Feminism, Pop-Culture | Posted by Talia on 11/7/2011

What Does Jewish Look Like To You?

Procrastinating is always loads of fun, and thanks to the Internet, it’s really easy to do. One such time that I was putting off doing something important, I noticed this picture (embedded in this post).

Yeah, ha ha, very funny. It even reminds me of the “Death to All Juice” protest sign. Hilarious.

However, it occurred to me: generally offensive caricature aside, why are these Jews portrayed as male?

When you Google Image “Jew” and skim the results, almost all of the pictures are of white Ashkenazi-looking Hasidic males. The few pictures that aren’t are mostly anti-Semitic or anti-Israel; women and non-Hasids make up a small minority. When you Google Image “Orthodox Jews,” it’s the same (except for the much-loved Tefillin Barbie).

I suppose these results just mirror the reality of the world. When asked to picture a Jew, most people will immediately think of a bearded rabbi, possibly with a big nose and black hat, even if s/he doesn’t personally know one. Few will think of a woman, non-white, or non-Ashkenaz.

Well, at least it’s an improvement from when people really thought that Jews had horns, right? That myth might’ve taken a few centuries to dispel, but I really do think that in a generation or two from now, the Google Image results for “Jew” and “Orthodox Jews” will be different. There are so many more women role models within the religious and secular Jewish communities nowadays, and that number will only increase. In synagogues, there are women like Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Rachel Kohl Finegold, Lynn Kaye, and Dina Najman; the children of their congregations won’t be strangers to women in leadership positions. There is a proliferation of mohelot, female circumcisers, among the non-Orthodox; it’s only a matter of time until more observant circles get the hang of it, too. Female mashgihot (kosher certifiers) are also increasing in popularity. Yavilah McCoy, an African-American Jewish woman, is active in advocacy for Jews of color. Idit Klein, the executive director of Keshet, shows Jews that they can be included in the community, no matter what their sexual orientation. There are dozens of Jewish women in the music and film industry who let their Jewish identities be known.

I think that Vanessa Hidary really embodies the point of this post. Ms. Hidary is a Sephardic woman poet who’s trying to show the world that somebody’s Jewish identity has nothing to do with what s/he looks like. I had the honor of interviewing her a while ago, and I still keep up with her work (she released a book recently, The Last Kaiser Roll in the Bodega). I fell in love with her work when I first heard her poem “The Hebrew Mamita.”

“I’m thinking, I’m saying
What does Jewish look like to you?
Should I fiddle on a f**king roof for you?
Should I humor you with oy veys and refuse to pay?
Oh, ’cause you know how we like to Jew you down
Jew you down, I’d like to throw you down!…

I’m the Hebrew mamita
Long-lost daughter of Abraham and Sarah
The sexy oy-veying chutzpah-having non-cheaping non-conspiracizing always-questioning hip hop-listening Torah scroll-reading all people-loving
Jewish girl.

Bigging up all people who are a little miffed
‘Cause someone tells you you don’t look like
Or act like your people.
Impossible, because you are your people.
You just tell them they don’t look,

Originally posted on Star of Davida

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  • Kristen A @ at 11:49 am, November 7th, 2011

    Oh Talia I love your writing so much! I’m a Jewish convert (biracial but I look Irish-Ukranian out of all my ancestry) and people actually question me when I tell them I’m Jewish. It’s somewhat offensive to me to have my ethnicity, culture and religion questioned because I’m tall and slender with red hair, especially since I was able to go to Israel on my birthright trip after finished my conversion and the community there is extremely diverse looks-wise.

    I’m glad that our culture/religion has so many beautiful female leaders, must be why Judaism is the only major world religion that doesn’t have a section on the wikipedia page for misogyny! (I realize there is certainly sexism that still exists, but I feel like as a whole Judaism has advanced towards egalitarianism moreso than other major religions.)

  • Talia bat Pessi @ at 6:50 pm, November 7th, 2011

    Aw, thank you!

    I’ve been Jewish my entire life, but I don’t look stereotypical, so a lot of people are surprised when I say I’m Jewish. (A lot of the time people are able to peg me as Orthodox by my skirt length, though.) :) That’s part of the reason Vanessa Hidary’s work really resonated with me when I first heard it.

    Historically speaking, Judaism has always had strong women, which is part of the reason I love the religion. (Not meaning to knock other religions here, I’m just ignorant of their women’s contributions.) Among non-Orthodox Jews, I do think that there’s been a lot of very big steps towards egalitarianism. Orthodoxy is steadily getting there, too. JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) has been an amazing catalyst for Ortho Jewish feminism.

  • Vanessa M @ at 9:08 am, November 8th, 2011

    It makes me feel really happy to know that the condition of Jewish women is improving. Thank you very much for the post.

    By the way… People don’t really believe me when I say I’m Chinese, ’cause… Picture a Chinese girl. Yep, long, luscious black hair, smooth (kinda light) skin, etc etc etc. Oh, and submissive and fragile. I’m none of that. I have “ridiculously” broad shoulders, I have zits, am quite hairy (compared to girls who wax, anyway) and am quite tan.

    So… Yeah, I know what you’re talking about.

  • Co widzisz gdy wygooglujesz „Jew”? | feminimasoret: oko w oko z Tradycj? @ at 3:01 pm, November 8th, 2011

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  • Jem @ at 9:58 pm, November 13th, 2011

    This is such a great article! Love it! As a Jewish girl growing up in a pretty small town, which didn’t have many Jew’s, I’ve received quite a few “But you don’t look Jewish” statements before. And it always hurts when people say that. People don’t stop and think that being Jewish isn’t about looks it’s about faith and a one on one relationship with G-D. Instead they focus on what they can see (which is evidently looks).
    And I agree, Talia, Judaism does have quite a few inspirational Jewish women throughout history! The religion certainly has a lot of respect for it’s women, and is probably the least misogynistic of the 3 monotheistic religions. Certainly there are areas which need improvement but overall I think it’s historically been pretty good. It makes me proud to be Jewish when I’m reading the Torah and I see a passage which has a strong female!

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