THE BLOG
10/21/2016 12:05 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2017

FACE IT: On Being Sort Of Jewish

I have always prided myself on being a Jew, but not that kind of Jew. When I was growing up, there was never a seder, my brothers were not barmitzvahs, and the only gefilte fish I ate was when I visited my grandmother. My idea of Jewish was no Christmas tree. Yet my father was a principled and cultured philanthropist and when he died, his best friend--a rabbi--said he had lost the "most Jewish man he ever knew."

Judaism has been on my mind lately for a few reasons. I traveled this past summer to Germany, Hungary and Poland, spending countless hours weeping at Auschwitz, appreciating Berlin's guilt- filled memorials, and staring at hundreds of bronzed shoes on the banks of the Danube: worn by helpless Jews just before they were thrown to their deaths.

I also visited the Jewish ghettos, which, in places like Budapest, have been turned into trendy areas replete with "ruin bars." Many other cities around the world boast similarly hip transformations, from Rome's Trastevere district to New York's Lower East Side. I can't help but wonder if, once again, Jewish history is in danger of being erased. Fortunately, there are still enough organizations, tours, and activists determined to keep the memories alive. People like Jennifer Singer, a young American working in Krakow, home of Kazimierz, arguably Europe's best-preserved ghetto. "The buildings are being renovated and preserved," says Ms. Singer. "Even the hip popular restaurants are Jewish-themed and have photos of pre-war life, letting visitors have a look into the past."

At the same time, there are ominous stirrings in places like Hungary and France where politicians with anti-Semitic hearts keep getting elected. Ask anyone living abroad and the shivers accompany the shivas.

Fortunately, there are the artists--- who never let us forget. "Indignant," a lovely adaptation of a Philip Roth novel, did very well for a small film this past summer. The new novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, "Here I Am," follows four generations of one family: some with harsh personal memories, others dealing with the current situation in Israel.

In the world of theatre, "Not That Jewish," an endearing one- woman piece written by and starring Monica Piper, opens shortly off-Broadway. It had a long and highly successful run in Los Angeles and now will face the city that is toughest to please. (Especially concerning anything that started on the other coast) But Piper is from the Bronx and her humor is witty and quick, "quintessential New York," says the show's director, Ronda Spinak. This stage memoir deals with infertility, family, addiction, and ethics and you only stop laughing long enough to cry. As Spinak says, "While the backdrop is about what does it mean to be a Jew, the real question is what does it mean to be a good person today."

You don't have to be Jewish to ask that question. Well, you don't have to be that Jewish.