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It’s Not My Face that Makes Me Jewish

Rabbi Jillian at age 6
Rabbi Jillian, age 6

I recently read an incredible article posted in Alma, written by a former congregant of mine, Katie Simpson. She is quite a talent: brilliant, thoughtful and obviously a great writer. And she got me thinking. She tackled a question that touches on the Jewish idea of peoplehood, of family background and the world of amazing diversity in which we find ourselves living in 2018.

Her article, “I’m Tired of Hearing I Don’t Look Jewish,” deeply resonated with me. As a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jew from an interfaith family, I have heard the same comment over and over, from every kind of person, both inside and outside of the Jewish community. From people who I have just met to people who know I’m a rabbi.

So over the years and the hundreds of these comments, I have learned how to diffuse the situation, laugh it off, smile and nod in the moment while tempering my own frustration and that quick jab of longing to fit in to a community that I have belonged to and loved most of my life. I have become an apologist for my own genetic makeup, something over which I have no control nor do I wish to change.

Whenever I would defend my appearance to a casual, “You don’t look Jewish,” comment, I would often explain that my mother isn’t Jewish. Most people would knowingly nod; they had the explanation they needed. Sometimes I would catch myself then listing all the ways I was Jewish: the synagogue and Jewish summer camp I attended, and as I got older, how I was a Jewish Studies major in college, and now, a rabbi. As if I needed to counter balance my appearance to justify to a stranger why they should consider me a member of the tribe.

I remember being weirdly delighted when I realized my blond hair had become wavy in my early 20s, which felt Jewish to me, as if my Jewish genes were finally kicking in and I could share this experience with many of my curly-haired Jewish friends. Even writing that sentence now, I am ashamed that I felt that way, that I was conditioned to feel that way by that ever present notion of what a Jew “really looks like.”

Over the years I have at times marveled at the fact that I stayed connected to Judaism, after years of being told I wasn’t Jewish, because I have a mother who isn’t or from being questioned based on my appearance. Perhaps it was my stubbornness, my teachers and friends who helped boost my Jewish confidence or simply the fact that I wasn’t about to let these comments diminish my passion for Judaism or derail my dream of being a rabbi. But I know many who have faced these same questions and comments who are now wholly disconnected from Judaism, plagued with feelings of rejection or frustration. Those who weren’t as lucky as I have been. We are the poorer for this loss.

Humans like categories. We like to identify characteristics, physical or not, and square them away in our heads, putting people in various boxes, all in an attempt to figure them out and understand what we share and how we are different. But we all know what we see in the world around us and from human history, that differences, no matter how large or small, can cause some pretty horrific reactions.

As a student of human nature, I get it…to a degree. But we no longer live in a world where we can make categorical assumptions based on physical perceptions. I believe it is far past time to challenge ourselves to work beyond that basic human reaction, to push ourselves to leave the notion of “what a Jew looks like” in the past. So that people like me or Katie or anyone else who has been asked this question, no longer have to justify their place in our community. We should not have to carry around the nagging feeling that we’re not quite fully accepted, or apologize for our family background or decide that being Jewish just isn’t worth the scrutiny.

It’s time that we listen to the ways people define themselves, without judgment. Allow people to write—and share their own stories. And it’s really time to open our minds to what the Jewish community actually looks like right now, in all its glorious diversity—and celebrate the infinite faces of Judaism.

Rabbi Jillian Cameron

Rabbi Jillian Cameron is the former director of 18Doors/Boston. She was ordained at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2012 after receiving a Master’s Degree in Jewish Education in 2008.