There was only one Jewish boy in my school who had a name that set him apart from the gentiles - Elias Pinchas. The rest of us were all Johns and Leonards and Stanleys and Howards. Now, suddenly, every third Jew you meet is called Baruch. Meaning blessed. Baruch atah Adonai - blessed art thou o Lord. Baruch Shem kevod malchuto le'olam va'ed - blessed be His glorious sovereign Name forever and ever. Amen.

Baruch was also a disciple of Jeremiah and author of an Apocalyptic book. We're back with all that. In the days when no one I knew was called Baruch my father sometimes took us on a detour through the few remaining streets of Higher Broughton - part Manchester, part Salford - inhabited by orthodox Jews. Frummers, they were known as - frum (from the German fromm) being Yiddish for pious. We called them frumkies. Not by any means an insulting diminutive, but certainly not an expression of our reverence for them either. They struck us as quaint, a throw-back, and a bit of an embarrassment. We weren't sure their appearance reflected well on the Jewish people as a whole.

This was partly the brave new spirit of our secularism talking: we belonged to the twentieth century ourselves and did not care for our faith, which we still secularly acknowledged, to be mired in false medievalism. Aesthetically, too, we did not like what we saw - the caps and shawls and fringes on the men, the shapeless dresses on the women, the children (of which there were always too many) unnaturally ringleted, and on all of them the pallor which seemed invariably to accompany Talmudic study, as though one couldn't address one's thoughts to God in the daylight.

Religiously, though, our feelings were more mixed. Confused with our unease was guilt. However undevout and unpractising our households, we all knew of our historical covenant with God and that we had been bidden to think about Him every day, to cover our heads, to affix fringes to the corners of our garments, and the rest of it. In their literal devotion to scripture, the frumkies were a constant reminder to us of our negligence. As for who was the better Jew, well we were confident champions of ourselves, the doctors, the thinkers, the jokesters, the light-bringers. But what if we needed the frum, what if we had achieved our equivocal emancipation on their backs, leaving it to them to do the donkey-work of faith while we swanned around in an exotic intellectualism which would not have been possible - and would certainly not have survived, they said, without them.

Survival, of course, is a bigger question today than it was then. No one knew about Auschwitz when our parents gave us the names Harry and John. And we had less reason to fear Islam. You get called Baruch, or just as often call yourself Baruch, disciple of Jeremiah, when you think you hear the horsemen of the apocalypse approaching. There wouldn't be Jews, goes the reasoning, if there wasn't scrupulous faith. And there won't be Jews unless we go on scrupulously believing. We persist as a people, uniquely, because we have been uniquely observant. Fail to observe, capitulate to free-thinking, and we're finished.

Did my father dimly perceive this when he took us on those detours? Was he capitulating, on our behalf, to the silent blackmail of the orthodox? Certainly he was susceptible to the charge of not doing his share religiously, and on holy days at least walked in awe of those who did. Just as when he died I was in awe of those I normally despised because they could help me to mourn him as I felt I should, Jewishly, that's to say ambivalently, as my father would have wanted, in ways I did not always honour.

So is this a characteristic, even a defining characteristic, of Jewish secularism, that its rejection of piety is itself a species of piety, embracing opposites? Myself, I reject to my soul the notion that monotheistic superstition, practised in darkest obscurity and to the exclusion of almost every other activity, has kept us going, but I can't come up with any better explanation, and besides, I like the story. By this paradox - unless you would prefer to call it sentimentality or indecision - will you know me. Or at least by the vexation this causes will you know me. The concept of the self-hating Jew has never struck me as adequate to any complexity I recognize. It misses out too much of the subtilizing. The self-vexing Jew is better.

I have met many Jews who would rather not have been born Jews, but I have never met a Jew who wasn't Jewish. Ask me to define the quality by which a Jew will always be known and I am in trouble, but a taste for what the Germans call Spitzfindigkeit - oversubtlety, quibbling, what the vague call pettifogging - is partly it.

Indeed the word `taste' does scant justice to what is, in fact, a moral passion. By order of their souls, Jews quibble and legalize, answering (as we know from comedy) a question with a question, subjecting any text - and to a Jew most things are a text - to the most rigorous examination, delighting in analysis and disagreement, and admitting evidence from nothing extraneous to the text. (F.R. Leavis wasn't Jewish, but every Jew is a Leavisite.) One god, one text. And you are enjoined to struggle like Jacob with them both. Call this Talmudic, if you like, always remembering that even so vehement a denier of his own Jewishness as Karl Marx was not free of it. "The young Marx likes to show off in brilliant antitheses", wrote one contemporary critic. "These also indicate the characteristic casuistry of Jewish thought patterns." The word casuistry, if I am not mistaken, is the best an English translation can do by Spitzfindigkeit.

The question of whether this is a virtue or a vice has exercised many a Jewish intelligence, and has itself become a cause for more subtilizing still. In a famous passage of cultural dissection, the Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz traces most of the ailments of the pre-Enlightenment Jewish mind to pilpul, the dialectical method of Talmudical dispute. "The perverse course of study pursued by the Jews since the fourteenth century had blunted their minds to simplicity. They had grown so accustomed to all that was artificial, distorted, super-cunningly wrought that the simple, unadorned truth became worthless, if not childish and ridiculous, in their eyes." And the critic Ba'al Makhshoves goes one step further, ascribing some familiar elements of the Jewish sense of humour to the stetl life of holy abnegation. "In Jewish wit," Makhshoves observes, "one can hear the voice of self-contempt, of a people who have lost touch with the ebb and flow of life. In Jewish mockery one can hear . . . the sick despair of a people whose existence has become an endless array of contradictions, a permanent witticism."

Explained thus, subtlety of denial finds its model in subtlety of worship. It is not two-way traffic. In any transaction between scepticism and belief, the believers are always the losers, by virtue of their certainty. Tell an orthodox Jew that a Woody Allen film, like a Philip Roth novel, is nine-tenths Talmudic exegesis and he will shake his head: "Who are Woody Allen and Philip Roth?" But Allen has fringed and yarmulkah'd himself in cameo and flashback a dozen times. And Roth inveighs, insists and swells like an Old Testament prophet. They know the modality of belief that underpins their disbelief.

In Zionism, this resurfacing of a religiosity that will never go away is less happy. Zionism was conceived originally as a means of liberating Jews from their own enslavement to exile, from that `endless array of contradictions', and from the inchoate rituals and practises which perpetuated them. But now it is the inchoate who champion Zionism most fervently. Gone, or going, the promise of a worldly future for Jews, unfringed, unfanatical, sunlit, where they could sin and prosper and forget as other men; back, like the return of the repressed, the fringes and the fanaticism.

But maybe the real reason for the continuance of the Jewish people against the odds lies in their always having suffered or enjoyed two parallel histories. Think what you like of that permanent witticism, feeding on contradiction, minting art and literature and comedy out of despair, it has played its part in the intellectual survival of Judaism. Saturated with belief, and steeped in the habits of religious study, it has been an emancipation from religion nonetheless. Herein lies the answer, I think, to the question of whether Judaism is a religion or a way of life, the persistence of belief in one God, or the persistence of an identity to which God is merely incidental: the genius of Judaism is to have found a way of living secularly, contemptuous of holy ritual, yet somehow always imbued with its seriousness - honouring it in the breach, not the observance.

Is there a spirituality of disbelief? Or is it just that we are passionate about our contortions, and love finding ourselves drawn, for contortion's sake, to that which we reject.