By: Nadav Heller  | 

Do I Look Jewish?

Do I look Jewish? “Shalom!” “Shavua tov.” “Good shabbos.” And even one time “Say a bracha! I’m Jewish!” These are all things I have heard from strangers who intuited my Jewishness and wanted to let me know that they know. What makes it so obvious that I’m Jewish, anyway?

I asked a number of friends this question. They laughed, and, upon realizing I was serious, pantomimed twirling hair by their temples, indicating the foot-long peyot [sideburns] dangling from either side of my head.

It’s odd to me that long peyot are one of the most universally recognized symbols of Jewish identity. They aren’t required by Jewish law. Most Jews don’t have them, at least not the ones I know. What’s so Jewish-looking about them? What does it even mean for them to be Jewish-looking?

This is the central question implicit in Frederic Brenner’s “Jews/America: A Representation.” Brenner travels across America, documenting groups of liminal Jews, often with an almost provocative daring, as if challenging us to question the Jewishness of the individuals he captures. He presents a landscape of rabbis and cantors from JTS wearing tallit and tefillin, defiant and searingly austere — all of them women. Another photo, titled “Jews with Hogs,” depicts a steely biker gang parked outside their favorite synagogue, an enormous recreation of the Mosaic tablets magisterially looming over their handlebars and helmets. A third portrays a Passover seder in a maximum security prison, the inmates celebrating freedom while incarcerated. In fact, most of the photos included in the book are of people I’d never have pegged as Jewish.

This is precisely Brenner’s point — unitary conceptions of who “looks Jewish” fail to account for the breadth of Jewish identity. In fact, forty percent of students tested at a New York college mistook Italians for Jews, and equal numbers identified Jews as Italians. As much as we think we can “just tell,” the “Jewdar” we all feel we innately have is apparently faulty.

There’s an old joke, which, in the way old jokes tend to be, is not nearly as funny as it is instructive, that demonstrates this principle. An older woman spots a dapper gentleman sitting across from her on the subway, and, as one does, begins to interrogate his ethnic origins. “Excuse me, sir. Are you Jewish?” The man looks up from his newspaper and gruffly responds “No.” A few minutes later she asks again. “Pardon me for asking, but are you sure you’re not Jewish?” He repeats that he is definitely sure. Unconvinced, she makes a third attempt. “How sure are yo —” “— alright! Alright! You caught me, I’m Jewish! What do you want?” “That’s funny,” the woman sniffs, “you don’t look Jewish.”

The joke sardonically parrots the same question that Jews often ask themselves. Without external, deliberate signifiers, what does it even mean to look like a Jew? This tension has been a source of perennial strife for the modern American Jew. The nearly unendurable questions of “Who am I? What am I?” plague his psyche, pushing him to hide from others (in insular enclaves) or from himself (by assimilating entirely).

Halacha addresses this tension when it demands that a Jew “must be separate and recognizable in his dress and other behaviors.” We most reliably identify ourselves as Jewish when we deliberately choose to appear Jewish. No genetic characteristic or behavioral tendency definitely identifies the Jew. A Jew is most often known only insofar as he allows himself to be. We could just as easily blend in — but we do not want to.

So, for the hundreds of you who ask about my hair before my name or well-being, listen well, because this is the definitive answer why I grew out my peyot.

My peyot carry many layers of personal meaning. They are a homage to my Yemenite ancestors, who wore simanim [signs] to distinguish themselves from their Arab neighbors, and to my Hasidic predecessors, who grew peyot as a kabbalistic embellishment of the Law. They signify my teleological and emotional closeness to modern charedi Jews, who are too often stigmatized in our community. They are a part of me, literally built into my flesh and made of my cells. Peyot are almost exclusively the province of Orthodox, halachically observant Jews, another statement of personal identity.

None of those things, however, are the real reason why I grew my peyot. The capital R reason is because they are universally recognized as Jewish.

The way we visually present gives others cues as to how they should view us, and, perhaps more importantly, how we view ourselves. The ostentatious, swinging ropes of hair affixed to my temples are the statement I make before I ever open my mouth. Before I introduce myself as a New Yorker, college student, booklover, or sibling, be forewarned: I am a Jew.

So the next time a stranger winks at me and proudly whispers, “Mikvah and Lox” or some other tragically misplaced, microaggressive phrase of benign effrontery in my ear, I’ll happily respond with at least as much pride, “Shabbos kosher amen.”


Photo Caption: The way we visually present gives others cues as to how they should view us, and, perhaps more importantly, how we view ourselves.

Photo Credit: Pixabay