Why don’t I look Jewish to you?

Why don't American standards of political correctness regarding a person's appearance and ethnicity extend to Jews?

I get told a lot that I “don’t look Jewish.” At first when people would tell me this, I would laugh it off, wondering why anyone would say such a thing. But the more it happened, the more it started to bother me. If I don’t look Jewish, then who does?

Once I asked a person who had made the remark what she meant, but her answer was quite unsatisfactory. “Well, you know…” she trailed off. I persisted until she explained that one of her Jewish friends did look Jewish and I didn’t look like that friend. I couldn’t get anything else out of her.

At the bottom of this remark, there was something else. I wondered what all these people had in mind when they thought of someone that did look Jewish. The more I thought about it, the more uneasy I felt. The only stereotype I could think of was a bad one. The Jew that was put on posters in Germany to scare small children and that can be found killing babies in political cartoons all over the Middle East.

Out of curiosity I decided to Google the word “Jew,” and I must say that the results were more than disturbing. The first image that showed up was a hook-nosed, beady-eyed man. If someone who had never met a Jew wanted to see what a Jew looked like, they certainly would not get a favorable impression from Google.

But I doubt the people who asked me had gotten their only information from the internet. I go to a university where approximately a fifth of the students are Jewish, so it is impossible not to come into contact with Jews on a regular basis and see that the caricature does not hold. While it might be forgivable for someone who has never met a Jew to have a certain stereotype, it is quite troubling that some people who regularly come in contact with Jews hold on to the same image.

With Jews all over the mainstream media, it is more likely that a person would assume a Jew looked like Natalie Portman, Adam Sandler and Mila Kunis (I imagine we would be quite popular dating-wise if this was what people thought we looked like).

Mila Kunis (via Shutterstock)
Hath not a Jew great cheekbones? (Mila Kunis image via Shutterstock)

However, this is not the stereotype many people have. Because why, then, would it seem hard to believe that I, a brown-haired white person, was part of a group of people who are represented in the media by other brown-haired white people?

In the United States, it is not politically correct to tell someone they don’t look American. Children are taught in schools to value diversity, and the word “American” is appended to anyone’s description of his or her ethnic heritage to reinforce this (such as the terms “African-American” and “Asian-American”). I wonder, then, why this exception holds for Jews.

Perhaps because Jews are not seen as victims of discrimination and prejudice as much as other minority groups in the United States, people do not feel the need to be as careful about being politically correct. But still, this seems like a poor excuse.

In the end, Jews have to be the ones to end the stereotype. I’m not saying we need to do one of those “I’m Mormon”-style campaigns where cheery people of various races and ages are shown to be Jewish. But at least the next time someone asks, don’t just ignore it. Smile and explain that Jews are just like any other people — we don’t all look the same.

About the Author
Josefin Dolsten currently lives in Jerusalem, where she is pursuing an MA in Jewish Studies and Religious Studies from Hebrew University. Previously she studied Government and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. She enjoys writing about religion and politics.