Wandering Through the Woods of Jewish Portland

If you asked 100 Jewish Portlanders what it means to be a Jewish Portlander, how many different answers would you get? The optimist might say 100, the cynic, 150. Videographer Ken Klein made no assumptions when he started his quest. Motivated at first by anger, then by curiosity, he roamed the community speaking to Jews of every stripe. His upcoming documentary, “Wandering in the Woods: A Portlander’s Search for Jewish Identity,” previewed in December.

The project started when Klein’s son, Jackson, came home from school upset and astonished that fellow classmates had said he was not Jewish. Since Klein’s wife, Christine, was not born Jewish and has not converted, her children are not Jews according to Jewish law, the children said. While this was old news for Christine who attends Portland’s Mothers Circle, a support program for non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children, Ken was incredulous. “How could you not know that?” Christine asked. “What are you talking about?” Ken answered. “He must be Jewish, I’m the dad. He’s as Jewish as I am.” Klein grabbed his camera and sought answers to two questions: What does it mean to be Jewish in Portland, and Who gets to tell you you’re a Jew?

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Klein identified with his Jewish background. Though he had no previous religious education and came from a secular family, peer pressure led him to an Orthodox rabbi for bar mitzvah tutoring. “He had a classroom in the basement of his home,” Klein said. “I showed up after football practice with my ball. I’ll never forget how angry he was for bringing a pigskin into his home. At my bar mitzvah, I was up there wailing the Haftarah for 45 solid minutes. My parents didn’t come.” Ken married and moved to Southern California; he came to Oregon eight years ago. When their son was born, Christine insisted on a bris. “My wife was interested in Judaism even where I wasn’t,” Ken said. When it was time for Jackson to start school, they chose Portland Jewish Academy for location, qual- ity and price. Christine joined the Mothers Circle, led by Lois Shenker. All went smoothly, until one day, Jackson came home from school …

No one will be surprised to hear that Ken’s research did not produce consistent, definitive answers. Still, watching the videotaped interviews is interesting, and Ken did become clear on one point. “Being a Jew in Portland is different from being a Jew in New York,” he said. In Portland, you choose to be Jewish or not, whether the ties are cultural, religious or genealogical, and how to participate. “In New York and Los Angeles, you aren’t making these choices. You are surrounded by other Jews. Oregon is like the land of self-invention.”

Ken says he still wrestles with who gets to tell you that you are Jewish? “I asked six rabbis and got six answers,” he said. “If I want to join an Orthodox congregation with my son then he is not Jewish. But, he has a stronger Jewish identity than I do. If you’re my son, nobody gets to tell you.” More than 60 people attended the documentary’s preview, and all look forward to the final film. “This has been a labor of love,” Ken said. “The journey could have led me anywhere, including away from Judaism.

“All of the people I interviewed were fantastic – personable, inclusive and honest. When I started this project, I didn’t feel part of Jewish Portland. Now, I do. And, culturally it was eye- opening. Do you know how insanely diverse the community is? It’s good everyone can find something that speaks to them.”

See the preview of “Wandering in the Woods: A Portlander’s Search for Jewish Identity” at kleinfilms.com.

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