6.29.2009

Funny, he looked Jewish

Full disclosure: I am Jewish. I believe I look Jewish (Lubavitch Jews who wish to get me to say prayers can spot me a mile away).

Apparently, a suspected robber in Vail was described in the local paper as appearing to be of Jewish descent. It also mentioned that the suspect had a large nose, eyes close together, and narrow face (h/t Jeffrey Goldberg).

Apparently, this led to a flood of angry letters to the editor of Vail Daily as trafficking in anti-Semitic stereotypes. I really don't get this.

Judaism is a religion, yes, but it is also an ethnicity, with its own high rate of certain genetic diseases. I can't always pick apart Jews from non-Jews on sight, but you know what? I'm a hell of a lot better than fifty-fifty. I've always found Leslie Howard playing Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind kind of amusing, as Howard looks so obviously Jewish to me that it just doesn't quite work to imagine him as an aristocratic Southern WASP.

There is not only one way to look Jewish (as it happens, I don't have a big nose, olive skin, eyes close together, or a narrow face, and yet I look Jewish), but certain people do indeed look identifiably Jewish. Some of those people have big noses. I can't see what's wrong describing someone as looking Jewish, and if they do look Jewish, mentioning that he has a pronounced schnoz (since, after all, not all Jews do have big schnozzes).

I understand people in the past have trafficked in stereotypes about Jewish appearances. But let's not deny the obvious reality that Jews share some genes, and are often identifiable as Jewish from their looks.

5 comments:

  1. I don't disagree with what you say, but honestly is putting "he looks jewish" in the local paper going to help people catch him? and if not, why go there?

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  2. Looking Jewish was part of a longer-winded description (which included the big nose, etc). I don't know if it will actually help, any more than saying someone is Hispanic will help, but it might.

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  3. It's funny. I'm told on a relatively regular basis that I "look Jewish" when I identify myself ethnically as such. But my facial features are much closer to my non-Jewish father than my Jewish mother. (I think it's my Rogen-esque coiffure, which does come from my mother's side.)

    I'm of two minds about this situation. On the one hand, black, Asian or Hispanic suspects are often described in those terms, so I suppose an argument could be make for including "Jewish" on the list of acceptable descriptors. On the other hand, it seems a bit dicey considering the use of anti-Semitic caricature throughout history.

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  4. if they feel that the ethnicity really enhances the description (which seems dubious to me; semitic seems less readily indentifiable to me than black or asian), the more accurate term would be "semitic" rather than "jewish", wouldn't it?

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  5. I don't see how Leslie Howard looks Jewish. At all. I am an old movie buff, and this is the first time I've ever even heard he WAS Jewish. I had to look it up to verify.

    And, Dan, are you saying it's okay to describe people as looking "black" or "Asian" or "Hispanic" because there HAVEN'T been "anti-black caricatures throughout history"? I beg to differ.

    And, finally, when people talk about someone "looking Jewish," in my experience they unfailingly mean someone looks "Ashkenazi." Many American and European people don't realize that there are NON-Ashkenazi Jews.

    I speak as a WASP who has studied Judaism with deep admiration.

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