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Hidden Jew

I was nine years old when my mother forced me to convert to Christianity. We had just moved from New York City to a small southern town whose local hospital had recruited her to open a medical practice. My new faith was a ruse—I never formally converted—but if anyone asked, I was instructed by my mother to say I was Unitarian. She also required me to keep these sectarian machinations secret from my father, who was still in New York and who would have filed a court order demanding custody if he had the slightest notion of what she was up to. Meanwhile, I was enrolled as the Christ Episcopal Day School, where I studied the Bible, attended church each week, received Communion, and even sang in the choir. For the years of my childhood in Mississippi, 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.

Understand, please, that I love my mother, and know that she had her reasons. In retrospect, her belief that our town would reject a divorced, Yankee, female doctor who was also Jewish seems far from absurd. Yet let no one mistake her either for a friend of the Jews. She was convinced that the ceaseless shtick that defines Judaism in this country—the wry exceptionalism, the ironic fatalism, the false socialism, the Zionist apologetics, the Yiddish jargoning, the hand-wringing over the Holocaust—barred her from the full American experience. For her, being a Jew meant being cheated of a piece of this country’s restless, rootless anonymity. She didn’t hate Jews or Judaism, and she certainly didn’t want to hurt me. She just wanted to be one of us.

Neither of my parents came from an observant background: no kashrut, no Shabbos, no yarmulkes, no fasting for the sins, no autumnal New Year. Christmas trees stood next to the menorahs in the homes of our families. Religious iconography like the chai and the Star of David disappeared permanently with the demise of disco, replaced with popular-cultural or sporting figures of worship (and G_d said, “Bless the Knicks.”). An American Diaspora saw our relatives willingly exiled to white-bred enclaves in Minnesota, Arizona, New Jersey, and California. Then came the inevitable passing of the family patriarchs and matriarchs—the Hebrew and Yiddish speakers, the shtetl descendants, the mumblers of prayers, the pious head-bobbers—survived by offspring who wed non-Jewish spouses. For my family, as for many modern-day American Jews, the faith was no faith, but rather a culture, a sensibility, a form of humor, an array of tastes, a canon of literature, a philosophy of work and education; it crossed over into practice only at Passover and Hanukkah, if then. As such, I knew as a child that my Christianity was a lie but it rarely felt like a pose. Even if we hadn’t moved to Mississippi, my mother could have easily disposed of our Jewish identity. It was, put simply, just what you do.

My mother and her equally ambivalent coreligionists have no natural claim to this history, of course. What cohort of postwar Americans, Jewish or otherwise, hasn’t confronted such an evolution? That said, not every child of the fifties ended up moving his or her family to the Bible Belt and living as a false Christian. A lapsed Jew is a Jew, whereas a woman who forces her kids to pretend to be Unitarian, sends them to Episcopal school, marries a Catholic man, and publicly denies the religion of her birth—that’s a far sight more radical. This, I imagine, requires some explanation.

My mother’s mythology on this subject works as follows. She first traveled to Mississippi in the late sixties on a college road trip. Driving a rutted southern highway in her obligatory VW Beetle, this nice Jewish girl from Queens, surveyed the antebellum mansions, the Spanish moss, the clouds heavy with the afternoon downpour, and for reasons she finds impossible, even now, to parse in any rational fashion, determines to live there. A life in this place would offer an egress from the specificity of her birth, a release from the responsibilities of history, a new home in which to become the Somebody of her own invention, or better yet, the Nobody of her fantasies. After two children, a divorce, and a failed Manhattan medical practice, she was finally able to fulfill the requirements of the myth and was reborn.

By the time I had reached adulthood, the importance of my forced conversion had seemingly receded. It was another dissociated artifact of my childhood, half myth, half a character trait in someone else’s novel. It’s not that I never thought about Judaism. I did. I even wrote about it on occasion, albeit in a tangential fashion. I published a story about the “Modern Orthodox” Jews who build imaginary homes from fishing line and telephone poles; about a rock band with Jewish singers performing Cambodian pop tunes; about Jewish sex (I was asked to write a reader’s survey on the topic that was killed, thankfully, before publication). The problem was that nothing I did brought me closer to understanding my identity or even inquiring about it in a serious way. If anything, it made assessing my connection to my birth religion more difficult. I had no stake in these stories. It was Judaism-as-play, an identity that happened to someone else.

As I dabbled in these matters I began to realize just how uncomfortable I am with most practitioners of my birth religion. I worry that if they knew of my past they might not accept me as Jewish, and, with some of my mother’s scorn cutting through the unease, I wonder why I would want their acceptance in the first place. The result has been a furtive fascination with Judaism, one that compels and repels in equal measure. Moreover, with the distance that my experiences have put between me and the Judaism of my forebears, I find myself forced to ask a simple question: Am I a Jew?

There is, admittedly, a certain Hebraic quality in even asking such a question. What other faith conjures up so much doubt in its adherents? It is fundamental to the religion itself. Do you speak Hebrew? Great if you do, but if you don’t, you can still be a Jew. Were you bar mitzvahed? Nice (such a good boy!), but plenty of Jews aren’t. Kosher, not kosher; kosher at home; kosher only if there are no Catholics around; kosher except for bacon, except for shrimp, except for cheeseburgers, only on the good china, never in school, never when it’s embarrassing. Have you been to Israel? Did you wail at the Wailing Wall? Do you consider Israel a fascist state? Was your mother Jewish? When was the last time you went to temple? Quick—what’s the difference between the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Gemara? (Hint: It’s a trick question.) Do you believe in God? Are you a Jew for Jesus? A Crypto-Jew? Are you a cultural Jew, and if so, what is your opinion of Woody Allen’s latest film? Do you find Heeb magazine amusing? Sammy Davis Jr.? Were you born Jewish? Did you convert? Did the rabbi send you away three times before he gave you the secret codes to the international bank accounts? Where do you get a bagel in this town?

Am I a Jew? It’s an obvious question but one that even the most sophisticated minds struggle to answer. It’s a silly question except millions have lost their lives depending on their response. It’s a religious question except when an atheist asks it. It’s a question as ancient as the First Temple and as contemporary as this week’s bestseller. Jewish writers and thinkers from Maimonides to Walter Benjamin to Philip Roth have asked it of themselves and others. Hitler wanted to know, Israel’s immigration authorities reserve the right to their own definition, and Jesus had some thoughts on the matter that are worthy of consideration. This book chronicles my efforts to provide my own response.