On Shame and Jewish Sexiness

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“Excuse me, ma’am, but are you biracial? You look biracial.”

“Why, don’t tell me, you must be German!”

“You know, young lady, you look just like my granddaughter. Are you Egyptian?”

The questions come from all sorts of places: an elderly woman at the soup kitchen, a coworker at a clinic where I once volunteered, the creepy guy waiting at the bus stop with me at 1:00 a.m. My ethnicity is a source of fascination and bewilderment wherever I go. Complete strangers sprint across streets to stop me in my tracks and make their bets regarding my racial makeup. Normally, I smile politely and try my best to change the subject, somewhat flattered that someone I don’t even know has been, to whatever degree, checking me out.

That is, unless I get the one question I dread above all others:

“Hey, don’t mind me asking, but are you Jewish?”

“Wow! With hair like that, you must be Jewish!”

“I’m guessing you’re Jewish. You look SO Jewish.”

Shit. Do I really? 

My inevitable response lies somewhere in the vein of, “Well, only half.” Or perhaps: “Actually, my curly hair comes from my mother’s side. She’s Italian!” Or, on a particularly bad day, “What the Hell is that supposed to mean?”

In recent years, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I am embarrassed by my Jewish appearances. I can no longer justify my desire to appear anything-but-Semitic with the irrational fear of Neo-Nazis that my younger self, newly imbued with the horrific details of the Holocaust, once harbored. Instead, I am forced to admit: I’m ashamed to look Jewish because Jewish Women Aren’t Sexy.

Or so common discourse would suggest. Jewish women, the stereotype hisses, aren’t sexy because of their big noses, clunky statures, dark frizzy hair, penchant for wearing glasses, and obnoxious personalities (complete with nasal voices and tendency to complain). The descriptions I hear of Jewish women seem to hark back to Nazi-era caricatures and editorial cartoons. The sad thing is that they seem to come from everywhere, even—especially, really—from other Jewish women. A lovely Jewish friend of mine, for example, used the following argument to try and convince me to accompany her to an event for Jewish singles: “Look at it this way. On the normal scale of attractiveness, I’m a six. On the Jewish scale, I’m a ten. The guys there love me!”

Given this portrayal of my ethnicity, is it any wonder that I, a Jewish woman concerned with sexiness, straighten my hair with a vengeance, go by my Italian mother’s last name, and—most importantly—take others’ recognition of my Jewish heritage as an insult?

It’s understandable that such a fine piece of tuchus as myself would cower when her cover was blown (Damn! I could have sworn I was passing!). The fact that it’s understandable, however, doesn’t make it acceptable. By expressing shame about my Jewish looks, I’m only perpetuating the idea that they’re something to be ashamed of. Also, by denying my Judaism to any degree (and choosing not to walk the earth as a Goldman), I am missing an important opportunity: the chance to provide a glowing example of a sexy, sexy Jewish babe.

Unfortunately, taking this step—embracing the fact that I “look Jewish,” and do so while looking way cute—has proven harder than I’ve thought. A young woman, I am still well within what I consider the sexiest years of my life, and I shallowly want to savor them. Depictions of the Jewess in literature, television shows, and even in comments my friends sling around don’t make the process easier. When my boyfriend looks at me lovingly and says, “Well, I don’t think you look Jewish,” I don’t respond with a barrage of probing question: “What, you mean I’m not ugly? I don’t have a schnozz? I don’t look like I’ve given birth to six children?” Rather, I flash him a grateful smile. Just as it isn’t a point of pride for men to have an unattractive girlfriend, it’s not point of pride to have a Jewish girlfriend. What’s this Jewish girlfriend to do?

I’m working on feeling, and acting, more proud of my appearance as a Jewish woman. Of course, it’s not just up to me—everyone, especially Jewish women, must drop their ideas of what a Jewish woman supposedly looks like and instead focus on what the Jewish women in their lives actually look like. Because Anti-Semitism seems to get written off as humor, rather than as an issue as noxious as racism or homophobia, in liberal culture—and without the aid of a Natalie Portman Society for Fine Fine Jewish Bitches—I expect this to feel fruitless and exhausting at first. I can only pray that my small-but-powerful clan of desert-wandering, cell-phone-inventing, everything-surviving brothers and sisters will survive, too, this blow to their culture. 



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