When I am introduced to someone, the second question, after how to pronounce my last name, is always “Where are you from?”
Then, it’s, “No, where are you REALLY from?”
Fun follow-up questions include “Why are you so tanned?” “WHAT are you?” and, in equal measure in Jewish circles, either “You don’t look Jewish,” or “Are you Sephardic or Mizrahi?”
When I was a student at Hillel Academy in the late-1980s and early-‘90s, the school custodian used to call me his “Persian Princess.”
On the other hand, my blond, blue-eyed brother once surprised an anti-Semitic colleague with this cutting retort: “I’m Jewish, by the way, and my grandfather was black, so stop with the racist comments right now before you regret it.”
What is “looking Jewish” all about? I grew up in the era of official multiculturalism and the language of “Canada is a multicultural mosaic,” but it wasn’t always easy to fit in. Frankly, I feel as if I have never belonged, but I had it easy compared to some. When two Ethiopian Jewish kids moved to Ottawa in the late-‘80s and enrolled at Hillel Academy, there was gossip about whether they were “really Jews.” Most important for me, though, was that the elder boy invited me to his bar mitzvah and he was the first kid I ever saw put on a tallit. To me, on that day, he couldn’t have been any more Jewish. But he had it tough.
Much later, in graduate school, I attended an academic conference on Caribbean literature and met Professor Lewis Gordon, then at Temple University in Philadelphia. He took one look at me and said, “You’re a Jew of colour.”
“What did you just call me?” I asked him. I had never heard that term before.
“Are you Jewish? Are you mixed-race?” he asked. “If so, then you’re a Jew of colour.”
Gordon continued, “Look up my group, Be’chol Lashon: In Every Tongue. It’s an American organization for people like us. I know you think you’re alone, but there are more of us than you think.”
Gordon assured me that to be Jewish is one part of an identity that can also include being Arab, Korean, Mexican, Iranian, East Indian, brown. Jews can be people of colour. Jews can be of mixed-race and mixed-ethnicities and can look however they look whether or not someone thinks that they “look Jewish.”
Thanks to the ongoing work of organizations like Be’chol Lashon, this conversation is happening in mainstream society and media. The Forward, for example, ran a worthwhile special series this past summer entitled “In Jewish Color” featuring courageous first-person narratives.
But here is something I heard last year about a child I know: “Oh yes, isn’t she one of the little Chinese girls at the Jewish day school? There are a few of them there now. They’re so cute.”
While these are anecdotes, how short is the path between racist comment and racist action? Intolerance so easily slides into exclusion and, far too often, into violence.
Parshat Noach, which we read recently, describes the scattering of the people across the world, and into different languages and tongues, after they built the Tower of Babel. In Lech Lecha, we read the saga of Avram and Sarai who were, in our tradition, the first refugees. Avram hears God’s call and leaves his family, his lands, his nation and everything he knows to go live as a stranger among other people. Although they themselves are new arrivals, Abraham and Sarah gain renown for opening wide their tent to other strangers, other wanderers, other refugees. And Abraham’s first son Ishmael eventually fathers a nation of his own in parallel to Isaac’s. These two nations, founded from the same refugee father, take their place among multiple nations scattered, like various languages, across the planet.
So what is a Jew? What does a Jew look like?
Better questions might be: What is a human? What does compassion look like?