You Don’t Look Jewish

Laurie says:

As I’ve talked about, I am moderating a panel at BlogHer on Kids and Body Image. It’s started my thinking about a piece of my own youth.

From the time I was little, I got high praise for not looking like who I was. In my 1950’s Jewish world of NYC, “You don’t look Jewish” coming from Jews was a compliment. I have a small straight nose. My mother, who was a stunningly beautiful woman, and knew it, was beaming at my nose from the time I was small. I remember lots of comments on my nose and don’t recall any about my other features til I was in my teens. The message was that you look wonderful because you don’t look like me.

It certainly felt like praise but it was also confusing. There was also a strong element of class in this, because looking like a gentile was perceived as looking like a “better” class of person.

In my neighborhood of mostly Jewish intelligentsia who were (mostly) proud of being Jewish, my style of looks were often too appreciated. “You don’t look like us” shouldn’t feel like a compliment from one’s people, but when you’re a kid it does.

And in my high school lots of girls I knew got “nose jobs” as a graduation present. It really bothered me. When I think about it, my objection to people’s “correcting” their looks may have some beginnings there.

As soon as I left NY “you don’t look Jewish” stopped feeling like a compliment. It was coming from people who knew that Jews had kinky black hair and big noses and olive skin. Not to mention the silver horns we kept in the box under the bed. So of course I heard a lot more anti-Semitism, since no one was watching their mouth.

It gave me a lot of unearned privilege (above and beyond the primary privilege of whiteness) and I was aware of it. Although at 20 I didn’t have the language to discuss it clearly. It made me feel like my outsides and my insides didn’t match. It’s a different experience of internalized anti-Semitism if it comes from praise and not criticism.

I tended to introduce my Jewishness early in the conversation. Even though the next remark was frequently “Really, you don’t look like one.”

It certainly didn’t seem like a big thing then, in part because I had some modest sense of how privileged I was. And partly because I lived in a world where assimilatory anti-Semitism was like air. And the existentialism that was my lens for viewing the world at that time was useless.

I’m talking about things that happened between 60 and 40 years ago and I’ve dealt with them in lots of different ways over the years

I’m not sure what this brings up for the panel. Writing about “Not looking like one” is the first time I’ve considered this considered in quite a while. I’m not sure where this is going in terms of children and the panel. But I think I’ll probably have some concrete ideas about that by the conference in July.

15 thoughts on “You Don’t Look Jewish

  1. Hi, I bounced over here from a link on Kate Harding’s blog.

    The first thing that came to mind for me was…these people haven’t met many Jews. I know most people’s image of Jews comes both from the absurd anti-Semitic images which have abounded and still do. And American Jews are mostly used to seeing Eastern European Ashkenazim, and I think that’s where we get our image of the “stereotypical Jew” from.

    But there are people whose families have been Jewish for centuries, who don’t “look Jewish” so to speak. There are black Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews, Italian-looking Sephardi, and there are fair blonde Jews. Jews have hair that is thick or thin, curly or straight, coarse or silky. Jewish noses come in dozens of different shapes and sizes. Jewish bodies range from big and curvy to small and slight and everythig in between.

  2. One thing I have noticed, both in my own family, and within the Jewish community, is that Jewish men don’t seem to be attracted to the “typical Jewish-looking woman.” Now before you get on my case and say that there is no such thing and Jews come in all different packages. There is a perceived “Jewish look” and whether it actually exists or not, Jewish men don’t seem to be attracted to the female version of it. Case in point: my brother, who married a very tiny blonde woman from Texas (who we all love and have welcomed with open arms). I have the stereotypical Jewish look and find it hard to attract Jewish men (non-Jewish men find me very attractive). I have heard it said that “Jewish women are not pretty” by a Jewish male. Why is there this internalized hatred within our own group. This need to marry outside and have little blonde children with small noses? Can anyone say self-hating Jew!

  3. Meg,

    Jews are indeed amazingly diverse.

    My comment about how some people thought Jews looked were about people over 40 years go. I think there is a lot more sophistication about what Jews look like now. Unfortunately, while anti-Semitism is different than when I was young it still a strong reality.


    I think that’s something Jewish men share with a fair number of men in other ethnic and racial groups. (And this isn’t only about men.) When you’re living in a society that says you look “wrong,” it’s all too easy to internalize it and pick a women (or man) who looks “right”.

  4. That’s such a wonderful thing for us to explore in our panel, Laurie. The issue of having to fix our ethnic flaws in order to fit in. With whom? Where? and more importantly, WHY?

    Excellent post that reminded me of lots of hurtful things about body image but also the ways in which I’ve worked to heal them.

  5. Sorry to be so long in answering, I’m just getting my energy back after the intestinal flu from hell at Wiscon.

    Glad you liked the post. I was working with teenage girls last year and the way they criticized themselves and each other for not meeting the thin, white blond criterion sometimes made me either want to scream or cry.

    Looking forward to the panel at Blogher.

  6. Thank you for this post…the phrase ‘You Don’t Look Jewish’ is something I’ve encountered many times, apart from when I lived in Italy. There, when I had to use my surname ‘Cookstein’, they nearly always questioned “Cookstein? That’s not an Italian name is it?”

    But now I live in England, where most people’s knowledge of ‘Jewishness’ comes from New York-based comedies, I find I am not Jewish enough! Even though my Mother is a Portuguese-Jew, my Father inherited his looks from his gentile Father, of which has been passed on to me. (His mother, though, was an Irish-Jew). So, I don’t have any real ‘Jewish features’…apart from, maybe, that I am rather short…if that is a feature.

    But, anyway, thank you for this post! I’m glad I’m not the only one…

  7. I am from Germany and want to add that a lot of guys from Germany also prefer the look of darker colored women. They think it’s exotic and fascinating. And I am no better, as I have an Israeli boyfriend who is jewish and of arabic descent hence – quite dark, and smaller than I am, while I am tall and blond. It seems that the opposite attracts. I even heard of a theory that the more the human race mixes its genes with the most different genes possible, the stronger our bodies get. So that could be a biological explanation too.
    When I went to Italy, I had many men whistle after me simply because I looked a bit fairer than what they are used to. And some Jamaican ladies told me they desire nothing more than a tall Swiss stable man (as if they were any more stable..). However, I think that jewish men might feel as though they have to find a jewish woman and therefore reject the stereotype.
    In my country, a darker man is also seen as something more adventurous and out of the ordinary – I guess if you send some northern European girls to Israel, they would marvel about then men they see there. I do!

  8. It’s funny how all the Jews in your neighborhood seemed to know what a Jew looked like, but all the books I ever read about Nazis said the Nazis were crazy for thinking that they knew what a Jew looked like.

    No matter how many articles there are on what “Jews” look like, nobody will ever give a description of what Jews look like. “Um, they might be short and they might need a nose job.” That’s not a very good description of your tribe.

  9. I know exactly what you mean about not “looking Jewish.” I am a 6’2″ man who is tall and fair, except for having a larger nose, people assume I am from the British Isles. True, I have a lot of Irish ancestry, people just don’t understand sometimes that there are quite a few Jews with blue eyes and light hair. Growing up, I never got a lot of “you don’t look it” comments, but I always sensed that some other Jewish kids saw me as an anomaly at times.

    I still feel slightly self-conscious about looking different, but these feelings have reduced after traveling around the world and seeing other Jews. We really don’t look a certain way and it is so unfair for anyone to think so. I think showing people your Jewish spirit is far more indicative of your Jewishness than anything else.

  10. Well, the truth is somewhere in between. I can very often identify fellow Jews by their looks alone. For me, it has a lot to do with the jawline and mouth and many other subtle features. It is hard to describe, but it is very real. Another complication is that there are a number of different Jewish “types”. Sometimes when traveling I ask someone who I can tell is Jewish, “do you know any kosher restaurants near here?” or “Is there a minyan nearby?” I can see they are taken aback. They think they are invisible and could be mistaken for another ethnic group, and some might be, but many Jews are visible as Jews, at least to me. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, though it can be in an anti-Semitic environment. I doubt there are many non-Jews who can read Jewish faces the way I can. One thing I find annoying is how important it is for some non-Jews to KNOW if I am Jewish. I don’t necessarily share that information with them. I’m the kind of Jew who many people think is Italian. Sometimes I let people think that’s what I am. Being Jewish otherwise becomes a “big deal” to some people, whether positively or negatively. I want to foremost be seen for who I am as an individual. However, I have a very high degree of Jewish consciousness, something that non-Jews (the vast majority of them) and many assimilated Jews would never understand.

  11. If it makes you feel any better, I am Swedish but I grew up looking Jewish (or what people seem to think the jewish stereotype is with the olive skin and the honker). My family has a wide array of racial genes in our ancestry.

    Some people asked me if I was Jewish and I did look a bit different from my other family members, but in some ways, I also think I was more attractive than my traditionally nordic looking sister, for example. She was the blond, but I got all of the attention. I think Anna from Germany may be onto something. I was unique, and her looks were pretty common.

  12. The whole thing makes me VERY VERY ANGRY.

    In my mind, “Jewish” is a religion, not a race. HITLER made it a race; to go up to someone and say they “look Jewish” (whether the inquirer is Jewish or not) is insulting, not because being Jewish is an insult, but because popular culture equates Jewishness with ugliness (which IS an insult). So when someone says “You look Jewish”, they are really saying “You look contrary to what our society believes is beautiful.” This is especially offensive to women, who (unfairly) are not only expected to fulfill the societal standards of beauty, but are ALWAYS judged primarily (by both men and women, gay, straight, bi, trans, etc) on not only to what degree they fulfill these standards, but also by to what degree they dedicate their entire lives to fulfilling these standards.

    “You look Jewish” means, particularly to a woman, “You are short, large breasted, large hipped, big nosed, thick-lipped, with close-set small eyes, and have skin that is either pale and wrinkled prematurely, or olive toned. You are therefore considered unattractive by most of society.” To say “you act Jewish” to a woman means, “You express your emotions too much and are too loud and opinionated, which is considered anathema for a woman in this society.” I have heard gay and bisexual men as well as straight/”bi” women (Jews and non Jews) profess attraction to “Jewish guys”; I have only heard denigrating comments about Jewish women from both other women (Jews and non Jews, queer and straight) and men (again, Jews and non Jews, queer and straight).

    “Jewish” should be a CHOICE the way Catholic or Baptist or Scientologist or Atheist is. To say someone “looks Jewish” is to assume and eliminate choice. To say someone “acts gay” assumes not only one’s identity, but also their object of desire. Why not say it like you mean it. The difference is, gayness is often subsumed with effeminacy (in men) or masculinity (in women) which has nothing to do with sexuality. My best friend is TRULY a lesbian in a male’s body. He is INCREDIBLY feminine, very beautiful, wishes he was a dyke and is ENRAGED when people say he “looks/acts gay”. He says, “I look and act feminine. That doesn’t mean I desire men.” Another good friend is a lesbian and she herself is very feminine, as is her girlfriend. She too is enraged (justifiably) when she is told she doesn’t “look” like a lesbian, ie, “manly”. The common stupidity here is conflating one’s gender expression with one’s sexual choice, thereby unfairly heterosexualizing everyone (ie girly men MUST like men, therefore aping heterosexuality; girly girls MUST like men too).

    I see the same thing with “You look Jewish.” How dare someone presume religion based on looks. How dare someone presume sexuality based on looks (or gender expression).

    For the record, I am from a mixed background. Of my eight great-grandparents, four are Jewish, four Protestant. This is pretty unusual, or so I’m told. My ethnicity has been guessed as anywhere from Irish to Norwegian to Danish to…yes, you guessed it, “Jewish”. Apparently, there is a country called “Jew” I know nothing about. (Israel doesn’t count, as I don’t look vaguely Middle Eastern, and all of my “Jewish” relatives hailed from Russia, yet I’m never told I look “Russian”).

    When I challenge those who state I look “Jewish” and ask what they mean, they say, “I don’t know, you just look JEWISH.” Interestingly enough, many of those who say this define themselves as “Jewish” even though they are atheists (don’t get me started on this one). Now, I have pale skin, straight light hair, light eyes, and (I hate to say this, but it must be said) an average size nose. I am slender and medium height, so I don’t even fit any of the stereotypes. I am not from New York, do not talk with my hands or any of the other behavioral stereotypes. I don’t understand any of this, or why these people get offended when *I* get offended at their assumption.

  13. I’m a short, blonde, skin so white it glows in the dark, woman. I always seem to attract Jewish or Middle eastern men. I often thought perhaps it was a case of opposites attract, as another posted pointed out. I pass for Russian.

    Last year I was shocked while digging into my mother past (she died young) to find out that I descended from a long line of Russian and Ukrainian Jews. I’ve told a few and each time hear the words “Weird, You Don’t Look Jewish”.

    Then some go into great detail about various racial theories I’ve never heard of. Or that my ancestors must have mixed racially for hundreds of yrs to have Jews with blue eyes and gray eyes, and in reality are not that Jewish anymore. A few mean well but have been quite insulting. I’ve also been told by my paternal side that in Christianity it is the fathers bloodline that counts. As if my mother’s blood had little value.

    There are funny reminders to of how this Universe has a sense of humor. I remember refusing communion being so horrified and appalled at the thought of consuming flesh and blood. “You’re not Jewish are you?” they asked. “NO!” I replied as I rolled my eyes. Never could go through with it though. Little did I know…..

    Granted the deep South is a much different experience from NYC. But my experience began yrs after yours. Funny how little has changed.

    BTW, LOVE your name! LOL

  14. Laurie R,

    Sorry to be so late in commenting. Sometimes my life is very dense.

    I suspect you probably know this, but in Jewish law it’s the female line that determines if you’re Jewish.

    And you’re right about how little some things have changed.

    Glad you like our name!

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