a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

What Does a Jew Look Like?

Posted on: March 22, 2012

What does a Jew look like? Answer: like anyone you might see on the street.

Whatever ethnicity, whatever denomination, a Jew is someone who calls themselves a Jew. Saying that someone does or does not “look like a Jew” is inaccurate, stereotyping, and downright offensive, and in fact stems from anti-Semitic propaganda. This blog is intended to combat and correct the popular image of a Jew as looking one particular way.

So show everyone what the Jews of the world look like, and how varied and diverse we all are! Submit a photo of yourself and tell us what being Jewish means to you.

From What Does A Jew Look Like

What Does a Jew Look Like is Tumblr I just discovered while doing a Google search for racially/ethnically diverse Jews.  Which is just a silly term, let’s be honest.  It’s crazy that I have to Google “Jews of Color” or “Racially diverse Jews” to find pictures of a non-white face.  We’re two weeks away from Pesach where we’ll recount the Exodus story.  We’ll read that a “mixed multitude” left with Moses and his clan from Egypt, but in our day-to-day life Jews who look like me are always questioned.  If you are a Jew you are a Jew.  You can be white, brown, black, green or purple-but you’ll still be a Jew.

Last night I had the opportunity to see the documentary 400 Miles to Freedom, the remarkable story about an Ethiopian man’s escape from Ethiopia through the Sudan before being airlifted in Operation Moses to Israel.  I would strongly encourage everyone to see this film.  If you are not in an area where it is being screened it’s imperative that you demand (yes I said demand) that your congregation, Hillel, JCC whatever request a screening.  In his movie Avishai Yeganyahu Mekonen, the director,  meets with Jews of every race and ethnicity proving for himself as well as the viewer that Jews do come in every color.

Afterwards during the Q&A guest speaker Dr. Ephraim Isaac made a remark that I’ve often said here and in my personal life-he encouraged Jews to look at our Muslim brothers and sisters and try to emulate their acceptance of anyone who seeks to be Muslim or anyone who is Muslim.  He said, if you tell me you’re a Jew, then you are a Jew and I accept you as such.  As far as I know, no other religion seeks to “validate” communities in the way that we do.  We go into places like Uganda or Nigera or India or Ethiopia and require that people who have only known themselves to be Jews are required to undergo conversion that in order that they be “truly Jewish”.  Even if they are born of a Jewish mother, live a Jewish life in a Jewish community.  A Jew who is Asian, Indian, Mexican or Black is often asked how they are Jewish, if they are truly Jewish, or told that they don’t look Jewish.

I sound like a broken record, but it never fails that if I am in a Jewish space, like at last night’s screening, I am asked how I am a Jew.  Part of it is ignorance, part of it is misunderstanding, part of it is racism, and part of it is the unknown.  I urge you to seek the knowledge that is there for you, I urge you to seek out organizations, people, films, communities.  I urge you to build brides.  I urge you to self-reflect on your ideas and views of what is Jewish for you rather than mirroring it onto someone.  I urge you to speak out and speak up when you hear something that sounds off.   I urge you to require that the diversity that exists within the Jewish community is reflected in your own individual community.

1 Response to "What Does a Jew Look Like?"


First of all, I like how that woman tried to “place” your friend with dreadlocks. Since I changed my surname, I got an indirect question about whether my family was French, (and implicitly perhaps not fully Jewish), and it spoke volumes. (Tribal identity is at the heart of people’s attachment to the Center for Humanistic Judaism, and its tragic flaw.)

Exclusion runs in all directions. For most Jews of Ashkenazi origin, clannish behavior has been borne out of oppression (for the Sephardim, specifically North Africans, it happened in Israel, where the epithets make anti-Black racism in the US look tame), they are now among the most anti-Arab racist voters.
I wish more African Americans also knew of the presence of Jews historically in Africa (and I’m not referring to the myths). Jews have been in Morocco for perhaps as long as 3000 years, and at least as long as the Roman Empire has been there). And there are cultural influences from south of the Sahara that inform the Moroccan cultural identity. And they weren’t invitees of recent French colonialization, but rather co-opted as its servants (19th and 20th century). In Egypt and the Sudan, Jewish businessmen travelled south as a result of the existence of the British Empire.

I learned something important (well a lot of things, actually) when I was there: color didn’t matter, and racism was not allowed, as a friend put it, behaving in a racist way would get you a slap in the face. I know a Berber Moroccan whose adoptive father was Gnaoui (of Guinean descent), and the current king’s grandmother was also Gnaoui. As a New Yorker, the kids of Gnaoui descent looked more familiar to me and thus I probably spoke with them more.

As a final twist, Chabad has gone into Morocco to “serve” the remainder Jewish population, mostly either old or poor, and imposed their world view, which is much less attuned to the spirituality of the landscape of Morocco, on Moroccan yeshiva students, a colonialism I find appalling in its sexist provinciality.

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