I’m a Jew, born, raised, and living in the South. I’ve never had anything but honest curiousity about my religion. But I’ve experience plenty of prejudice because of my Southerness.

Victoria says:

When I read this story (as an African American Jew by Choice) I think of all the people of color I knew and my grandparents knew who “passed” in order to make a life. I grew up on those stories of men and women who passed as white, moved North/South/Mid-West, and sent much needed money home.

I think of my great grandmother who could have passed for white but chose not too because she fell in love with a man the color shoe leather. I think about my great Aunt who did pass for white “up north” or rather didn’t assert her blackness. I think about my maternal great great grandmother who lived in Missouri at a time when it was illegal for Indians to own land and she passed as Black (lol–true story..who would ever think to pass for black??)

I can not in good conscience judge the author or his mother. His/her story is the story of my family and friends.

Judy in Atlanta says:

For the uneducated, two of the earliest Jewish houses of worship in America were in Charleston, SC and in Atlanta, GA. NOT New York.
My Mom is a survivor of the Shoah, and did not stop in New York and settle. Our family was sponsored by Jews in Atlanta. Our identity was never in question and never denied. Racists and bigots live everywhere, independent of location.

This type of article worries me. We Jews are supposed to love each other, but I find it very difficult to feel love for the author. Instead, I feel insulted by the superior attitude and condescension, as if it is an imposition and even a burden to write this book. Why do it? Because everybody else is?

Finally, if I understand Halacha correctly, then the mother indeed is not a Jew. She converted and therefore disavowed Judaism, so the use of “Jewish Mother” is wrong.

angry and disgusted says:

What a disgusting pathetic woman! She’s a self-hating anti-semitic scumbag! So is her son who excuses the actions of his evil mother. This women is basically a nazi. There is no difference between her and hitler, except that he murdered millions of Jews. Theodore and his mother are the poster children for Judenrats!

victoria says:

Is there a reason we cannot disagree with the author or offer opinions about his mother’s choice without resorting to name calling?

ugh. I feel soiled just reading the condemnation comments.

In a class I teach, I have a woman who works as a rabbi for a local synagogue. The meanness of her congregation in the hours she must work and the work she must complete are exactly why I stopped being Catholic, something I considered my culture as much as my religion.

I don’t think that any man, or woman, of God would support the meanness that modern-day religion brings. But if they did/do, I want nothing of it. I’ll choose the hell of being good to my fellow human, of any faith or persuasion, to the “heaven” of the righteously horrible.

There. I’ve said it. Amen.

angry and disgusted says:

No one is resorting to “name-calling” here. We are just writing the truth about a despicable mother and son. If you can’t handle it that’s your problem.

WTF! You need to get some meds. What do your rambling non-sensical comments have to do with this article? This has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with a woman denying her heritage to appease a bunch of anti-semites. She thinks that gentiles are superior to Jews which makes her akin to hitler. You are obvioulsy uninformed about Judaism and just plain crazy.

Speaking as a rabbinical student, virtually every criticism of Ted and his mother made in this thread is wrong.

First, Ted’s mother is a Jew. Under Orthodox law, “al pi hu, Yisrael hu” — even though a sinner, always a Jew. A Jew who converts to another religion is a meshumad, an apostate, but is still considered Jewish halachically and may return to Judaism at any time after doing teshuvah (repentance), and should be encouraged to do so.

The idea that conversion to another religion removes Jewish identity is an erroneous concept enshrined in Israeli civil law that is flatly contradicted by halacha, but has seeped out into the Jewish mainstream where people now think it is Jewish Orthodox religious law.

Second, Ted is a Jew. He has a Jewish mother and a Jewish father. The same Jewish identity criteria apply to him, regardless of his personal beliefs and practices. He should be accepted as a Jew and encouraged to live as a Jew.

Third, virtually every account of returning Jews I have ever read in Jewish history suggests that most rabbis ruled that they were to be readmitted to the Jewish community. Only a minority wanted to declare them non-Jews and reject them.

The people attacking Ted Ross and his mother need to improve their knowledge of both halacha (Orthodox Jewish law) and Jewish history and would greatly benefit by taking classes in both. You could benefit from some serious study of Jewish ethical teachings on welcoming returning Jews and chesed (mercy).

Finally, I have been in Ted’s shoes. My Orthodox Jewish mother ran away from a dysfunctional family, married my Epsicopalian father, converted to Christianity, and I did not learn the truth until I was an adult.

I now lead the Half-Jewish Network and the Inclusivist Judaism Coalition (IJC) to reach out to the thousands of half-Jewish and born Jews like Ted who face harsh rejection from Jews who apparently don’t know their own theology and history. Ted is welcome to join IJC.

Robin Margol

@AngryandDisgusted: No name-calling???

In your post alone: “disgusting”, “pathetic”, “self-hating anti-semitic scumbag”, “evil”, “nazi”, “hitler”, and “poster children for Judenrats”. Given all of that, I’m morbidly curious to hear what your definition of “name-calling” might be.

I’m frankly not surprised that you don’t undertand the point that Karen was trying to make, about those who use their religious piety to cloak or excuse their meannness.

Would you feel better if he would have lambasted his mother using the same demeaning terms that you used? Have you forgotten to take some medicaton today? That is not an entirely glib question … your level of vitriol and disgust, and the way that your feelings were expressed, seem to me to be somewhat out of proportion to the issue at hand, and medium in question.

While I don’t applaud the actions of the mother in this story, there are things that she did that I *can* understand, as a fellow-parent.

The author’s mother was divorced, and she needed to support her children, so she accepted a job that would allow her to do so AFTER apparently-unsuccessful searches in NYC and elsewhere. I believe that, as misguided and even cowardly as her actions now seem, she likely behaved as she did – initially, at least – out of the desire to protect her children. She did not move to a Jewish community, it appears, because that’s not where she found a job. She didn’t take a stand and make a point of educating her community, or gamble that her presence as a Jew would not jeopardize her job or her children’s welfare, because those were risks that she thought were untenable given her responsibilities.

Again, I don’t agree with what she did, and I don’t believe that I’d make the same decisions … but this broad-brush assassination of a woman who was trying to legally support her kids and build a good life for them – and the similar condemnation for her son who DID grow up to be a practicing Jew despite how the odds seem to have been stacked against that – seems to me to be unnecessarily harsh and even un-Jewish in its lack of empathy.

I can hear my mother tell me as a young girl of 12, “I wanted to marry a man with the most Jewish sounding name possible”. Although my mother did not enter a house of worship, nor do I think she believed in G-d, I do know both parents felt a deep sense of pride, of love for our Jewish heritage. I did not truly come to my love for my people, my faith, and Israel until I had my son, since departed. I am so sorry to hear of people who don’t stand in awe of who we are and how we still thrive today. It hurts.

I totally understand both you and your mom.The havoc that religion can cause in a family is well worth writing about. I grew up in your mom’s era in a half-Catholic household and in those times I would not have wanted to be Jewish. I have also been a single mom. My now grown children have bones to pick with me that I don’t recognize as having been a meal. I was too busy saving them from things my parents visited on me. When your little ones are grown the world will look different to each of you. There is obviously love in your family as there is in mine. Go with that.

Avi says:

I live in Southern Israel. For most people here, Hebrew is the only language they know, though kids learn English at school with variable success.
It is so sad that in our time Jews felt they needed to hide, as if the Inquisition was still around. I would say that if Theodore Ross is interested in his Jewish roots, the first thing to do would be to learn Hebrew.

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Mistaken Identity

My mother pretended we weren’t Jewish when we moved to the South—but couldn’t resist kvelling over my book about it

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