When he was nine years old, Theodore Ross, his brother and his mother moved from New York City to Mississippi, where she enrolled him in an Episcopal school, brought him to church and told him to leave behind his New York Jewish identity. He continued this double life for years — a Christian in Mississippi and a secular Jew when visiting his father in Manhattan.
At some point in his adult life, he simply wanted to answer one question, leading to the title of his new book, “Am I a Jew?”
“It’s an obvious question but one that even the most sophisticated minds struggle to answer,” he said.
Ross is features editor of Men’s Journal and now lives in Brooklyn. His pieces have also appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic and Saveur, and he was an editor at Harper’s.
Right now, an Oct. 29 event at Maple Street Bookshop in New Orleans at 6 p.m. is his only Southern tour date, but “I’d love to do more.”
There were several conventional ways he could explore his identity, but he blazed his own path, starting with a visit to the crypto-Jews of New Mexico. While there, he had an encounter with Matt, an elderly retiree who was “messianic,” but hadn’t been a crypto-Jew — he was from New Orleans.
He also visited a sukkah city in Manhattan, Ethiopian Jews in Israel, various Orthodox groups in New York and a DNA testing lab in Texas. He also spent time visiting with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn in Kansas City. Cukierkorn is a leading authority on crypto-Jews and has officiated at over 400 conversions, mostly in Latin America.
As a student rabbi, Cukierkorn served congregations in Clarksdale and Natchez, Miss., and Lafayette, La. His brother, Celso, was recently rabbi at B’nai Israel in Hattiesburg.
While in Kansas City, he got a view into the world of Classical Reform, as well as congregational politics. He had a fascination with various types of Judaism, but also a sense that he might not be accepted either.
He decided not to explore the mainstream of Judaism, figuring that it wouldn’t tell him much, and most Jews identify as “just Jewish.”
“If I wanted to engage critically, seriously, and intellectually with my curiosity... It was on the periphery — with Crypto-Jews, Ethiopian Jews, the ultra-Orthodox, and so forth — that the issues of identity that motivated me were in clear enough relief to reckon with them.”
Because the book is about his adult search, there isn’t that much time devoted to growing up in Mississippi; in fact, their Mississippi hometown isn’t even overtly mentioned. While some articles about the book have referred to it as a “flyspeck town” or “small town,” they actually lived in the Biloxi area.
Part of the book explores why his mother, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, decided to hide their Jewish identity in Mississippi. “She was trying not so much to get away from all things Jewish as to move toward all things American,” he said. She wanted him to be an all-American boy. When he told her that he was, she replied, “Yeah, only if you weren’t Jewish.”
Discarding the past, he writes, “is a venerable American cultural tradition.”
The issue wasn’t Mississippi, he writes. In his conversation with her, she told him “anywhere I moved I probably wasn’t going to tell them.” She didn’t see herself as moving to the Deep South, she considered it moving to the beach.
He saw “practically no anti-Semitism” in Mississippi, and noted there was an “out” Jewish pupil at Christ Episcopal, a girl named Hilary. The only other Jewish kid he knew was Brad Levine.
When he was 14, his mother remarried, to a Catholic, though they both became Episcopal before the ceremony. There was no discussion of his converting.
When he returned to Mississippi in 2010 for a vacation, he was at a barbecue with a group of friends who were congratulating him on a book deal he had not mentioned to them, and asked him what the book would be about. His mother had let it be known he was writing a book, but had not divulged the topic. She had also previously shared some of his articles, many of which were on Jewish topics. He told them that yes, he is a Jew.
Why, if she was so passionate about hiding their identity, did she tell everyone about the book? “Because I’m proud of you.”
Some things are just in the genes.