Friday, July 5, 2013

Jew-ish

I used to argue with my mother about my identity.  Her:  "You're Jewish!"  Me:  "No I'm not."  Her: "It's not something that you can choose not to be.  You just are."

I was confused because I look white.  My family looks white.  As in, I can pass for a descendent of the U.K.  In the neighbourhood where I grew up, almost everyone with white skin had British ancestry.  The way I saw it, the only difference between me and the other kids was that my family had weird, different holidays.  I figured that if I wasn't a believer in the Jewish religion, I could opt out of being a Jew.

I understand now that Ashkenazi Jews are a true ethnic group, with an identifiable genetic signature.  I am 100% descended from this group (to the best of my knowledge), therefore my mother was correct: I can't escape my Jewish ethnicity.  And yet I still don't fully embrace it.  If anything, I'd say I feel like I'm half-Jewish.

I recently read (apologies - I can't recall the source) that a child's peer group socializes them as much as, if not more than, their family.  When immigrants move to a new country and then have children, the next generation does not adopt their parents' accent.  They speak like their friends.  My mother chose to raise me in a white-bread W.A.S.P. neighbourhood.  She didn't send me to Hebrew school. I couldn't have put it into words back then, but I was aware that I didn't really belong to the culture I was being raised in.  I had one foot in each culture and wasn't fully comfortable in either of them.

Some people tell me that I look Jewish, others exclaim that I don't at all and they never would have guessed.  I wasn't aware of looking particularly Jewish until one day when I got on the Bathurst bus just when one of the private Hebrew schools let out for the day.  A dozen uniformed little girls got on the bus, and they all looked like variations on the theme of me.  It was super-weird.  It was only when I observed the whole group of them at once, with their milky-pale skin; light blue, green, or grey eyes; and thick, wavy/frizzy brown "Jewish hair" (as my younger cousin hatefully refers to her own hair); that it hit me.  Of course there are dozens of different types of Jews in every shape, size and colour, but indeed there is a sub-type under which I can be readily identified.

I still have trouble getting my mind around the concept that "ethnic" is not a synonym for "brown".  And that it defines me.

10 comments:

Warped Mind of Ron said...

You may belong to an ethnic group or culture, but always remember that you are you.

DarcKnyt said...

I would LOVE to be part of that ethnic group. I've ALWAYS wanted to be part of one OTHER than the one I can most easily be identified with. (Ain't it the way?)

Adam said...

I used to think Jewish was only a religious group, not an ethnic one as well. But I doubt many families are free from some anglo-saxon genes.

Sparkling Red said...

Ron: Yeah, I'm me alright. Don't worry, I won't forget. ;-)

DarcKnyt: I bet you have at least one secretly converted Jewish ancestor.

Adam: It's true; those Anglo-Saxons did get around.

Jameil said...

I feel kind of creeped out by all of the people who look like me when I'm around my dad's side. And sometimes in certain pics I look just like my twin cousins. It freaks me out! I can imagine how mind-blowing it is for it to be strangers!

wigsf3 said...

One cannot deny their own genetic makeup. However one can extricate themself from the cultural practices of their genetic equals.

And ya, you look Jewish.

LL Cool Joe said...

I hate labels of any kind, and stereotypes, but I've always been drawn to "Jewish" humour. Joan Rivers, Bette Middler, Maureen Lipman, Jackie Mason etc. I dunno what that says about me, but there is something about their personalities I relate to.

Lynn said...

I witnessed some coworkers having a heated argument once about this very thing - one said being Jewish meant one was part of the "Jewish race" and the other said it was a religion. I don't like to define people by race or religion, so I took no stance, but I am interested in your take on it.

Sparkling Red said...

Jameil: Those kids looked more related to me than my actual relatives.

wigsf: I'm like one of those confused animals raised by a different species. Maybe a pig that thinks it's a dog, or vice versa.

LL Cool Joe: It's interesting that you bring up Jewish humour. I find it to be a relatively reliable commonality among Jews, much more so than any particular appearance.

Lynn: I think the bottom line is that each person has to be responsible for defining themselves. I eventually accepted that my Jewish background has had a lot to do with shaping my personality, but I wouldn't want to force my particular point of view on another person.

Vanessa T said...

I remember the first time I saw a blond/blue eyed Italian. "Oh, his family's from Sicily," they told me. So that was an eye-opener for me as well.

I guess I never thought of "ethnic" as being particularly brown, though. I always felt my pasty white guaranteed to sunburn skin as the "ethnic" part of being part Irish. And since living in Chicagoland, with the highest Polish population outside Warsaw, you can really see the Polish features stand out on some people.

It's kind of cool, actually, noticing all the ethnic differences we have. We're like flowers in God's garden. :)