Life is often a series of coincidences and it happened that I had just finished reading “Am I a Jew?” by Theodore Ross when I tuned into the local PBS beg-a-thon featuring two documentaries about being Jewish in America. If you live in the New York City, tri-state area you are not only surrounded by a heavy concentration of Jews, but you absorb their culture by osmosis.
The documentaries were both inspiring and, when it got to the part about the Holocaust—an event within my own lifespan—terrifying. The mind simply cannot come to grips with whole families—millions–killed because they were Jewish.
Ross writes of a childhood in which both parents were Jewish, but when they divorced, his mother took him to Mississippi where she not only hid her religion, but required Ted to attend Christian schools and not speak of being Jewish. He was a Christian in Mississippi and a Jew when he spent time with his father in Manhattan. In truth, he never ceased being Jewish. One supposes that his mother was trying to make life easier for them in a town where being a Jew would have been deemed, shall we say, unusual.
Ross relates that he was never baptized or confirmed or born again. What he lacked, however, was a working knowledge of Judaism.
Ross subtitled his book, “My journey among the believers and pretenders, the lapsed and the lost, in search of faith (not necessarily my own), my roots, and who knows, even myself.” He writes with a light touch and there is humor throughout, but his search is, ultimately everyone’s search; for an identity, a belonging, a purpose.
Or, as Maimonides wrote in The Guide to the Perplexed, “At times the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it clear as day. Our nature and our habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to a darkness as dense as before. We are like those who, beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of night.” For those who think Maimonidies is a hospital or university, the original (1325-1204) codified Jewish law in volumes called the Mishna so that Jews of his time could know what was okay and what was not.
Maimonides would not have expressed it in modern terms, but Ross was having an identity crisis and his book was his way of getting through it. The Jews of Maimonides’ era had similar problems and sought similar answers. With no irony intended, Ross was unsure of how to be a Jew.
Not that long ago, Ross had encountered a children’s book, “Abuelita’s Secret Matzahs” about a Hispanic boy named Jacobo, who, visiting his grandmother in Santa Fe, discovered that he was something called an anusim or “Crypto-Jew” which meant that “he was a descendent of the medieval Jews of Spain who were forcibly converted to Catholicism, yet continued, for hundreds of years, to practice Judaism in secret.”
One of those brilliant flashes of light that Maimonides spoke off went off in Ross’s mind and he began to research the topic in New Mexico where he lived and reach out to see if there were other crypto-Jews, living as Christians, but convinced that they were in fact Jews.
The philosophical dilemma that Jews must embrace is that God cannot be known. This is why synagogues have no statues or pictures of God. Among the orthodox, the word isn’t even spelled out in its entirety. A Jew must establish a personal bond, a deep spiritual connection with a God who can only be understood by faith, by understanding the Torah, the law. As for “proof”, Jews routinely refer to God as Lord of the universe. Look around you says the Jew. There’s your proof.
This, of course, is what divides Judaism from most other faiths. One cannot even imagine a Christian church without a cross or a depiction of Jesus suffering crucifixion. The ancients, when visiting a synagogue did not consider Judaism a religion because there were no statues and other depictions of their God. That didn’t save Jews from persecution whether it was the Romans, the Church, or local peasants ready to blame them for the plague or anything else.
In his quest to define himself as Jewish, Ross visited the Jewish Agency in Manhattan in preparation for his “aliyah”, a trip to Israel. He interviewed Misha Galperin who was not sold on the notion that there was one kind of Jew, but referred to “unique populations” of Jews in Israel from locales not traditionally associated with Judaism: Ethiopia, India, Congo, South America, China, the Amazon, and elsewhere, many of whom have been recognized by the Israeli government as Zera Israel or the “seed of Israel.”
To Gasperin, the answer to whether one is a Jew or not is to identify oneself with Jews as a group, an extended family called the Jewish people. “It is a purposeful thing. That’s what our religious heritage is. We have a purpose in the world and we’ve been called upon to persevere and survive because of it…it is hard to understand the survival of the Jewish people without understanding that there is some purpose.”
Those who convert or wish to are occasionally called Jews-by-choice and many, one suspects, are looking for a purpose, one that aligns itself with more than three thousand years of Jewish history and heritage.
In the end, Ross concluded “I am a Jew. I believe that. I am entitled to believe that. I could not make it otherwise even if I wished…for me, both question and answer represent a process of continual, conscious, purposeful becoming.”
As good a definition as any. As the Jewish scholar, Hillel, taught, “Where there are no men, strive to be a man.”
© Alan Caruba, 2013.