Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish

It was on this very day, ironically enough, 20 years ago that I met my now-husband. In Las Vegas. On Erev New Year’s Eve. And do you know what the very first thing he said to me was? “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” Stay with me here; I stayed to hear what he had to say even after that line. He said that to me because his best friend from high school was dating my best friend from high school (they met in college) and on their drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for New Year’s 2000, his best friend warned him to be nice to friends of his girlfriend, including her best friend, Libby. Libby, he explained, hated few things more than being told, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” And if you know my husband, you understand that in his twisted sense of humor, this was hilarious to him and apparently was meant as flirting. And apparently it worked because here we are 20 years later with three gorgeous and brilliant children and a happy life in Minnesota. (I promise he had many more charming things to say later that holiday weekend – and in the 20 years since then.)

In the aftermath of one of the deadliest and most violent years for Jews in America in my middle-aged memory, it’s this same phrase that is rattling around in my brain today. Funny, you don’t look Jewish. Because, here’s the thing. I may be Caucasian and “blonde” (thank you, hair stylist) with blue eyes. I may live in the western suburbs of Minneapolis in a very homogeneous neighborhood and my kids may attend some of the best public schools in the state, if not the country. It’s true, I don’t physically look “stereotypically” Jewish or live a particularly observantly Jewish life, at least not to the untrained eye. My immediate family members do not wear kippah or tzitzit or long skirts or sheitels. I can run to the mall or the gym and no one knows that I am a member of the tribe. My relative anonymity as a Jew is a privilege. In my day to day life, I have the immense privilege of revealing – or choosing not to reveal – to the world around me that I’m Jewish. I remember learning about this concept in Hebrew school – the idea that the majority of Jews in America for the most part can ‘pass’ as white and for many years, successfully assimilated for this very reason, blending in with WASPy neighbors and drawing little attention to their unique “Jewishness.” In many ways, this is how, to American retailers, Chanukah became the “Jewish Christmas” equivalent even though it’s a minor holiday by Judaism’s standards.

But in this moment, my privilege is of little comfort.

It’s of little comfort because the truth is, I’m very publicly Jewish. My name is Jewish. My job is (all) Jewish. Most of my social circle is Jewish. My books and web history are Jewish. My writing: very Jewish. My social profiles are filled with links to articles about being Jewish and my thoughts and opinions about this identity I hold so sacred. My kids are proud Jews, even when they are the only one in their class. There can be no doubt that while I may not look religiously Jewish, it’s not hard to conclude who I am and what I believe. I do have family members and dear friends who appear outwardly Jewish and I naturally worry about their safety. And to be perfectly honest, I also worry about how this trend will affect the work that I do every day – cheerleading for the Jewish people and working to get (mostly young) Jews to participate in active Jewish life. As anti-Semitism increases, particularly anti-Semitic violence – what will be the selling point for Jews to be, act, and “look” Jewish?

Today, we cry out in anguish for the attacks on Jewish communities that look Jewish. It hardly seems coincidental that there have been so many incidents in a highly Jewish area in such a short period of time and targeted at those who specifically look Jewish. Their pain is our pain and their fear is mirrored in the less religiously-observant communities in which I live and pray. I’m reminded of another phrase that so often rattles around in my head, this one from our texts: כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה – All Israel is responsible for one another. So often in the inner-workings of the Jewish world, we’re divided into an us/them dichotomy when it comes to Orthodox Jews and (versus?) the more liberal streams of Judaism. As the vitriol and violence increases, who will we be as a community – for the safety and security of those who look Jewish as well as those who do not?