Monday, February 4, 2013

"Funny, She Doesn't Look Druish."

Erika, the always insightful and clever blogger at BlackGayJewish, wrote a very interesting post recently about her friend's decision to consider getting an orthodox Conversion 2.0. The post was very honest and raised good questions for a person considering "upgrading" their conversion (I hate using that word, but it often conveys the feeling the candidate has about getting a "more acceptable" conversion for whatever reason). She was also kind enough to link to this blog, though perhaps a bit optimistic to call me a "popular blogger" ;)

One comment thread really struck me. The comments primarily debated the treatment of Jews of Color in the orthodox (and non-orthodox) community, and one commenter piped in about her experiences as a blonde-haired and blue-eyed convert. Erika's response reflected a feeling I often get, though in a different context:
"I find it refreshing, if a bit unnerving, that blonde folks get the same 'you don’t look Jewish' comments Is that wrong?" 
It's certainly natural, and even a bit comforting. Right or wrong may be another discussion. 

As I said, that feeling usually strikes me in a different context: I get that #badmiddos feeling when I see a born Jew (especially a frum from birth one) who doesn't know something or does something wrong. It's terrible, and I should not get a positive feeling from that, but I do. It comforts me with the thought, "You're not the only one who makes mistakes. And converts aren't the only ones who make mistakes. People who've done this their entire lives can still get things wrong. You're ok." But, understandably, that insecurity (for lack of a better word at the moment) is very different from the feeling that other Jews are constantly judging your Jewishness based on your superficial traits.

Despite being whiter than white bread, I get the same "funny, you don't look Jewish" comments for my red hair and small nose. Yes, I have really gotten comments about my nose not being big enough. And I get the same comments others mentioned in the comments section about my English name. As I've said on here before, I don't go by my Hebrew name in "real life," and I don't really have any intention to. I am who I have always been, my conversion is merely the natural progression of my life, and that persona includes my name. I understand why converts choose to go exclusively by their Hebrew name, but that's not the path for me. (Sucker for pain, I know.) My name is a point of pride to me, and I do get some #badmiddos pleasure out of my new answer for "But X isn't a Jewish name!" I can now say, "Oh, it's becoming very popular now in the London community, and even in New Jersey." Before, I could often say, "It's a Dutch name" and the questioning stopped immediately. Since almost no one in America knows any actual Dutch Jews, they usually leave me be because they realize they can't defend their point with certainty anymore. Maybe that is a Jewish name...in the Netherlands! 

But really, the answer is either "No name is a 'Jewish' name" or "Of course it's a Jewish name because I'm a Jew." However, neither answer really fits in my mind, and I'm not sure why. A name is just a name. Hair color is just a color. Eye color is just a color. Only when those things are put together is there a person (with a few additional ingredients, of course). A Jew is a Jew and a person, and both come in every combination. 

Of course, the real response to those questions should be, "Why does it matter? Oh yeah. It doesn't." Of course, I'm still trying to find a way to say that a bit more nicely and less "I'm totally going to embarrass you in front of all these people by making you look like a racist or an idiot." (Even if you may believe either or both to be the truth.) I've definitely determined that "Oh yeah? That's what the Nazis said when they saw me!" is also not the best answer. But honestly, that's what the question makes me think of: scientific racism.

If your WWII education was as poor as mine, you may not know that the Nazis classified other "white" people as subhuman based on racial scientific theories. I would have thought they were "Aryan," but the Nazi Regime also had a sterilization, slavery, and eradication plan for the Slavs, which includes Russians, Czechs, and Poles, among others. Racial science can be used against any group of people.

Repeat after me: There is no such thing as "looking Jewish." At best, you can describe your bespeckled, big-schnozed, friend with frizzy brown hair as "looking Ashkenazi." But even that's just an ethnic description. Your "-stein" or "-witz" could be a born-Catholic. Appearance and name are totally meaningless when it comes to whether that person is Jewish, either halachically or culturally. And you can't duck the question by saying, "Oh yes, that nice black lady is Jewish, but she must be a convert." She may FFB five generations after an ancestor converted or an FFB of Ethiopian descent. That Indian lady may be b'nei Menashe. That Hispanic guy may be from the (quite large) Jewish community of Mexico City. That Nordic beauty may actually be Hungarian. And yes, maybe any of those is a convert, but maybe so was the parent of your frizzy friendwitz.

The question is pointless and, if anything, one guaranteed to be negative. I know that people think "Oh, you don't look Jewish" is usually intended as a compliment (at least toward a "white" person). In other words, "Oh, you're not as ugly as the rest of us Jews! You look like a shiksa!" Even if it is your intent to compliment, it is wrong to put down the Jewish people in such a way, equating the word "Jew" with "ugly." And it's not even remotely true. So just stop already.

I don't know how this discussion started in the Jewish world, but it needs to end. There's nothing positive to be gained from it.

Maybe people will question me less when I change my name to Snarky Snarkstein.

25 comments:

  1. You are stupid. Like seriously. Grow a pair.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well now, I've been thoroughly been put in my place. If you insult a person, you need to at least be specific enough so that they know what they're being insulted for.

      Delete
    2. Grow a pair of what? I would think he/she means brains, as it is your intellect that is being insulted, but to my knowledge brains don't come in pairs. The usual "pair" to which this phrase refers has little correlation with intellect. I have known quite a few stupid people who owned a pair.

      Delete
  2. Yes, Jews very much come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. The "looking" Jewish idea was always kind of alien to me, since my Bais Yaakov classmates ranged from blonde and blue-eyed to red haired and alabaster skinned and exotically swarthy.

    Only very few of them had "Jewish" noses. I've been with these gals for 12 years; someone would have noticed the nose job.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This seems, primarily, to be an American issue. In Israel, you see Jews of all colors and features, all Jewish. There, my red hair was generally assumed mark me as a Hungarian Jew. Here in the US, I get a cold stare and a remark of, "You weren't BORN Jewish, were you?"

    I'm not sure where this protectiveness comes from except perhaps that Jewishness in the US has, for some, become more of a racial identification than a religious or tribal one and one which they feel is somehow threatened if there are Jews who look differently. It may well be a backlash against the high rate of intermarriage and assimilation in the United States, but it is ugly and definitely not a kiddush Hashem.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I've only gotten the 'you don't look Jewish' once, and it was bundled up in every single other thing a convert or conversion student (which I was at the time) hears at least once: why on earth would you want to convert, my mother's second cousin's neighbour was a convert, and so is Joe over there HEY JOE COME MEET THIS GIRL, how do your parents feel about this, etc... I get the added bonus of '!! that's a Jewish name!' when they found out I was a conversion student- I have an exceptionally Jewish first name that is very rare outside Jewish (or Muslim) circles.

    I'm more amused by it than anything else. I probably shouldn't be surprised by the casual prejudice of which this is a greater symptom, but what are you going to do? When you're making chit chat at kiddush there's not really any polite way to deal with it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yeah, I've gotten "you don't look Jewish" before. I didn't know weather to be offended or flattered.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Sorry, but I'm not sure I can agree. There is a "jewish look" just like there's an Italian, Greek, Swedish, Scottish, Semitic or Latin look - but we know that not everyone who is Jewish/Italian/ German/French WHATEVER necessarily "looks" it. As a convert you know that "Jewish" = nation, religion, AND race. Useless to deny or ignore this. It's 'prejudice' maybe but can that be said about every racial/ethnic label? Or is it just fact?

    ReplyDelete
  7. I have the opposite, a lot of Jews and Gentiles have commented on my looks by saying "wow, you really look Jewish", I usually take it as a compliment. LOL!

    Oh and a comment about Dutch Jewish names, many of the Dutch names have Jewish connections, my Hebrew name is very Dutch, nobody raises an eyebrow. Awesome.

    In South Africa, everybody presume Jewish means being a descendant from the poeple in Lithuania, which does constitute for about 75% of the Jewish population, yet there are many Sephardi Jews here too, Israeli's and also a significant portion of Black Jewish Converts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I also usually get the "Wow, you look Jewish!" when they find out. The tip-off is usually my name though. I have gotten some funny looks from a few people with the name Jade...

      Delete
    2. If you have a name that is explicitly associated with another religion (e.g. Mohamed, Jesus, Fatima, Christopher) would you be expected to go by your Hebrew name or change your name?

      Delete
  8. Hah another redhead still using her English name - and look at that we both start with E.

    I remember once asking why someone's father brought out the spices (or was it candle) for havdala on motzei chag, the mother got so upset at the time that I always looked back at it that I was having a bad midda moment, comforted that maybe I knew more than someone else once in a while. But as I reflect on it now I think I honestly was intrigued whether there was some custom or something particular about the end of Pesach.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Oh and isn't the "pair" thing referring to the mistranslating the beams of light that emanated from Moses - or Michaelangelo's inability to carve them.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I hate it when Jews by Birth use the "oh so and so looks so Jewish" line. It's especially ironic when they say it while there are Israelis around. If you go by the American Jewish stereotype of all Jews having dark curly hair, pale skin, a big nose, and looking nerdy, then most Israeli Jews don't "look Jewish", since half of them are non-Ashkenazi and have all served in the IDF and therefore are certainly not nerdy wimps.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Sorry, but I'm not sure I can agree. There is a "jewish look" just like there's an Italian, Greek, Swedish, Scottish, Semitic or Latin look - but we know that not everyone who is Jewish/Italian/ German/French WHATEVER necessarily "looks" it as you note above. We (converts and all) know that "Jewish" = nation, religion, and/or race. Useless to deny this. My mother got "you don't look (insert ethnicity)" all the time and when she did actually state ethnicity, people wouldn't believe it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jewish does not necessarily equal Eastern European (Ashkenazic). There are Jews who are not Eastern European in descent or looks yet are both religiously and racially Jews.

      I think this is no less insulting than a lighter skin person not being accepted as being part of their own minority race because they do not fit a stereotype.

      Delete
    2. Please see what I wrote above, Anonymous 1: "Repeat after me: There is no such thing as "looking Jewish." At best, you can describe your bespeckled, big-schnozed, friend with frizzy brown hair as "looking Ashkenazi." But even that's just an ethnic description. Your "-stein" or "-witz" could be a born-Catholic. Appearance and name are totally meaningless when it comes to whether that person is Jewish, either halachically or culturally." You are referring to "looking Ashkenazi." There is an ethnic component to Judaism, but only WITHIN Judaism, not OF Judaism.

      Delete
    3. Kochava,

      There is definitely a Jewish look...I can not visually distinguish an Ashkenazi from a Sefardi, but can easily distinguish an ethnically Jewish person from a non-Jewish person from the same geographical area.

      That having said, you dont have to be ethnically Jewish to be Jewish, and it is unethical to ask someone why they dont look Jewish, much the same way as it is unethical to ask a kid why he does look like his parents... (adopted? one parent is a step parent? just happens to not look like them?)

      Delete
    4. typo - why he does NOT look like his parents

      Delete
  12. I look reasonably "Jewish" (i.e., Ashkenazi) but have a very common American (and usually non-Jewish) surname. It's my father's surname, and he's not Jewish, but my mother is, so I'm halakhically unexceptionable. What's amusing -- or maybe not -- is that people who first meet me at shul ask if I went to day school (because they usually see me reading haftarah or davening!) and people who first see my name listed somewhere ask if I converted.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I visited an Orthodox shul for the first time a few weeks ago (I'm hoping to convert once I can move to a more Jewish area). With my super-white skin and blue eyes, I expected everyone to KNOW I wasn't Jewish.
    On the contrary, I had several people ask me things like "So were you raised religious?" and when I mentioned I hadn't been to a shul before, "But you ARE Jewish, aren't you?"
    I do have black hair. Or maybe I dress the part well?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was just in Israel, in Bat Yam, where there are a lot of Russian-speaking Jews. I look just like them. The kicker is, although my biological mother was Ukranian, I was adopted by a Scottish family, and I'm definitely not Jewish.

      I would really like to convert, although I think I can't convert Orthodox here -- the Orthodox community here is tiny (as in can barely even muster a minyan tiny) and there is no real kosher infrastructure. I will probably do a second conversion if I can move to a bigger city, because I am so in love with Israel, I want to make aliyah... :(

      Delete
  14. It just shows you that people judge books by their covers. If you dress the part and look the part then you must be Jewish. We know it is not true, yet it happens all the time, till you meet Jews from India, Africa, Israel, South America etc. So many Jews it is beautiful!

    I like Kochava's statement "There is an ethnic component to Judaism, but only WITHIN Judaism, not OF Judaism" which describes it very well.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I think everyone should learn Shmiras Haloshon, so that they can stop saying anything that may insult another, and that includes "You don't look Jewish" theme.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thanks for writing this and coming back. Speaking for myself and a couple others these are the things we need to hear.

    ReplyDelete