Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

On Looking Jewish

Posted on: January 30, 2019

I was in Crete with my seventeen year old daughter, just the two of us. The sun was going down behind the awning of a Chinese restaurant where we sat outside, eyeing the menu for bean curd and vegetables.

At the next table, three or four British boys aged twenty or so were chatting, eating and casting discreet glances at my daughter. If I remember rightly, one of them approached our table and asked her out.

The boys were Jewish. How did I know that? Perhaps I heard some reference in their conversation to BBYO or RSY or Alyth Gardens or Solly’s falafels. Later, when my daughter went for a drink (coffee I presume) with the young man, he told her, ‘We were saying “Is she G or is she J?”’

‘Ah. Well I’m J,’ she answered.

Takes one to know one. Some of the local people assumed she was Greek and only the presence of the blonde English looking mama indicated otherwise. A woman spoke to her in Greek and she replied ‘I don’t understand.’

‘Well you ought to, it’s your language,’ said the woman in English.

My two other daughters also have been taken for Greek, Italian or Spanish; I, never. In Israel, they can tell I’m from England and I can’t think how that works.

When I was a child, we had a family holiday in France. My parents met a Jewish couple and, as my mother didn’t speak French, Yiddish was the language of communication. The new friends looked at me running around the shop with a toy monkey and said ‘She doesn’t look Jewish.’ You can read Howard Jacobson’s ‘Shylock is My Name’ if you think possessing a monkey is a negative indication of Jewishness, but it was probably the fair complexion which swung it.

What does it mean, to look Jewish, when Israel is a melting pot of Ethiopian, Mizrachi, Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews and the latter look like Israelis while the Diaspora Ashkenazim don’t? Why do the haredim in Israel look like the haredim in Upper Clapton?

Sartre said that different nations have different stereotypes ‘…Each country has its Jews and our picture of an Israelite hardly corresponds at all to our neighbour’s picture.’ (Antisemite and Jew, Jean-Paul Sartre, 1945)

Perhaps different political tendencies also have variant stereotypes of Jews. The far right supplies antisemitic cartoons taken from nineteenth and twentieth century literature, such as the Protocols and Der Stürmer. I recognize the images from books I’ve read about the rise of Nazism and also, unfortunately, because the online world shows me that they still have currency. The far left is as likely to supply a caricature of a brutal soldier with an enlarged fist, stamped with a Star of David.

Socially, I encountered very little antisemitism as a child and only very slightly more at university. Occasionally, someone would complain, in affable tones, about the excessive number of Jews in this, that or the other milieu. I would then say, ‘I’m Jewish’ and invariably they replied ‘Oh! I’m not antisemitic!’ I should add that during such conversations, I had the sensation of being on an out of control roundabout, my head spinning and a ringing in the ears. It’s just one of those things, when someone doesn’t know you’re Jewish and says something they wouldn’t venture, if they knew.

Interviewing Rachel Riley for Channel 4, Krishnan Guru-Murthi asked Rachel about her Jewish identity. Part of her reply got her into trouble with Mr Corbyn’s praetorian guard.

‘You wouldn’t know – I don’t look like a typical Jew or anything like that,’ she said. I understood. There are many kinds of solidarity among blondes.

Michael Rosen tweeted: ‘Hello @RachelRileyRR you said that you “don’t look like a typical Jew or anything like that”. Can you give a quick rundown of what a “typical Jew” looks like (as distinct from you) and “anything like” what? What is the “that”, here? Thanks.’

There were many delighted responses, hostile both to Rachel Riley and to the notion that the left might have a problem with Jews. As put-down of the Countdown presenter followed put-down, some familiar names appeared, journalists vocal for Mr Corbyn and some accounts familiar to me, due to their volubly expressed antipathy to Israel. Michael Rosen’s tweet was ostensibly civil and palpably popular.

One person replied ‘Whilst her comment is unmistakably anti-Semitic, she is not.’ [sic]

Michael Rosen replied quite severely: ‘What? What does this even mean? We’ve had a year in which single comments have been pored over as evidence of antisemitism. Along comes a line out of Alfred Rosenberg’s Nazi textbook and you say this?’

The person’s response had been hostile to Rachel Riley, but not hostile enough to satisfy Michael Rosen. He wanted Rachel to be comparable to Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi theoretician.

Of course it made me wonder. The people who told me that I don’t look Jewish – were they being like Alfred Rosenberg? And am I like Alfred Rosenberg, given the countless times that I’ve looked in the mirror when young and now I’m old, and thought that, notwithstanding the light hair and eyes, I definitely look Jewish?

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