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Wednesday, 19 December 2018


One of the most infuriating questions I get asked on a regular basis is “where do you come from?” When I say “England” people are never satisfied; this wasn’t quite the answer they were looking for despite the fact that I was born here, as were my parents. Their question, rather, is code for “why do you look like that?"

I am sometimes told that I ‘look Jewish’. Whilst I cannot recall anyone ever having said this to me with the intention to offend, I am extremely uneasy with the idea. Saying someone ‘looks Christian’ would be entirely nonsensical: Christians come from all over the world. Saying someone ‘looks Muslim’ or ‘looks Hindu’ doesn’t make much sense either - outside of religious dress, what would be the uniquely identifying characteristic distinguishing one from the other? Yet somehow there is deemed to be a Jewish look.

I suppose one might say that it is better to use nationalities rather than religions as an analogy. Whilst there is no ‘Christian look’ there is, say, a typically Scandinavian look (blonde hair, blue eyes, etc) or an Italian look (olive skin, dark hair, etc). But this won’t really do either. Jewishness is not a nationality - Jews come from all over the world.

Jewishness, then,  has no parity with Christianity or Islam when it comes to phenotype, and it is not geographically oriented in the same way as Swedishness or Italian-ness. What, then, is it? You might say it is a ‘race’, but this just pushes the problem back a step: what is a ‘race’, and how is it different from religion or nationality? If ‘race’ is defined with reference to outward phenotype then it turns out that Jewishness is not strictly a race: there are in fact blonde Jews, black Jews, Chinese Jews, and many other flavours of Jew that deviate from the ‘typical’ Jewish look that people have in mind.
So part of my problem with the idea of ‘looking Jewish’ is to do with the problems inherent in delineating what this really means: it doesn’t make sense to talk of religions as having a ‘look’; Jews come from all over the world, and they do not exhibit enough physical homogeneity to count as a ‘race’ (assuming that this is what 'race' means).

You might say that whilst there isn’t homogeneity, there is nonetheless typicality. If this is the case, then ‘looking Jewish’ should be read as meaning ‘looking stereotypically Jewish’ and herein lies the second part of my beef with being told I look Jewish. It is generally considered bad form to rely on stereotypes. Being told I look Jewish is, to my ears, like being told that I look like someone off a Nazi propaganda poster. Historically, the role of the Jewish stereotype was to cast the Jew in the role 'other', as 'not one of us'. So when I'm told I 'look Jewish', it is this sort of image that I have in mind:

Image result for nazi jewish posters

I have, perhaps, a lot of internal wrestling to do when it comes to working out my own identity, but I'd like to leave you now just by ringing a note of caution: whether or not you happen to be Jewish, please don't assert that someone else 'looks Jewish'. This pronouncement is way more problematic than it might first appear.