Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.

Looking in the Cultural Mirror

What Does It Mean to Look Jewish?

Are Jews a visible minority?

Posted Jan 10, 2012

Source: blvdone/Shutterstock

A number of years ago, I was walking down the street near my house, and a man I had never seen before stopped me and said, "Hiya, Rabbi! I haven't seen you since the wedding."

As you may have guessed, I am not a rabbi.

I have been to Germany on a number of extended visits—getting to know the language, people, and culture—and several times, as part of showing me around, friendly individuals have pointed out less-than-obvious local Holocaust memorials. (For example, commemorative plaques on walls, or a train station near a park we were visiting from which Jews had been shipped off to Auschwitz.) My ethnic identity or religious beliefs were never discussed, but I wonder whether these sights would have been pointed out to me if I looked different.

Assimilated European-American Jews—who eschew distinctive clothing, headgear, hairstyles, and food preferences—have been able to blend into the American mainstream for at least several decades. They think of themselves as no different from anyone else—that is, as "white"—and not as recognizably "other."

It was not always this way. A little over a century ago, when my grandparents arrived at Ellis Island as part of the wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, most Americans viewed them not as "white," but as part of a "Jewish race."

Even now, vestiges of that cultural belief remain in the concept of "Jewish blood." An atheist whose parents are Jewish is still believed by many to have Jewish blood—in much the same way that a white-appearing child of at least one black parent is believed to have black blood.

In contrast, a person born to Christian parents who converts to Judaism is believed not to have Jewish blood—nor is there a folk concept of "Christian blood." Americans, especially Jewish Americans, may avoid the word "blood"—but most Jews and non-Jews alike share a belief that there is some Jewish essence that parents pass down to their children, but which converts do not possess.

(There is, in fact, something important about Jewishness that is passed down from parents to children. It just isn't Eastern European facial features or a pseudo-biological entity called "blood." It is culture.)

So, when many American Jews find themselves being treated differently from other whites because of what they look like (even when the behavior is well-intentioned, as with my German acquaintances), they get upset. This is because their illusion that they are "just like everyone else" has been challenged.

African Americans and other non-whites born in the United States do not grow up with that illusion, because they are "visible minorities." From early childhood, they learn that they look different from the majority, and they know that whites see them that way. So they are not comparably disconcerted when even well-intentioned whites act in ways based on the assumption of difference.


Interested readers might want to see my later piece, "What Does It Mean to Look Jewish? Part 2—Sephardic Jews."