I was at a dinner party recently, where at least two of the guests were Jewish, and the subject of the Jewish look came up. They both lamented, in both a painful and hilarious way, about the struggle they'd had with others about either recognizing the Jewish look, or missing it. They talked about their eyebrows, and their thick curly hair, and their last names. There was a fair amount of jest, but you could tell that it was borne from some real, felt frustration.
The conversation was absolutely new to me. I had no idea that anyone who was Jewish ever felt that they looked anything other than white. With the occasional exception, of a man, woman or child who was deeply observant or practiced a particular sect of Judaism that required a special dress or head covering, I would just never know. Of course there's a stereotypical Jewish look; but it never permeated my perception of whiteness to ever look for it. The thing that surprised me about this conversation, was that these women and men talked about themselves as Jews as if it were a racial distinction, and not a cultural or spiritual one.
The first Jewish person I ever knew was a girl I met in high school. She had straight blond hair and blue eyes; if the Jewish look was swarthy, curly and hairy, this girl missed it by a mile, and as far as I was concerned, she was just as white as the rest of my classmates. We weren't close, and so I never really got to know her much--about her faith, or about how often she (like me) might have felt different in our school community, or even what suburb she lived in--I just knew that she was in a couple of my classes and that she played the violin, because I saw her in orchestra.
It was interesting to hear these women argue about passing as something other than themselves--Jewish women. As far as I was concerned, curly hair and thick eyebrows were not the distinctions that made a person Jewish; keeping kosher and observing shabbat were. I mean, I have curly hair and thick eyebrows, and nobody would ever suspect me for Jewish, and I think it's just as much because I'm black as because I'm not observant of Jewish law and custom (although I know about great communities of African-Americans who are Jewish). As a young girl, I remember wondering how Nazis could tell Jews from any other German, Polish, French or Belgian citizen. They were all white European, right? Now it occurs to me that when you live cheek by jowl with a community who observes different laws than you do, who perhaps conducts business differently, who may even occasionally speak a different language, that you would be able to recognize that community as one different than your own.
But I've always been surprised when Jewish people have considered themselves a different race of people in America. I remember watching a video of college students, one of those race round table-type discussions, where one girl--she was all by herself--lamented the fate of being a Jew on a college campus that was not a Jewish one, how she felt people judged her for her Jewish-ness. I was so indignant about it. No one looks at you and crosses the street for fear you're going to steal they're bag, I thought; you don't get pulled over for driving while Jewish, no one considers you lazy or stupid if you don't perform well, and you don't have to work twice as hard to be considered the same as everyone else. You can pass for white without even trying, I thought. What are you complaining about?
But I suppose the feel of that, the feel of the Jewish on your skin that everyone around you doesn't share--whether they actually perceive it or not-- is real. Maybe some Jews don't know that they are passing in the eyes of others, and maybe they're not. I'm willing to accept that I'm the only one who can look at a person and not automatically recognize Jew, Catholic, Protestant. But I kinda doubt it. There are plenty of people less observant than me, less motivated to put people in boxes in order to define them. I spoke with a Jewish woman who was talking with her daughter about Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, and she told her daughter that "white people like us" used to own slaves, and that Lincoln signed a document that changed that practice (arguably). Her daughter, one of my new favorite people, was quick to say, "Not people like us, Mama! Not people like us!" She's a clever one.Passing has always been a sore spot in the collective black body, I think. The idea that black men and women would try to hide their heritage, and that their fair skin and light eyes would help them do so, hurts a lot of people. It is, I believe, part of the seed of the color complex which still plagues the black American community, the idea that lighter skin is prettier, better, and more desirable. There are college sororities in this country that still have paper bag parties. I found it amazing to consider that a man or woman would walk around in a body that was their golden ticket, in the white skin that they wore often without knowing what that white skin entitled them to, and could still feel outcast and in the minority. Perhaps it is a testament to my religious insensitivity that I'm still astonished that a Jewish person could be white and still feel racially different. But it seemed to me that by and large it was hard to tell a person was Jewish by looking at them; not so for someone like me, or for a Latina or Asian-American. You read our cultural heritage on our faces inside nanoseconds, and on the heels of it comes a set of ideas, judgements and perceptions you have to sift through before you extend your hand, or cross the street 'cause you think we're gonna steal your purse.
When I lived with the painter, she talked a lot about feeling her own flesh. I think I've said before she's Swedish in cultural origin, a tall, long-limbed white woman with blue eyes and long blond hair; she's not a Baywatch bunny or anything, but she is striking in her appearance, and quite beautiful. She talked about old men on construction sights who would shout, "Skirt on a ladder!" when she had to climb up to continue painting a mural or trompe l'oeil, and the various people, either well intentioned or idiotic, who would assume due to her blond attractive appearance, that she had little to no idea what she was talking about whenever she opened her mouth. A few years ago she had a sort of relationship with a mutual friend who was black. I remember I asked her if she thought much about their racial difference, what she felt about it, whether it mattered. She told me that she never really thought much about his being black or her being white because it wasn't true: he was a deep brown, whereas she was a sort of pale pinky-beige. When she considered their racial difference, it translated itself through the palate of color in the world, and seemed to have lost all its social meaning. She thought about their color, not about their color.
I remember thinking at the time that I loved her, but this this was the biggest bunch of artistic horseshit I had ever heard. How could a white woman ever lament her appearance as a white woman? Her race coupled with her gender automatically entered her into a place of privilege; she was the standard to which every other hyphenated American woman was compared, and when we came up lacking the fashion or beauty industry was quick to help us reform ourselves. The only position in the racial pecking order more coveted than white woman was white man. Not to mention, as a white woman, she represented the stratum to which every man in America could try and reach: it seemed to me that every man wanted a white woman. To consider my own flesh a color that is the same color as the pulpy insides of an oak, or the same brown on the back of a brown recluse, and not the thing that reminded me that I'd never be like one of them, this was a luxury I couldn't afford.
I think I am learning that there are some white people who feel the bodies that they live in. Perhaps being Jewish is something you feel inside your body, not just inside your soul or spirit. Perhaps whiteness a weight and a texture for some people. Not all people. There's a majority of white Americans who can take their whiteness for granted, who feel their flesh as a medium for life, but not as a facet of identity, nor do they recognize the privileges they are afforded by it. But white culture, not German, or Irish, or English or Polish, not New York or LA or Minnesota, but white American culture, it has a feeling and a meaning for some people. Perhaps they feel it on their skin as keenly as I feel my own culture, as much as my locked hair and full lips are indicative of my own people, as much as my ancestry is written on my body. So while I am still, and perhaps may always be, surprised when someone argues that life inside a Jewish body doesn't feel the same as life inside a white body, they may be right. I don't know. The whole thing's still pretty blurry inside here, but I'm trying to live with the mess. The rest of my life is about trying to figure this out, right?