DNA is Not Destiny: An interview with Theodore Ross

By Elizabeth Kaiser

For his new book, Am I a Jew?, Theodore Ross set out on a multi-adventure odyssey to answer this complex yet fundamental question. He treats the reader to introspective telling of his childhood “double life” as a pretend non-Jew in rural Mississippi and a fake non-Christian in Manhattan, which is at turns both empathic and ridiculously funny. He also takes us on a wild trip from New Mexico to Kansas to Jerusalem, examining what it means for others—Jews and non-Jews alike—to choose whether or not to be or become Jewish.

Ross’ anecdotes are touching, particularly his cross-examination of his Jewish-born mother about her rationale for whisking Ross and his brother from New York to Mississippi and raising them Christian. We meet a hidden faction of Jews in New Mexico, a Catholic priest who is simultaneously Jewish, and a Midwestern college professor who embodies the concept of “Jewish Anxiety” by explaining that it was more difficult to come out as Jewish than bisexual.

Ross, who lives in New York, is a former editor of Harper’s and contributor to a variety of respected periodicals. He is on a tour in promotion of Am I a Jew?, and recently spoke with Room 220 in advance of his appearance at 6 p.m. on Oct. 29 at Maple Street Books’ Uptown location (7523 Maple Street). His mother will be in attendance.

Room 220: You open the book with the story of the New Mexican Crypto-Jews, and there are other stories that reveal Jews in unexpected places. Were you most surprised to find Jews in Mexico, Kansas, or some other place?

Theodore Ross: I don’t think I was surprised to find Jews anywhere. The epigraph for one of the chapters is a quote from Bernard Malamud which says, “Believe me, there are Jews everywhere.” And there really are. What I think was infinitely fascinating and surprising for me was the variety of Jews in different kinds of cultures you come into contact with, and all the different ways they do that thing they call Judaism. The crypto-Jews were the most eccentric group I came across in a lot of ways.

One of the main characters in the book is a guy named Father William Sanchez, a Catholic priest who, if you go to his church in Albuquerque, there’s a menorah on the altar, and if you go on a Sunday when he’s leading his congregation he’s wearing a Star of David underneath his sanctified clothes, and he’s sitting on a chair with a Star of David carved into the wood by one of his congregants. He’s probably the most far-out guy I met on my many travels—certainly the most benevolent far-out guy I met.

Rm220: I love the “Jewish Illuminati” chapter, when you go to Reboot, a New York City organization that sells hipster Judaism to young people. I laughed out loud at the line, “If Jonathan Safran Foer and his brothers aren’t the Jewish Illumanti, then there are no Jewish Illumanti.” Have their efforts to reach young people worked, would you say? Is Jewishness cool?

TR: One of the things that’s hard to gauge is how that stuff works. It’s a very self-constructed kind of thing.

Birthright is somewhat similar, but with Birthright, there’s a lot of data—they track the kids who go, there’s a lot of research into what impact it might have. Whereas, Reboot might do cultural events—they do a rave, they have a “National Day of Unplugging,” which is a watered-down version of the Sabbath, where you turn your cell phone off for the weekend. It’s hard to determine what that does. It’s a sense of meeting people where they are. If for them, the farthest they can come to conventional Judaism is to take their cellphone and put it in a box for the weekend, then that’s where they’ll meet them.

Rm220: Lying and pretending are themes you return to throughout the book. You pretended to be a Christian in Mississippi and a Jew in New York. Does this type of pretending ever transcend religion and affect other aspects of your life, or the lives of others who had similar experiences?

TR: Everywhere I went, what interested me is the way people construct identity. It’s not something they necessarily inherit or are bound by—so, I didn’t think of it was lying or concealing. With most of the people that I met, it was more them taking a form of agency over who they are and what that means. For example, there are people I write about who get themselves DNA tested for Judaism, and they find a Jewish person in their family tree from 500 years ago. Because of that, they want to convert to Judaism—they think they’re Jewish because of this connection from many, many years ago. That’s not lying—maybe you’re lying to yourself—but you’re making a decision about who you are. You’re not just saying: Life has dealt me this hand of cards and that’s it, that’s who I’m going to be.

The DNA test I had cost like $150. You get “results” in a week or two. You put your name in this database, and as people enter the database, and they share certain genetic components with you, you can contact them. I was more interested in why people construct identity—why do they go and get this testing done? What does it say to them? Because, really, it’s somewhat nebulous. It’s just genetics. DNA is not destiny.

Rm220: One way to read Am I a Jew? is as a grown man’s coming-of-age story. You have an adult bar mitzvah, for instance. In what ways did the writing of the book afford you personal growth, as a Jew or otherwise?

TR: For me, the coming-of-age aspect had as much to do with critical thought and curiosity as anything else. For me, wanting to understand the world we live in—trying to seek whatever form of wisdom we’re capable of attaining—is part of becoming mature. Judaism, atheism—for me, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. I don’t know that I believe in God more now than I ever did. I use that cliché that there are no atheists in a fox hole. When something goes wrong in my life, I pray to God, but that’s not a meaningful kind of prayer. For me, that search—that critical thought, that curiosity—is Judaism. Asking questions, looking for Judaism, is the kind of Judaism I practice. I don’t know that I’m radically different, but I certainly know more than I did, and I think about it more than I did. That’s the movement for me.

I don’t know if this happens too much in New Orleans, but in New York you can be walking, and Lubavitchers, a certain kind of Hasidic Jew—they’re like the Jewish version of the Jehovah’s Witness, basically—they’ll stop you on the street on a Friday and ask, “Are you Jewish?” and if you say that you are they’ll try to do a prayer with you on the Sabbath. So, from time to time I will admit I do say, “No!” so I can keep walking down the street.

Rm220: You write in the book, “As a boy, it was a simple matter of wanting to keep my worlds separate: I didn’t want the Jews to know I was a Christian (of a sort) and the Christians to know I was a Jew (of a sort), and the only way they ever would was if I said something, so I didn’t.” Was it harder to be a Christian in Mississippi or a Jew in New York?

TR: I definitely think it was harder being a Christian in Mississippi, because there were so many other factors. Just fitting in in Mississippi was difficult, as I still had a lot of New York in me. I’d like to think that I’m stubbornly honest about who I am now, rather than being willing to take the easy way out and pretend.

Rm220: The section where you cross-examine your mother about her decision to hide your Jewish identity in Mississippi is hilarious. This seems to have happened when the book already had a publisher. She told her friends you were writing a book but didn’t tell them what it was about. The secret has now been lost, right? Does she still live in Mississippi?

TR: My mother does live in Mississippi. She will be at the reading, in fact. The cat is, most definitely, out of the bag.