One of the strange, but nice, things that come from publishing a book is that people start to take you seriously—with certain exceptions. Largely as a result of my having written Am I a Jew? I was invited to teach a class on religious journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. This has been a fun and challenging experience for me as someone with a full time job as an editor of Men’s Journal magazine, a book currently on the shelves, and a third child, who is just a month old.
The students in my class are all bright, ambitious, and sophisticated. They are at the graduate level, which means they can write, understand reporting, and want to engage with the world in a serious way. I find myself humbled to think that they show up once a week to hear me talk about telling stories that involve religion and spirituality. I also find myself pretty impressed with me. NYU! Graduate students! I must be doing something right, no?
Well, there is one group of people in my life not quite as impressed—my family. Each and every one of them—my wife first and foremost—have had the same reaction to learning I would be teaching this class. Religious journalism? Try to hear the tone of incredulity reach across genders and generations from my wife to my mother to my father to my brother and beyond. A big shot! Mr. Expert on God, here.
This is how we keep a head from growing inflated.
I found my first error in my book in this sentence in the introductory chapter, “Hidden Jew”: “My stepfather [Randy]…knew from very early on that my mother was Jewish. His rather conservative family didn’t, and they still don’t.”
This was, to the best of my knowledge, true at the time of my writing it. There is, in fact, a later, and longer, passage in the book devoted to this very subject: namely, that my mother was so proud about my success as a writer that she couldn’t help telling her family and friends in Mississippi about it—but she was so committed to keeping her Judaism a secret that she never told them what the book was about. (I’ve written about this online in some detail. Please read here to see what I’m talking about.)
Anyway, I recently returned from a family trip to Mississippi, where the discussion of the book was very much a dinner table topic. My step-grandmother, Anne, a wonderful woman with whom I’ve always had a great, if-not-entirely-frank, relationship, chimed in with this over our red beans and rice:
“I suppose it’s time to let the cat out of the bag,” she said, hushing everyone. “Right after your mother and Randy fell in love”—when I was about 12 or 13, or around 1986—“he said, ‘Now, Mom, she doesn’t want anyone to know she’s Jewish. So don’t say anything.’”
There were a couple of implications here. First, our circumspection, or downright lying, through the years had been for nothing—they had known we were Jewish. What’s more—and no one said this, but it was implied—they had known without our saying a thing, assuming it somehow from our manner, appearance, and attitudes. Which is a little discomfiting, but still amusing from where I sit. As I have always said to my mother whenever she tries on a bit of a southern accent: “Ma, you can take the girl outta Queens. But you can’t take the Queens outta the girl.”
As this is my first post, please allow me to introduce myself: I am the author of Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself, which tells the story of a secular Jewish kid (me) who moves from New York to Mississippi, where he is forced by his mother to pretend he is a Christian. As an adult, I determine to understand what place, if any, there is in the religion of his birth for a kid who sang lead in an Episcopal school choir, studied the Bible, and took Communion. There’s more to it—everything from Jewish Catholic priests in New Mexico to my ten-minute bar mitzvah as a 38-year-old—but that’s a fair start to understanding where I’m coming from.
I sometimes struggle to explain what renewed my interested in Judaism. As I write in the book: “I visited a Holocaust Memorial site on vacation in the Czech Republic (it moved me to be sure, but not in this direction); I had children (I love them but that didn’t do it either); I lost members of my family (I miss my grandparents but I’m not [doing this] for them). The truth, banal as it might sound, is that I simply wanted to know. Or, more precisely, I needed to. Like my mother, I had my own myth to make real. Only mine, instead of entailing the abandonment of a specific and defined heritage, would require its embrace.”
So I lack a simple answer for what motivated the project and process of answering my question. I do, however, remember the specific thing that convinced me re-enter the world of Judaism, in my own way: the Manhattan eruv. Most readers of this blog, I assume, are familiar both with the concept of eruvin as well as the unique history of the one located in Manhattan (You may not, however, know, that a certain Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side holds a—admittedly ceremonial—99-year lease on the entire island, at the bargain price of just one dollar), but I didn’t, and when I happened one day some years ago to notice the wires of the Manhattan crisscrossing the avenue outside of my office, I was inspired enough to learn.
The presence of this massive, symbolic Jewish household suggested something a few, very important things to me: first, I was in a Jewish world already and I didn’t know; second, that world was complex and meaningful, even if I couldn’t really accept its spiritual underpinnings; and last, and most important, if I didn’t make the effort to see that house—that world—it would, for all practical purposes, not exist. Now, I wander the city doing something very un-New York: looking up, scanning the streetlights for evidence of eruvin.