Reclaiming ‘Jewish-Looking’

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

One of the many tributes to the late, great Lauren Bacall can be found in The Jewish Week, whose angle is, understandably, a Jewish one. Gabriela Geselowitz provides an eight-item checklist of Bacall’s most Jewish details. What interests me most is the seventh item:

People would act surprised when they learned she was Jewish.  Tired of people telling her she didn’t “look” Jewish, she said, “And I’d think, what’s with this Jewish thing? Is it terrible to look it? Not to look it? Does it mean you have to look like Shylock?”

A mainstay of the Jewish press is and long has been the did-you-know-this-blonde-starlet-is-Jewish? story. Did you know that Bar Refaeli, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Scarlett Johansson are Jews? If you’re Jewish, you’ve probably heard this many times, and if you’re not, either you don’t care, or you run one of those other sorts of websites devoted to listing Jews.

I suppose this genre is meant to be of some kind of comfort to Jewish women and girls, who know all too well that we are not exactly stereotyped as ravishing. Pop culture is full of references to the unique appeal of non-Jewish women to Jewish men, but Jewish women… tend to get points only for not looking or seeming Jewish, whatever these mean. The American romantic comedy basically is a Jewish man (sometimes played by a non-Jewish actor – see Jason Biggs’s career) and a non-Jewish woman (who can, in turn, be played by a Jewish one – see Natalie Portman in “Garden State”). Or maybe the point is to reassure Jewish men that they need not marry out to find the conventionally beautiful wife of their dreams. (Obstacles to marrying a woman who looks like Bar Refaeli – let alone like Lauren Bacall – would seem to extend far beyond the possibility that such a woman wouldn’t share one’s religious persuasion.)

I mean, I get it. There are many fine reasons for avoiding the expression ‘looking Jewish.’

To begin with the obvious, anti-Semitic stereotypes often include visuals, and if the idea is that looking Jewish means having a hooked nose that reaches down to one’s navel, or some kind of grotesque hand grasping the entire globe, it’s understandable why few would want in. Like Bacall evidently said, who wants to look like Shylock?

Then, within the Jewish community, is the question of exclusion. Jews who don’t fit the more neutral stereotype (i.e. not horns or claws – just… a white person with dark hair, more or less) end up hearing from other Jews that they don’t count, which could, I’d imagine, get old, or get really annoying if you’re someone who doesn’t merely identify as Jewish, but wishes to be active in Jewish communal life. It’s not really a drawback in society at large, of course, to not look Jewish. Certainly not when it’s the sort of not-looking-Jewish that so fascinates the Jewish press, namely looking non-Jewish but white. Anyway, most American Jews, but not all, are of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) ancestry, and even among those of that background, we don’t – as the saying goes – all look alike.

And yet. For those of us who do look Jewish – ahem – how we’re received in the world is impacted by this perception. This is just… a fact of lived experience. It may not even be a thing – as in, I’m agnostic on whether there actually are more ‘Jewish-looking’ people among Jews than among the white population at large. That’s not the point. The point is that a stereotype exists, and those of us who are immediately understood as Jewish are those who happen to meet it. And it’s approximately as reassuring for me to hear that some Jews have hair much lighter and noses much smaller than my own as it must be for those in equivalent (if not exactly parallel) boats to learn that Alexa Chung’s career is doing well, or that Zoe Saldana – a woman of color, but… – was cast as Nina Simone.

What I’m asking for, then, is not some kind of outrage over the plight of the Jewish-looking Jews. It’s not really a plight at this point, just a life experience. All I’d like is to find some way to reclaim ‘Jewish-looking’ that isn’t too terribly insulting to Jews who do or don’t meet that description.

Objections? Agreement? Tangentially-related musings? Send them to