What do you mean I ‘look Jewish?’

Anti-Semitism is more than skin-deep

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What do you mean I ‘look Jewish?’

Emmanuel DYAN/Flickr

Emmanuel DYAN/Flickr

Emmanuel DYAN/Flickr

Emmanuel DYAN/Flickr

By Rebecca Duke Wiesenberg, Translations Editor

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I was born and raised into an ethnically, culturally and religiously rich Jewish family. My father is an orthodox rabbi, the child of Holocaust survivors. My mother is religiously relaxed, the child of Yiddish-speaking, first generation Americans. Both emphasized a strong Jewish identity; I had been going to synagogue with my father every Friday since I was a toddler – it was our special time together.

For years, I had the privilege of being a part of an insular Jewish community. From first through fourth grade, I attended a Jewish day school, where I spent more of my day learning Hebrew and Judaica than math, science and English. However, it was when I went to an elite, all-girls school in sixth grade that I started to feel a difference.

With only about six girls of color in my grade and the rest being rich and Anglo-Saxon, I started to question the way I looked. Yes, I am white too, but there’s something different about my appearance. Every day, I’d look in the mirror before school at how big my nose looked. At school, if I felt no one was watching, I’d check in the mirror again, confirming how big and hooked my nose was against the sea of narrow, button noses. At night, before I went to bed, I’d check in the bathroom mirror again, just to despise myself for not being able to hide my “Jewishness.” This would continue through high school, up to my sophomore year of college. Looking at my reflection in the window, cowering away from my reflection in the window. Why should a thirteen-year-old’s biggest desire be a nose job?

Beyond that, I would be shamed by my own family. My mother constantly wanted to blow out my hair. She put anti-frizz product in my hair, telling me that, if I got an internship in Washington, D.C., I would have to gel my hair back because I “can’t look Jewish working in D.C.” But can I blame her? She deals with the same torment, every morning putting a blow-dryer to her wet hair, trying to fry the ethnic frizz into submission.

However, this self-interred shame and contempt toward Jewish characteristics in preference to Anglo-Saxon ones is larger than me and my family. Starting in the 12th century, Jews were depicted in art – both religious and secular – as having big, hooked, crooked noses and a hunched back and a conniving grin, usually over money.

Moreover, since the rise of the political and cultural importance of Christianity in Europe, Jews have been divided and reunited with the non-Jewish population, according to the political strategy of those in power. In Christian discussion, Jews were alluded to be the money collectors who are to blame for Jesus’ death.

When illegal money minting was high and the treasury was low, Edward I of England deported the Jewish population under the Edict of Expulsion of 1290, but they were legally allowed to re-enter the island in the 17th century.

When the Austro-Hungarian Empire was starting to crack and its economy was faltering, Austrian politicians used anti-Semitism to explain away economic issues from the ethnically-factioned, newly eligible to vote population who were united by not being Jewish.

When the Third Republic of France was experiencing a constitutional crisis and widespread bureaucratic corruption, military Officer Alfred Dreyfus, because of his Jewish identity, was wrongfully convicted of treason  in 1896 in a sensationalized trial intended to give closure to a nation who had just unexpectedly lost a historically and culturally important region to Germany.

When the United States is facing an insurmountable wealth gap, 146 bomb threats have been made against Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) across the U.S. and white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, VA and surrounded the local synagogue with semi-automatic machine guns to remedy the lack of jobs and affordable healthcare, solutions that were promised by the president.

It’s no coincidence that, in times of economic failure and bureaucratic weakness, Jews suddenly were to blame for the general public’s poor quality of life and lack of basic human rights – not the wealthy landowners, bishops and politicians who create and enforce the policies that start futile personal and military endeavors that wasted government funds and human lives.

And this is just what white Jews of European descent experience. What about the Black Jews who are stuck between Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam’s anti-Semitism – such as the claim that Jews controlled the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade – and the anti-blackness that some European Jewish communities have – both as ways to upgrade these respective groups’ status within a hierarchy established by white supremacy. What about the Mizrahi, who were not considered Jewish enough and, as a result, not only historically were whitewashed by Medieval and Renaissance artists in religious depictions, but also contemporarily had their children taken away from them by Israeli doctors so that the more “classical” Jews from Europe, traumatized by the Holocaust, could start a Jewish family in the safety of the homeland.

No wonder I am offended when people tell me I “look Jewish.”

Rebecca Duke Wiesenberg can be reached at [email protected]