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Member of the Tribe

Theodore Ross grew up pretending he wasn’t Jewish. His book Am I a Jew? traces his re-engagement with Judaism.

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Matt Gross, Shutterstock, and Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

When Theodore Ross moved with his newly divorced mother and brother to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi at age 9, the family pretended not to be Jewish. This deceit was his mother’s idea, and years later it led Ted to question whether he should consider himself a Jew at all, having been discouraged from embracing any religious identification as a young person. In recent years, the desire to answer that question led him to seek out other Jews who are outliers in some way, from crypto-Jews in the Southwest, to the “lost tribe” Ethiopian Jews now resettled in Israel, to ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn who welcome him into their homes for Shabbat.

Ross writes about these journeys in Am I a Jew? Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself. He joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to talk about why his mother demanded that he hide his religious identity, what it was like pretending not to be entirely himself, and why he chose to spend time with non-mainstream Jews as a way to re-engage with what being Jewish might mean for him. [Running time: 18:50.] 

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cczivko says:

I’m really glad to know I’m not the only one. I grew up in NC under similar circumstances. I’ve always known I am Jewish to the core, yet feel like I really don’t belong anywhere. All of my siblings deny their Jewishness and have married out. Sad not to have a family.

    Ted_McGillicudy says:

    You should see if there is a chabad group near you, or look into the offerings at the local JCC (if you’re near city large enough to have a JCC). The Jewish ‘outreach’ is out there and would welcome you.

    Try spending some time out in public in New York or Boston. There are many anti-semites that may recognize that you are a Jew. It happened to me in Boston, when someone(s) yelled Kike at me from a passing car. I have told this short story many times since – It thrilled me to no end. It was at that point that I realized that being a Jew was not merely just another religion, it was an actual physical heritage.

      person63 says:

      Is it? Or are those physical identifiers a holdover of the Nazis’ attempt to make Jewishness a racial identity? What about all those Jews who don’t “look” Jewish? What does it mean when another Jewish person comes up to you on the street and asks, “Are you Jewish?” My mother is frightened when anyone asks her that question, including other Jews. When I was a child, people often asked where I got my frizzy hair and “almond-shaped” eyes, as if my physical characteristics were somehow subversive and suspicious. It’s very strange.

        I look like a Jew. But perhaps I should say, “I look like a Hebrew”.

        Or do I really. You make a great point here. I identify my race as Hebrew/Jew and my Grandmother actually used this successfully to get me into a Government program in which I was excluded because of the affirmative action laws at the time – instant minority – all it took was a trip to the local NAACP and I was in like Flynn.

        But perhaps – you are totally correct. Good comment. Thank you. Now you have me questioning my racial identity.

          person63 says:

          Race is itself an artificial construct, usually used by an “in” group to exclude an “out” group. The Nazis did list their preferred human characteristics, such as blond hair, blue eyes, white skin. (My younger child could not possibly look more Scots-Irish).

          When people were less mobile, those who lived in the same region tended to develop similar physical characteristics, but that has nothing to do with religion.

          Add to that the complex notion of Jews as a “people” and it gets more confusing, although let’s not forget that during the Exodus the Hebrews left Egypt with “a mixed multitude.”

          An interesting book on the topic of Jewishness and race is The Colors of Jews, which explores the lives of Jews in America who are not of Eastern European descent. You might also look at the website of Jews in All Hues. It may be worth remembering that all Yids are Jews, but not all Jews are Yids.

        You know actually, I have always been of the belief that we were robbed of our physical heritage (lineage through mothers) – by the NAZI’s to discount Jews as nothing more than those that prescribe to a religion.

        Very few Ortho. converts make it. Because, just like my experience with a local temple – you have to show some sort of lineage for acceptance in the strictest sense of the Ortho. Jew “religion”.

          I’m sorry, but you’re mistaken. Many, many Orthodox converts have no Jewish lineage at all. You’re right to say that many potential Orthodox converts do not finish the process, which is lengthy and demanding, but it is not because of any problem with their heritage.

          I don’t think you understand what I was trying to say. Which is not any fault of yours, of course. I don’t think my argument is very concise or clear to begin with.

          I didn’t have a problem with the rest of your argument, though it did meander and I’m not sure I understood everything you were trying to say. I was just pointing out that it’s untrue that “you have to show some sort of lineage for acceptance” in an Orthodox conversion process.

          Lots of non-Jews with no Jewish lineage or experience or relatives or whatever convert with an Orthodox process.

          That was not my experience at Temple here 20 years ago. That was just one case in point, however. And I am sure it was not entirely exclusive.

person63 says:

I would be interested to read the book, having had a similar experience – my mother preferred that people not know she was Jewish, and told me not to tell anyone, but we were not religious, and my father wasn’t Jewish. As an adult I felt a need to explore the cultural context of my life and the forces that shaped my mother’s decision to distance herself from a Jewish identity, but for me, this includes a spiritual quest. My experience differs from that of Ross in that no one has ever regarded me as Jewish, and it is not at all easy to get people to accept me as a Jew, even though halakha says I am. In “mainstream” Jewish life, as I think Ross is defining it (if I understand him correctly), secular Jews who identify as Jews are the least likely to view me as a Jew because I didn’t grow up with the specifically Jewish cultural experiences of celebrating the holidays or going to Jewish day-camp as a kid or learning all the Hebrew songs, etc. Despite this, I have always been well aware of anti-Jewish bigotry. It is strange to feel like an outsider in both Jewish and Christian settings, set apart from so-called “American” culture, not really belonging anywhere as Cczivko says below. It was an isolating experience to grow up that way. I have been asking questions about Who is a Jew and What is a Jew for quite some time, and find there are many vague answers, which leads me to conclude that, as Ross suggests, perhaps “mainstream” American Jews don’t know very much about Judaism as a religious tradition.

    Jewish or Hebrew? One and the same?

    If your mother is a Jew – are you too?

    What if your mother is a convert? will you still have features that make you recognizable in some communities as a Jew?

    What if she was Hebrew, yet never wen’t to temple. Would your nose look like mine?

    Is it a Jewish nose or a Hebrew nose. Are my features dictated by the yiddish I once barely spoke as a toddler?

    Is this the same as dogs beginning to look like their owners?

    I am in direct lineage of Jews in NAZI camps, through my mother, who seldom went to temple and is more astrological than judaic to this day (horoscopish and new age philosophy.)

    When I tried to gain membership at a local synagogue, the Rabbi, a holocaust survivor, would not allow me to have membership unless I was to show him a written letter from my mother declaring that she was in fact a Jew, like her mother before her.

    A doctor, who is still with us, and also a holocaust survivor, supported my protest to this in the temples newsletter and said “leave your papers at home!” after citing a couple of atrocities his family and himself had suffered in the same ghettos that my family resided in during the war.

    That has always left me asking the same questions as above, which I am sure are a lot like the questions you ask. Just this experience right here, makes me not feel so lonely, being a Jew, whether I like it or not.

    As the good doctor said, with a nose like mine and the timbre of my voice, the NAZI would have had me “straight away”.

    At what point can we accept at the very least the honor of being a Jew, who would want to? Me, you and Mr. Ross. God bless all of us Jews.

      person63 says:

      Yes. It is a beautiful tradition. If you are going to experience antisemitism anyway, why not also gain the benefits of being a Jew?

        If they allow you to.

          person63 says:

          I felt that way until I realized that if I decided to wait until someone “let me” be Jewish, I might be waiting for the rest of my life. I think I wanted some sort of validation or proof. I couldn’t “convert” to what I already am, although some said I should. Others said to just learn.

          I have chosen to claim and explore my Jewish heritage and the religion by educating myself. One excellent resource is a book called The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal, by Rabbi Dr Arthur Segal. If you Google him, you can find his website. I studied with him privately for over a year. He has another book with a Torah commentary. Then, over the course of the past year or so, I worked with him to create a new book (first contemporary commentary) on the Talmud tractate of Derek Eretz Zuta, which is about person-to-person mitzvot, how to treat one another according to Jewish ethical ideals (it is called Great is Peace).

          I am still “unaffiliated” and imagine I will stay that way because I don’t fit into any neat categories. Yet the more I learn about the Jewish philosophical approach to life and the history of the Jewish people, the more strongly I identify with what I am learning. The values I saw expressed in the behavior of family members make more sense. I feel more at home. My Jewish identity comes from me, not from others. I can’t change their opinions or ways of thinking, but I can change my level of understanding and comfort and familiarity and self-acceptance and my relationship with G-d.

          That said, I do not have the birth certificates or other papers to “prove” that I am Jewish, but I don’t need them, as I am not trying to move to Israel.

Umish Katani says:

here is the otherside, i grew up conservadox, kosher grandparents both sides, yiddish and hungarian speaking households, yeshivas, hebrew schools, eating out, dating, just your typical 1950-1960 kid growing up in NYC. We were the dominant group in the neighborhood, the italians and irish next. We did not have to be jewish we were by default, But as i grew older, agnostic to athiestic, i realize religion is a tribal left over from prehistoric times…. Religion divides, alieanates, separates, and causes discord over and over again, But just because i gave up on god, or a god concept, i still no matter how much i try not to be i am still jewish, taste, political outlook, language, etc. One cannot lose his culture on demand, You are indoctrinated in it at birth and i will defend myself vocally and physically if attacked. I take no bs from the goyim. So to all those who are looking good luck. I hope you find what you think you want.

Surprisingly good interview. He explains that he went to the obscure communities because they made a deliberate attempt to be Jewish.


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Member of the Tribe

Theodore Ross grew up pretending he wasn’t Jewish. His book Am I a Jew? traces his re-engagement with Judaism.

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