“I was nine years old when my mother forced me to convert to Christianity,” reads the first sentence of my book’s journey into religion, spirituality, and American identity.
Here are the details: my mother, recently divorced, had moved our family from New York City to a small town in Mississippi. Once there she insisted on a radical reinvention: we would pretend not to be Jewish. As part of that, I was sent to an Episcopal school, where I studied the Bible, sang in the choir, took communion, and lived a double life: fake Christian in the South and secular Jew in New York, where I returned to visit my father.
As an adult, I abandoned the religious charade. But I could not undo the impact of my childhood. The distance between my fractured identity and the conventional Judaism of my forebears meant that I had to confront a single, deceptively complicated, question: Am I a Jew?
My solution was to set out to answer that question in a wide array of contexts and communities. Drawn to the fringes of Jewish identity, I investigated the “Crypto-Jews” of New Mexico, the “Lost Tribes” who have migrated to Israel, and the ultra-Orthodox seeking to “return” their secular brethren to observance. (Among many others: Did I mention I had my self genetically tested for Judaism?) My hope was that by reckoning with these disparate religious lives I would come to an understanding of my own.
“Theodore Ross, who may or may not be Jewish, is excellent company on the page. Whether he’s discovering secret Jews in New Mexico, attempting to discern the brighter side of Orthodox Judaism, or interrogating his family members about their own religious foibles and dodges, Am I a Jew? is always moving, heartfelt, funny, and alive. This is a terrific—and terrifically odd—memoir.”
—TOM BISSELL, author of Extra Lives and Magic Hours
“Am I a Jew? is a brilliant American odyssey, one that is both inside and outside of traditions both national and religious; it’s also often very funny, and always very empathic; Ross has written a genuinely great book.”
—RIVKA GALCHEN, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
“[This] intelligent and altogether entertaining account of searching out the roots of identity will be of interest not only to those who’ve asked, ‘Am I a Jew?’ but also to anyone who’s ever wondered, ‘What am I, anyway?’ One finishes this book thankful for a fuller understanding of the diverse strains within the Jewish tradition and not a little awed by the writer’s compelling mix of skepticism, candor, and love.”
—GARRET KEIZER, author of Privacy and The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want
“An elegant guide for the perplexed inhabitants of our increasingly disorienting world, Am I a Jew? is a profound meditation on the nature of modern identity.”
—ROGER HODGE, author of The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism