Monday, June 11, 2007

Jews Come in All Colors

(photo: Jewish Multicultural Network)

PHD's mom and I went out to lunch this weekend. She's a big mahjong maven in her community and she basically knows everyone there. A woman came over to our table to say hello to her. They proceeded to have a conversation but I noticed that the woman was staring at me. At some point in the conversation, PHD's mom said something in Yiddish and I giggled at what she had said. The woman questioned, "You understood what she said?" I replied, "Of course." She then said, "You're Jewish? I mean, I see you wear the Star of David but you're Jewish?" By then another friend has come to the table and next thing you know she is pointing at me and saying, "She's Jewish."

I really should be used to this by now. But it made me think about a conversation I had with PHD not too long ago. He said that when we are together, people assume that I converted so that we could be together. This does not surprise me and actually offends me. Why is it so hard to understand that someone could have such a love for Judaism that they would convert for that reason only? Why assume that marriage is the only reason? How about you all out there...if you met a Jewish couple where one of the them was Asian or African or any other race, would you assume this? Or are you ever surprised when you meet someone who is not "sterotypically Jewish looking" when you find out that they are Jewish?


Jack's Shack said...

.if you met a Jewish couple where one of the them was Asian or African or any other race, would you assume this?

I think that I commented on an earlier post that I grew up with a family of Chinese Jews so it never really occurred to me that Jews would only be white.

I also have dear friends where the wife is Japanese and Jewish.

Not sure that this is all that helpful. But I suppose that some of these comments probably come from people whose sole exposure to Jews were Caucasians.

In my own experience my time in Israel in 1985 sticks out. I remember being a bit surprised by the Ethiopian Jews I met. It is funny when I think about it, Asian Jews didn't throw me because I was used to seeing them.

But up until then I had only seen a handful of Black Jews.

Annie said...

Orie- I think that you need to realize that the problem is theirs, and not yours. Many Ashkenazi Jews have never met a Jew of another ethnic background, despite the preponderance of them.

And many converts in America, regardless of race, converted for marriage, and for no other reason.

Add those two together and you have the common misconception. I know that it sucks to have to be the one to enlighten everyone, but think about it this way: they have the privlige of being educated by someone as sweet as you and LO!

PsychoToddler said...

We have Black and Latino Jews in our community, and I always think it's cool. Although right off the bat I assume that anyone who converts to Judaism other than for marriage is Loco until proven otherwise, no matter what their color.

rivkayael said...

Yes I went to speak to someone at my school about switching my visa status to an Israeli passport. The foreign student advisor stared straight at me and asked, "so when's the wedding?"

I gave her an equally blank stare and asked, "whose wedding? There's Weizmann Institute and Hebrew U in Israel."

Psychotoddler: What's Loco?

Liberal Jew said...

Loco is Spanish for Crazy...

I agree with Annie, but I hear what you are saying. I am white guy by all definitions. But as a lefty wacko who had his time in "progressive" orginizations in college I had to prove myself much in the same way. It was shocking that I could speak Spanish, pero es muy importante por la causa por que nesesito comprendar las personas del comino. (but it is important, for the "cause" to understand the people on the street)

It is hard to be second guessed all the time, but from what I can tell from you posts, is that you a stron gwoman with strong Jewish it can only serve to teach those who don't know.

Oh yeah MAZEL TOV!

Marli said...

I'm not sure, since I'm also of Chinese descent and am seriously looking to convert. I got a lot of quizzical looks at the Jewish center at my university and my Judaic studies professor was always trying to figure me out. I wish I could tell the actual truth -- how passionate I feel about Judaism -- but I haven't just yet.

So I've been letting the people around me know in little ways; when one of my summer roommates asked to borrow my knife for peanut butter this morning, I declined, explaining that I had just kashered it. (We're studying in Europe, living in a fully furnished apartment. I keep my kosher dishes on a separate shelf.) Sometimes I talk about these thing with other friends and forget who knows and who doesn't, and responses range from curiosity to, "you know, you can't become Jewish by just reading about it." Ouch.

Also... wo könnte ich Jiddisch sprechen lernen? Ich kann schon ein bisschen Deutsch sprechen (und eigentlich bin ich nun in Deutschland). No idea if that's comprehensible to you, but I can already understand bits of simple Yiddish and that makes me excited.

Hila said...

Orieyenta, I feel you on this one. While I am not quite so ethnically different from "most Jews" (and of course I mean the Ashekenazi ones who think that all Jews look similar somehow) I do not look "typically" Jewish. I have platinum blonde hair, fair, freckled skin, and blue-green eyes. I am as Nordic as they come, and therefore I usually get the "you're not Jewish--you don't LOOK Jewish" and of course I have to explain that I'm in the process of converting, blah blah blah.

Along with that, obviously, comes the explanation that no, no, I'm not dating or engaged to anyone, I am converting out of my love for Judaism, etc. Fortunately for me, the people at my shul have all gotten to know me well and often seem to take pride in introducing me to newcomers with such statements as "This is Hila, she wasn't born Jewish but she's converting because she loves Judaism--isn't that so awesome?" Little statements like that always serve to increase my love for the Jewish people and faith.

Anyway, I know it is frustrating, but like several others have mentioned, you can somewhat understand where the misconception comes from. Heck, I know a lot of people (my own father included until I told him I was converting) who didn't even know it was possible to convert to Judaism. They thought you had to be born into it or you were sorry-outta-luck about it.

Either way, I hope those people don't bother you too much, I have a feeling that most of them don't mean it to be as offensive as it might feel.

Kol Ra'ash Gadol said...

It's just ignorance... It makes me crazy that people still think that there's a "jewish look" if most Jews actually *don't* look Ashkenazi. And that's Jews from birth, thanks. Sheesh. What's wrong with us light-skinned people, anyway? Do we lack the gene for common sense?

Arctic Fox said...


This is my first time commenting on your Blog, but I have been reading it for quite a while now. (and enjoy it very much)

Although I am Jewish and grew up in a very Jewish neighbourhood, I have to admit that I am still thrown by Jews who don't "look Jewish". I know it is wrong, but everyone I grew up with looked the same. We all had white skin, dark eyes, and wavy dark hair.

When my brother told me he was dating a girl named ______ Wang, I had a certain picture in my mind of what she would look like. When I met her I realized that I stereotyped her by her name alone, but would still never have assumed she was Jewish by looking at her blonde hair and blue eyes!

I learned my lesson!

Just be proud of who you are and continue to educate people. The more people you reach, the more there will be people who understand!

Good luck!

Jack's Shack said...

Seraphic Secret has a post that relates to this. Check it out here.

Shelli said...

Hi there! Found you via Bisela Babka.

I am one part of a multi-racial Jewish family. I am white, mypartner is black, our daughter is black, and recently went to the Mikveh.

As I said on Babka's site, we wanted an obviously Jewish name for our daughter, not only to honor my Bubbe, z"l, but to help her not be asked so often....

My partner wear a Magen David, and I used to, but with a toddler, jewlery is a dangerous thing.

Anyway, all of this to say, I can't spill my entire life in a blog response, but glad to say that I've found you, and I'll be sure to bookmark you!

Anonymous said...

I had the opposite experience growing up. I'm Sephardim, (my grandmother was Brazillian), my mother's from a tiny island in the Caribbean. I grew up going back and forth between the Netherlands Antilles and Los Angeles, and since I went to private secular schools in L.A. and was homeschooled on the island I thought everyone was Jewish. I never though someone looked Jewish or didn't look Jewish, because as far as I was concerned Jews came in every color automatically. It wasn't until I was in my early 20s and invited my best friend to join us for Passover that I realized that not everyone was Jewish. I asked him to join us since he wasn't going home to the east coast and he looked at me quizzically and asked for what. I dug in deeper with 'you're alone for Pesach and you should come to my house for the seder.' He responded with 'but I'm not Jewish.' You could have knocked me over with a feather at that moment. He wasn't Jewish? But just about everyone I went to school with was Jewish and I assumed that meant Jews were the majority in West Los Angeles.

Mind you, my best friend growing up was Jewish, her mother was a white Ashkenazi from New York and her father was Bahamian. One of my uncle's wives is Jamaican-Chinese and Jewish, so my scale was tipped from birth.


Jack's Shack said...

But just about everyone I went to school with was Jewish and I assumed that meant Jews were the majority in West Los Angeles.

There is a sizable population out here, but no one near a majority.

orieyenta said...

Jack - with your experience you could have ended up thinking all Jews were Chinese!

Annie - I don't think it sucks to enlighten people about just gets old sometimes. But for the most part, I enjoy being able to break the sterotypes as often as possible.

PT - but where are the Chinese Jews? And based on your assumption I guess that makes me loco right along with the rest of the tribe. ;)

RY - So when is the wedding? LOL. I knew that you would understand the feelings well.

LJ - You're right, it's hard to be second guessed all the time but like I told Annie, it is nice to be able to break those sterotypes. And thanks for the mazel tov!

Marli - e-mail me. We should "talk".

Hila - "This is Hila, she wasn't born Jewish but she's converting because she loves Judaism--isn't that so awesome?" That's wonderful and I feel like that's the way it should be!

KRG - Yes, it is ignorance but at least there are plenty of us out her trying to change that.

AF - I'm glad you enjoy the blog. It actually made me giggle to think of you growing up in a very Jewish neighborhood thinking everyone looked alike because Little Orieyenta always assumes that all Chinese people are Jewish!

Shelli - welcome! So glad you stopped by. I went to check out your blog and love it!

Suzsqueak - Love your story. I think it will be a similar story that Little Orieyenta will tell later on in her life. We live in a very multi-cultural area and so the demographics at our shul are the same. She is colorblind when it comes to Judaism - a trait of hers that I love so dearly!

Jack - wait...there's Jews in LA? ;)

Z said...

Absolutely! I get this all the time. Good question too - why can't people understand you'd convert for something greater than marriage???

Jack's Shack said...

why can't people understand you'd convert for something greater than marriage???

Ah, another food lover. You couldn't get enough brisket and kugel. ;)

balabusta in blue jeans said...

Flip side of all this--last two years I had a little girl in the classes I taught who was Eritrean. I was aware--intellectually--that the family was Christian. But she looked like the Ethiopian Jews I've met, and had a Biblical (Jewish) name, and I remained convinced on a gut level for some time that the kid was Jewish.

It's what you're used to, I guess.

Arctic Fox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arctic Fox said...

I was thinking about your Blog again...

I am teaching in Northern Canada (Northwest Territories) and one of my clearly non-aboriginal students thinks he is aboriginal simply because of where he lives. I took this opportunity to discuss cultural groups and geography. It was certainly interesting to hear a group of 11 and 12 year old children discuss this topic!

Jacob Da Jew said...

Hey Orieyenta,

I've been a lurker for a bit, really like the blog.

I am 3/4 Syrian yet look like a purebred Ashkenazi. Lots of comments about how " I don't look Sephardic" as if we all come out looking like a stereotype. Thank G-d not, or else we would all have huge noses and be hunchbacked!

I work in the Judaica world and we see blacks, Latinos, Orientals, all kinds.

In fact, my grandfather tutors converts (free of charge) in Hebrew etc. and his pupils include chinese, black and white.


orieyenta said...

Z - Once they realize I didn't convert for marriage it is usually followed by, "Was your mother/father Jewish?"

Jack - What about the cholent?

Balabusta - I agree - it's probably about whatever you're used to.

AF - that must have been a great discussion.

Jacob - I never thought about the whole ashkenazi vs. sephardic look - that's very interesting. That's so cool about your grandfather!

PsychoToddler said...

OY: Actually, there was a Chinese woman who was trying to convert with Rabbi T for several years. I haven't seen her in some time. Dunno if she finally converted and moved on or just moved on.

I always assumed you were loco ;-)

JewAtty Daddy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
muse said...

It's all human nature.
Here in shiloh we have Jews of all different backgrounds, including some fascinating convert stories.

But people are accepted for their "today's identity."

Great post!

Z said...

I get that too Orieyenta...were your parents Jewish? I have finally gotten to where I don't even want to go into it so I just say yeah, my father was.

Anonymous said...

אני יהודי מארץ ישראל
ואם אתם לא - עלו לארץ ישראל!

orieyenta said...

PT - I may be loco but I'm not the one with "psycho" in my name ;)

Muse - After this post and a lot of other discussions I have had, I believe that this is really limited to the disapora. I can only continue to dream of the day when we can finally make aliyah.

Z - Do you then get the whole mother/father thing or do they just accept it at that?

Anon - (I was trying to figure out how to respond in Hebrew but it's not working!) Aliyah is definitely a dream for us and I hope it happens sooner than later.