When we are young, we only know what is innate—like eating, breathing and sleeping. We learn how to perceive the world in a way that is useful to us by observing the people and things around us. Eventually, we form preconceptions.
When I was little, the only Jewish people I really knew were my family. Like me, my mom has long, dark hair, a wide nose and golden skin. On the other hand, my dad has a downward sloping nose, curly hair and green eyes. Growing up in a mixed household, I thought that there was no certain way that a Jew should look. Yet, as I became more involved in the Jewish community, I soon came to realize that this is not the way that a lot of people think. Perhaps, based on my description, you even assumed that my family is interfaith and only my dad is Jewish. But both of my parents are 100 percent Jewish and I’ve been raised accordingly my whole life.
It’s been my experience that because I’m (half) Asian, people find it hard to believe that a) I’m even Jewish at all and b) that both of my parents are Jewish. Us Jews certainly have a plethora of stereotypes we are associated with; is it strange that I wished to be a part of them? I felt self-conscious when my friends would joke about their Jewish features or offhandedly complain about having crazy curly hair. It felt like I wasn’t a part of some amazing secret club. A significant part of Jewish identity has seemed to rely on appearance. Does my “non-Jewish” look make me less Jewish? I’m still grappling with the question.
And yet, although the Jewish community largely celebrates “Jewish” features, everyone else seems to demean them. This is a phenomenon that, essentially, every minority group experiences. While I so badly wanted to fit in and “look Jewish,” at the same time, I am sure I would be critical of certain features if I did “look more Jewish.”
The modern Jewish experience is surely a diverse, patchworked one. Yet the experiences of Jews of Color are rarely discussed within and beyond the Jewish community and are featured in the media even less. Of course, it is necessary to acknowledge that Judaism is an ethno-religion, meaning that a lot of Jews share a common ethnic background as well as religion. However, there are a lot of groups of Jews, like Sephardic and Ethiopian, which are discussed significantly less than white, European Ashkenazi. We’ve all learned in school about globalism and the melding of cultures. If we’ve acknowledged the newfound diversity of the world, we should also acknowledge it within the Jewish community.
I can’t count how many times I’ve been told, “You don’t look Jewish!” and my first thought is always, well, what is a Jew supposed to look like? In the end, we’re not united by how we look, but by our universal values and beliefs. I am so grateful for all the Jews who stand in solidarity with each other. My wish for the future is that the Jewish community as a whole, and for that matter the world as a whole, will begin to acknowledge that there is no one way to look Jewish and to look deeper inside than out.