ACTS OF FAITH: A Journey Into the Fringes of Jewish Identity by Dan Ross

ACTS OF FAITH: A Journey Into the Fringes of Jewish Identity

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Once past a fatuous meditation on what-being-Jewish-means (""To Woody Alien, it may mean being neurotic""), Ross does a workmanlike job with composite-portraits of ten unusual ""Jewish, half-Jewish, and pseudo-Jewish"" communities--their history, their current status, and (sometimes) interviews with present-day members. The mestizo Jews of Venta Prieta in Mexico, probably Protestants who adopted Judaism relatively recently, decline to convert officially--so they're scorned by the rabbis of Mexico City. Portugal still has Marranos--""secret Jews"" descended from Inquisition days who (despite a brief coming-out in the 1930s) have now returned to the old ways: going to (Church, not hiding their Jewishness, but refusing to let others see their Sabbath rituals. The ""Chuetas"" of Majorca are ostentatiously pious Catholics descended from medieval Jews (""Some used to kneel on top of the church pews so everyone could see them praying""): they nonetheless still suffer from discrimination--and Ross talks to the one Chueta who has converted back. And the rest are a variety of Asian Jews: the ""clannish"" Mashhadis of Iran who pretended to turn Moslem in 1839, then were dispersed to far-flung cities; Turkey's Donmeh--apostate followers of Shabbatai Zevi (this complex religious history is simplistically digested here); Israel's 500 Samaritans, ""Jewish fundamentalists"" integrated politically but not religiously (Ross visits, intriguingly, a Samaritan whose wife is a Rumanian-born convert to the sect); the far-more-controversial Karaite Jews, who reject the Talmud, historically avoided persecution, and now are a ""problem"" in Israel; the familiar Falashas, purity-obsessed blacks in Ethiopia who are now being won 'over to more standard Judaism; the Jews of Kaifeng, China, who, emancipated in 1421, were utterly assimilated by 1900; and the Bane Israel of Bombay--who practice a Judaism mixed with Hinduism and have, with difficulty, won acceptance in Israel. Ross too often lapses into gee-whiz journalism here (""incredible,"" ""bizarre""); his sporadic attempts to extract profundities about Jewish identity are limp; and the quickie-survey approach remains flatly unevocative. But much of the material itself is fascinating--and an expansive chapter-by-chapter bibliography will lead readers to other, richer treatments.

Pub Date: Feb. 22nd, 1982
Publisher: St. Martin's