Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What Does A Jew Look Like?

The first thing I think about when I hear this question is, “Who cares?,” but it seems that there is a subconscious demand for this answer, so I will try to answer it. Perhaps it is because our sense of sight is heavily relied upon to make decisions, or because a certain image of “the Jew” has been imposed by the anti-Semitism of Europe (largely Germany), or some combination of the two that many people (including some Jews) see this as a determinant factor in Jewish identity.

It must be said that there is truth to this portrayal, as every reflection of reality is just that, a reflection. However, in many cases, the reflection leaves out a certain element of reality that can only be perceived by observation. In and of itself, the portrayal is not negative. I do not feel insulted, for example, when someone portrays me as I really am, although I am perplexed by the fact that they feel that they are issuing an insult. For example, the term “Jew” is deemed by some to be an insult, but I am a Jew, so why should I feel insulted? If anything, they are complementing me. Furthermore, it would be foolish to rely on the perspectives of a person who uses the word “Jew” as an insult; we do not need to rely on the definitions of those who dislike us. Can anybody dictate to a Jew as to the contents of the “inner Jew?” The answer is “No.” Another thing that raises my awareness is to why people feel that they have to portray Jews; why are images of Jews so commonplace that large sections of society have memorized and internalized these images and are shocked when real Jews don’t fit well those images? Are other people as regularly portrayed? And finally, perhaps the crux of this matter is, “Why do the portrayals of Jews reflect few segments of Jewry?”

Who are Jews?

In this post, I will only discuss the historical aspect, for the halakhic aspect (Jewish Law regarding religiosity) is a topic of which I am not an expert, although I have a foundational understanding of it. Jews are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their religion passed down through them, their families, and their environs. Jacob was renamed “Israel,” had twelve children, each of whom became the leader of a tribe, and from then on, the Hebrews were known as “Israelites,” or the “Children of Israel.” One of Jacob’s children was named “Judah,” and after the subsequent invasions of the Land of Israel and Judah (where the tribe of Judah and Benjamin resided) by the Assyrians and Babylonians, many of the Israelites were scattered into Assyria and Babylon, a large portion of them becoming “lost.” More can be learned about these “Lost Tribes” in the video “Quest for the Lost Tribes,” an Arts and Entertainment documentary by an Orthodox Jew who believes to have found the descendants of these Israelites. Judah was relatively safe from the assaults, which led many Jews to move into Judah and to adopt the name of that tribe. These Israelites, all members of the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, eventually adopted the name “Yehudim,” that is, affiliates of the tribe of Judah, which in English would be pronounced “Judahites.” Today, the word “Yehudim” is translated as “Jews,” a shortening of the word “Judahites.” Following these historical developments, we see that “Jews” is the term used to refer to those people. Since the word “Jew” refers to the believers in the existence of the One G-d, there is no purpose in using the term “Israelite” or “Hebrew,” and therefore “Jew” is used to refer to the prophets Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, to their descendants, and so on. It would be anachronistic for me to say that I am an Israelite or a Hebrew, although technically I am.

Portrayals of Jews

At least in America, and perhaps in places that have internalized certain images of Jews, people are quite sure of what Jews look like. For the most part, they are thought of as socially different white people who wear skullcaps, hats, suits, and have beards. Note, this physical conceptualization is generally true of much of European Jewry and their descendants, and furthermore, is only true of the men (skullcaps, hats, suits, and beards). These images are of religious Orthodox Jewish men; Jewish women are imagined in much different ways (picture ‘The Nanny,’ a caricature of a secular American Jewish woman, which for some reason serves as the prototype of American Jewish women as a whole). In fact, the words “Orthodox Jewish woman” probably register no image in the minds of many Americans. There are also physical facial features that come along with images of Jews, many of which are rooted in the anti-Semitic notions that came from the Middle Ages in Europe, and to a large degree, from Christian notions coming from the same times and places that had vested interests in portraying Jews in particular ways, although this is another topic.

If we consider where Jews come from, then we can get a more basic understanding of what Jews look like. The first thing that has to be mentioned is that the ethnicity, or race if you will, of the patriarch Abraham was Hebrew, who were a Middle Eastern peoples. This was the original ethnicity of the Jewish people, and as they migrated and were moved around throughout their long history, they came into contact with other people, surely some of which converted to Judaism. The religion did not remain solely a Hebrew religion for long, the Torah entails the conversion of Jethro, a member of the Midianite religion and Moses’ father-in-law, and Ruth, a Moabite woman and grandmother of King David, to Judaism. The Talmud, or oral tradition of the Jewish people, teaches that Abraham would spread his teachings to the surrounding people, and we also glean that he was an influential and wealthy man in his day. We see that the religion thrived in the most genuine of senses, as a concerted religion, belief system, and philosophy and not as an ethnicity or race, although the Hebrews were the sole people who received revelation from G-d. It is clear that many people became associated with the religion of Judaism throughout the millennia, events that are not necessarily emphasized in the pages of the Tanakh. Noting a much later example, the Kuzari, a book written by Rav Yehuda ha Levy in the 12th century, entails the Khazari king’s decision to convert his empire to Judaism. Therefore, a Jew was defined by his or her adherence to the religion of Judaism and not by the particular ethnicity or race. Suffice it to say that historical disagreements related to Judaism are rooted in theological and judicial disputes rather than issues of race.

One can carry out in-depth studies of the different Jewish communities throughout time and all over the world, but I do not plan on writing a thesis on this topic, but rather, I only want to take the reader on a short journey throughout the varied world of Jewry. Why, you ask, do I want to do this? I want to do this because the Jewish world is suffering an image problem, and not from the inside out, but from the outside in; many people, reacting to societal and cultural imagery of all sorts, are left confused as to exactly what and who Jews are. The purpose of this post, as stated earlier, is to shed some light on this topic. A certain misconception that I have come across often in the (mis)information superhighway that is the Internet is that the Jews that we know today are descendants of a Middle Ages European people who converted to Judaism. The real Jews are no more. The information is one part true and three parts ludicrous. The majority of society probably does not believe this nonsense, but the point is that the image of white European Jew in the black suit is in stark contrast to the image of the Jew in the Tanakh in his robes, and the contrast confuses the common citizen.

Our society tends to believe that things that have the appearance of being ancient are more genuine, and since Jews have largely ditched their peasant era garb, they must not be the real thing. Furthermore, there are many Muslims today who still look like they came out of the pages of the Tanakh, and weak minds are at risk of believing that Jews should look like this if their message is to be genuine. If this is true, then I make the assertion that we are actually losing our grasp on a huge element of the history of humanity with regards to G-d, religion, ethics, and philosophy. For example, if there was a misnomer in society that wrongly assumed that the “original form of Christianity or Islam” had by now disappeared into the annals of history, then this would be a great disservice to society, especially since there are many of these same Christians and Muslims around today.

An aside, it is equally disturbing that the religion of Islam views this as one of its central truths, that the Jewish religion has become malformed over the generations to the point of nonexistence. A Muslim Egyptian that I used to know once suggested this to my face. All of this is said in the name of creating a reason for Islam.

At this point of the post, rather than explaining in depth about the different types of Jews whom lived in different times and whom live in different places, I will simply provide the reader with a visual. – Sephardic Jews (originally from Spain, living in the Middle East for generations) – Ethiopian Jew – Ashkenazi (European) Jews, whom are quite varied among themselves (different places in Europe, different times) – Jewish woman, probably from a Middle Eastern country – Orthodox woman – Jews from India – More Jews from India – Afghani Jews – Iraqi Jew – Syrian Jewish women - Babylonian Jewry – Assyrian exile of Israelite Jewry (722 BCE) – a link to several pictures of Jews – links to worldwide communities of Jews, past and present – Alula Tzadik, Ethiopian Jew (music)