Being Jew-ish in the eyes of others

“Oh, you’re Jewish? You don’t look Jewish.”

It was this combination of question and statement that I knew was never of ill intent, yet it was the same reaction I had received when I told people I was Jewish for as long as I can remember. And yet, it took 20 out of the almost 21 years of my life for me to realize how harmful of a statement it was.

This reaction to my religion and identity admittedly left me feeling confused but also in complete compliance. For most of my life, I felt the need to agree with this statement, and acknowledge that yes, I did not in fact look stereotypically Jewish, rather than defend my Jewish identity. “Oh, is it because of my hair?” was my typical response. My mostly straight, blond hair, blue eyes and small nose left me stuck in the middle — “Jew-ish,” as I like to call it — and seemingly not enough in the eyes of both non-Jews and Jews. I didn’t fit the Jewish “look” that anti-Semitic stereotypes have dictated.

It wasn’t until this past winter break, when my mom told me about an anti-Semitic remark she overheard from one of her co-workers that she felt hurt by, that I realized this common reaction to me being Jewish that I had heard for so long was also anti-Semitic. My mom, who converted to Judaism before she married my dad, who grew up Jewish, told me how surprising it was that she was still hearing anti-Semitic remarks in this day and age and how often they slip by us without us even realizing it.

I told her I realized this was true. Many times throughout my life, and even more times here at UC Berkeley than I could count on both hands, have people, including my Jewish peers, been surprised when they find out I’m Jewish. And I’ve continuously internalized it while outwardly laughing it off or letting it slip under the rug. And as I talked this through with my mom, who has been a Jew for 25 years and counting (longer than me!), I couldn’t help but feel completely taken aback by the questioning of my identity that I had been receiving for years and years.

What does it mean to “look Jewish” anyway? It had become clear to me that “looking Jewish” in the eyes of others meant looking like the stereotype of a Jew that has existed for so long in the media, in cartoons and in stories of Jewish people. Perhaps it was because I didn’t have a mane of curly, dark hair, as the stereotypical image of a Jew created by those who are not Jewish said I should, or because I didn’t have a large nose, as cartoons of Jewish people have said I should for centuries. And yet I believed for so long that that’s the way I should have looked — when I hit middle school (and puberty) and the straight, light blond hair atop my head suddenly became a darker, dirtier blond structured in tight, frizzy ringlets of curls, I suddenly became relieved — perhaps people would finally believe I was Jewish (although those curls have now fallen, and my hair has returned to a slightly wavy and still blond state, resulting in my continued internalization of these stereotypes). And that was where I went wrong.

This notion of “looking Jewish” perpetuates so many Jewish stereotypes that I wish didn’t exist. On the surface, the question of “looking Jewish” might seem harmless when asked by friends or people who are genuinely curious and who I know mean no harm, but underneath all of that, it’s downright harmful.

And perhaps hearing this so frequently in recent years has led me to drift away from my Judaism since I came to college, as I haven’t felt “Jewish” enough, or perhaps it’s led me to feel the need to prove my Judaism to others in other ways. For example, when the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings happened last semester, I hadn’t felt very connected to my Judaism in a while, and I oddly felt the need to express my pain by sharing articles on social media and changing my Facebook profile picture to show that I was “#TogetherAgainstAntisemitism.” But either way, it’s reminded me of how little the general population knows about Jewish people — besides what they look like.

I went to synagogue and Hebrew school every weekend of my life from birth to age 17, I learned and observed nearly every holiday since age 5, I learned how to read Hebrew by the time I was 9, I had my bat mitzvah when I was 13 and spent my whole life preparing to read from the Torah on that one special day. I continued my Jewish studies after that and went on to volunteer as a “madricha,” or “teacher’s assistant” in Hebrew, for the four years after I had been officially welcomed as a “woman” to the Jewish world. And yet, when I was told I didn’t “look” Jewish, it was as if all those years of Hebrew school and a life of living by the values of Judaism had been thrown out the door, all based on anti-Semitic expectations and stereotypes uttered by those around me.

Judaism, like all other religions, is a religion. It’s also an ethnicity, a culture, a race, a practice, a way of life and so much more. Yes, there’s some correlation between ethnic background and religion, but many people, including my mom, have chosen to convert to Judaism even though they are not ethnically Jewish. And yes, many people identify as cultural Jews, as I do myself (I haven’t been to synagogue since before college, but I still do my best to observe the High Holy Days, Hanukkah and Passover, every year), but that’s not all there is to it.

Judaism isn’t something that’s always visible to other people, which is why so many assumptions based on stereotypes are made. I don’t “appear outwardly Jewish” because there is no such thing as “appearing” to be a Jew. Judaism is a feeling, not an appearance. It has a different meaning to everyone, and there is no one way to define it.

While I’ve lived a life of feeling stuck in the middle when it comes to understanding and embracing my Jewish identity, I’ve finally come to the realization that while I may not “look” Jewish to others (an age-old concept that I hope to change), I know I am Jewish because I feel Jewish and always will. I will always feel connected to my Jewish roots, history and values, no matter how people view me.

So, the next time someone finds out I’m Jewish and tells me that I “don’t look very Jewish,” I’ll be sure to ask them, “What does being Jewish look like then?” — because there is no answer.

Chloe Lelchuk is the blog editor. Contact Chloe Lelchuk at [email protected].