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What Does a Jewish Person Look Like? – Lekh Lekha 5781

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה’ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

God said to Avram, “Go forth from your land, your native land, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Bereshit / Genesis 12:1)

One person. 

Lekh lekha. Pick yourself up and go, says God. It’s a singular imperative. Avraham is chosen to launch monotheism, and hence Judaism, into the world.

And then there are two monotheists. And then a family. And then Yitzhaq, Ya’aqov, Rivqah, Rahel, Leah, and then 12 tribes and then two million former slaves are standing at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.

And what color was their skin? Did they “look Jewish?” Does the Torah tell us?

No, it does not. The only thing we know about the Imahot and the Avot, the Matriarchs and Patriarchs is that they are all descendants of the first humans, who are created “betzelem Elohim,” in the image of God. And usually, when we use that term, we are speaking more about our spiritual construction than our physical appearance. Rashi, by the way, disagrees; he claims that God created us in God’s physical image as if stamping us out like coins.

And if we are following Rashi, then, every single human face reflects God’s image, and God’s holiness.

**** 

Perhaps you are familiar with the following rabbinic anecdote:

A man is riding a train from Pinsk to Minsk. He is reading a book, minding his own business, and he becomes aware of a woman seated across from him, who is staring at him intently. He tries to avoid her gaze, but then she speaks:

“Excuse me, sir, are you Jewish?”

“No,” he replies politely.

Some time passes and she continues to stare. “Are you sure you’re not Jewish?”

“Yes, I’m sure. I’m not Jewish.” Now he’s annoyed. 

More time passes. “Are you absolutely sure you’re not Jewish?”

“Alright, alright. You got me, lady. I’m Jewish. Now will you leave me alone?!”

“Funny,” she says, “you don’t look Jewish!”

Many of us are burdened with a stereotype for what Jews look like. I am blessed with an ample, yet otherwise well-designed nose, for example, and throughout my life have been told that it is a “Jewish” nose. And yet, I know plenty of Jews, even Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews that have more petite, yet fully functional noses.

My wife, however, has blonde hair and blue eyes, and gets very resentful whenever she hears anybody talking about how somebody “looks Jewish.” She grew up in New York, a secular Zionist born to two Hungarian Holocaust survivors. When revealing her Jewishness, it was always a toss-up as to whether the response would be, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish,” or “Yeah, I figured.” When she went to Israel as a teenager, she was struck by the wide palette of Jewish looks there, and she realized that there is no single Jewish appearance.

I want to suggest something. No, I want to mandate something. (I know, I cannot really do that, but bear with me here.)

We have to try to strike that idea from our heads, that there is a particular Jewish look. Why? Because it actually causes many Jews very real pain, and very likely has led some people to leave the synagogue and never come back. And yes, even here at Beth Shalom.

Let me explain:

You may have read an opinion piece in last week’s Jewish Chronicle written by a Beth Shalom member, high school senior Naomi Kitchen. I know that Naomi is well-known to many members of our community; she is a CDS alumna, and in fact the first time that I met her was during my first year here on a visit to CDS, Naomi spoke to me as a Student Ambassador.

Naomi’s father is half-Korean, and her mother is of Israeli Ashkesfardi extraction, and in her article, titled “A Message to my Squirrel Hill community, from a Jew with a touch of color,” she documents how she has often been confronted with comments that are related to “Funny, you don’t look Jewish,” although many of them were very unpleasant to endure. In a related article that appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy, which Naomi co-wrote with Makeda Zabot-Hall, who is a Black Jew, the two describe being interrogated, to see if they are “really Jewish.” 

Once in this very building in which I stand, ladies and gentlemen, Naomi became so frustrated at people’s assumption that she is not Jewish that a few years ago she swore to herself that she would never enter this institution again.

That was us. That was you and me. And that hurts.

And of course Naomi is not alone. We have a number of members of this congregation who do not present as stereotypical Eastern European Jews. And frankly, that’s a good thing, and not only because stereotypes are bad. 

It is a sign that we have made it in America. In the five and a half years that I have now been in Pittsburgh, I have helped make more than 50 new Jews through conversion. A decent fraction of them would stand out in a crowd of Eastern Europeans. 

But as you may know, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, and we are forbidden by halakhah / Jewish law to remind somebody that they were not born Jewish, or question anybody about their background or demean them for what they know or do not know.

We have a member of this congregation who is of Chinese and Japanese extraction whom I have heard reciting Birkat Hamazon / the grace after meals better than the vast majority of members of this congregation, and yet it happened once that when entering Beth Shalom on the High Holidays, she was not handed a siddur, even though the people in front of her and behind her received them.

And of course conversion is only part of the story. There are adoptees. And those born to non-white Jewish father and a Jewish mother. And do not forget that there are many Black Jews in this world, from native populations from Ethiopia and from Uganda. 

Judaism has no requirement for skin color; like Sarah and Avraham, we are only colored with the Divine image.

We all make snap judgments based on the way people look – clothing, hair style, posture, glasses, etc. People are simply wired that way. And we all have biases to which we can either succumb, or try to overlook. And the Jews, at least historically, have a distinctive mistrust of non-Jews, which we have inherited from our ancestors. When we were confined to shtetlakh and subject to blood libel accusations and pogroms and laws applied to dhimmi in Muslim lands, it was hard for Jews to trust strangers. This is a part of the historical burden that has filtered down to us.

But look at us today: we have, the events of two years ago in Pittsburgh notwithstanding, been welcomed into the wider American society with open arms. We have lost many of our number in America to assimilation. That is how successfully the great Jewish-American project has proceeded.

So we should be grateful (א) for those of us who are grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants who are still willing to come into a synagogue, and (ב) for anybody else who wants to join us. And when a young woman tells me that she was so turned off by people’s assuming that she is not Jewish, because of their preconceived notion of what a Jew looks like, that she decided to leave this building and not come back, I am ashamed. I am embarrassed for all of us. And you should be too.

Shomer yisrael, shemor she-erit yisrael. Guardian of Israel, protect the remnant of Israel. That is what we say in tahanun, the brief moment of supplication recited on most weekday mornings. We are but a remnant, a she-erit. And we have to do everything we can to make sure that we cast a wide net, that we share our values and the framework of our tradition with as many as we can. If somebody wants to be a part of us, we have to reach out and embrace them. 

You know, I usually speak about issues of welcoming when we reach Parashat Vayyera, which we will read next week, in which Avraham Avinu rushes to invite three strangers into his home. I know many of you have studied this passage (Genesis 18:1-8) with me.

But how does Avraham become so welcoming? Returning to Lekh Lekha: The Sefat Emet, a 19th-century Chasidic rabbi, suggests that Avraham’s leaving home for Canaan is at least part of it. Avraham travels from the familiar, his home in Haran, to the open-ended, the unfamiliar land of Canaan. The final word in the first verse is “areka,” which is usually read as “I will show you,” that is, God is telling Avraham that he should pack up and leave, and when he gets to the right place, God will tell him when to stop. 

But the Sefat Emet is telling us that we might read this instead as, in leaving your homeland and traveling to this unfamiliar land, I will cause you to see more. I will enlarge your vision. 

We all need to enlarge our vision, to take a step back from our natural biases, and widen our sense of what a Jew looks like. Because none of us really “look Jewish” unless everybody else sees God’s image in your face, and in your words. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/31/2020.)

2 replies on “What Does a Jewish Person Look Like? – Lekh Lekha 5781”

Amazing how stupid and narrow-minded we can be! Can recall 40:years ago talking with Malaysian Muslims about Jews, because I was the only one they had ever met, and most believed there were hundreds of millions of us! Didn’t believe me when I told them the truth!

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