Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Pride (And "Looking" Jewish)

Relatively short post today. I'm both overtired and nursing a wrist injury that's interfering with my typing, so bear with me here.

A few weeks ago, on the first truly cold day of winter, a few friends and I decided to stay in during the afternoon and watch X-Men: First Class. I’d never seen it before, and I was excited to watch a dumb action movie.

If you’ve seen it, you know that this movie belongs to Magneto, the Holocaust-surviving, Nazi-hunting, magnetic-field-manipulating anti-hero of Marvel Comics. Several scenes display a cool, collected Magneto kicking butt and generally being every guy’s dream...

...But the story is about his slow descent into villainy. I know I’ve discussed Magneto before, but watching this movie made me just NEED to write a post, and simply because of one scene.

While learning to harness his unbelievable power into moving a gigantic satellite dish, Magneto is advised by his friend, the psychic Charles Xavier, to focus not on his enraging memories of the concentration camp, but rather on a good memory, one filled with nothing but love, nostalgia, and peace. The memory Magneto chooses is one of lighting Chanukah candles with his parents as a child. And it didn't look like the sort of Chanukah you see on TV. No presents or cheesy songs or heavy Yiddish accents. In fact, no dialogue at all. Just lights, and peace, and the love of a family. It looked like Chanukah the way I see it. You know, in real life.

For some reason, this struck me. 

It was a moment of pure good. And a display of a clearly Jewish event without the slightest taste of stereotype or self-deprecation. And as I thought about it, I realized I couldn’t think of a single other scene from a popular movie that showed something Jewish as something purely positive. You know what? I loved it. It made me smile. It made me gush. It annoyed my fellow movie-watching buddies.

But what can I do? I’m a fiercely proud Jew. I always care about how we’re represented and how we’re portrayed. I am, like so many other Jewish New Yorkers, stuck in that place between wanting to be special and wanting to be included. And that place is there no matter where I turn.

Take comics. I’ve written about Jews and superheroes, and how I’ve never found an observant Jewish character in the comic pages. But then I remember that “observant” is usually expressed for those who wouldn’t recognize it otherwise as “exaggerated stereotype.” So in the end, I’d much rather have a proud but non-observant, interesting, and well-rounded character like Kitty Pryde or The Thing than Mr. Instantly-Identifiable-Jewish-Stereotype Man:

And movies! The little American girl in me watches movies and wishes for a Jewish Disney princess, while the rational, jaded Jew in me thanks the Lord Almighty for the fact that there will never, ever be one. Because let’s be honest for a moment. If there ever was a Jewish Disney princess, how do you think she’d be portrayed?

(Being a little shameless for a second here: I LOVE how that dress came out.)

Maybe in this regard, I’m a little oversensitive and/or bitter. But I can’t shake the feeling that when I see a “JEW” on TV, I’m seeing a representation of myself. And whether people admit it or not, we all learn to recognize those minorities or nationalities we aren’t directly familiar with by watching how they’re portrayed on TV or in books or movies. And some part of me is resentful of the fact that so many people are learning to define my people as “physically weak, whiny, a little bit on the ugly side, albeit very witty”. And it does happen. It’s true. I’ve seen people assume a friend of mine wasn’t Jewish because they didn’t “look Jewish”, even though they were hanging around a bunch of us more classic-look Hebrews.

That bothers me, but the truth is, I am nothing but proud of my background. It’s true that I myself am a physically weak, slightly whiny, bumpy-nosed Jew-girl who can err on the side of snarkiness. But I’m proud of that. I’m super proud. 

Maybe that's because, when I tell strangers that I'm Jewish, I'm met about equal times with either "Well, yeah, I assumed you were" and "Really??? You don't look Jewish at all!" It always bugs me the way people say that. Almost like they're telling me not to feel bad. But did they mean it as a compliment, or as anything at all? Or were they just saying what they thought?  In my head, I think "but my hair is dark, my face is pale. What other race/ethnicity/religion DO I look like?" When I look in the mirror I don't see anything but a Jew. What did that stranger think when he looked at me? What did HE think a Jew looks like?

This sticks in my head so much that whenever I’m told that I do “look Jewish”,  I’m proud and, dare I say it, flattered by all the small, skinny, bumpy-noseness it implies... even when the speaker immediately assures me they didn’t mean it that way.

Yes, that happened.

In all honesty, I can talk and talk and type and type about how proud I am all I want. But the best, most raw expression of exactly the sort of pride, and the feeling of being told you don't look like a Jew I’m trying to get across here has been done before, and was sent to me by an amazing friend via YouTube clip. Check this awesome woman out, because she’s saying everything I wish I was saying in the most blow-my-mind way I can think of (heads up, there is one use of crass language in here. Don't say I didn't warn you):

Be proud. "You are your people."


  1. Yay! I look so cute!!! LOL

    But seriously, very true writing, as usual, great insight :) I wonder what a Jewish Disney princess movie would be like? Any different other than a regular disney movie which doesn't show religion? Maybe the occasional "oye"? lol


  2. This post touches on a few different things, but I want to address the media portrayal for a second.

    Never, not once, have a seen a Jew that represents me. Or rather, the modern Orthodox community as I understand it. Because besides the "proudly Jewish but non-observant" there are portrayals of ultra-religious Jews. Rife with problems, but they are there, you know? The Chosen was made into a movie and they tend to make an appearance in any TV show that takes place in NYC and runs for long enough. But modern Orthodox? Yeah, right. Modern Orthodox women is a pipe dream.

    And there are times I'm happy that I don't have to see myself ruined on screen as well. But it would be nice to have something.

    (You illustrations, as always, are brilliant.)

  3. I don't think I have ever seen anything in the media, whether it be chassidim or the modern orthodox that was in any way accurate. It's not possible, unless they bring on a frum consultant who will ax everything in the script.

    Law & Order certainly misrepresented chassidim, MO, Sephardim, and other Jewish groups. But why should we expect anything better?

    Keep in mind that the other groups they show, like Muslims or other cultures, is also probably incredibly skewed.

    Although there was one episode of House that had only a few slight boo-boos.

  4. Great post. And there was a Jewish princess. Did you not see Spaceballs? Oh, I'm sorry, that was Druish.


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