“How Jews Look” and the Identity Police

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Last week, we released How Jews Eat, the second in our new “How Jews Do Stuff” video series — which has provoked some lively and fascinating commentary, and some lively and fascinating criticism. On Jewschool and Jew and the Carrot, readers pointed out — rightly — that, though our cast includes all ages and religious/secular/cultural levels, they’re all pretty much based in New York, and they’re mostly white/Ashkenazi/American. “Please, even one Persian Jew in LA?” one commenter requested. “A Russian or Israeli in DC? A Rhodesli in Seattle?” (Ironically, our director is a Russian from L.A.)

Unfortunately, we don’t have the budget to travel to D.C. or Rhodesia (although, if you do, we’ll totally name our next movie after you). One of the video’s characters is Australian, which probably doesn’t count as an ethnicity, but it’s a category that definitely falls outside of white-American Jewish norms. One blog suggested that we recruit the talented filmmaker Yavilah McCoy, seemingly solely because she’s a black Jew. Another poster on that site noted, “This smells of identity policing to me – it’s not up to anyone but [Sephardic singer] Sarah Aroeste to decide whether she ‘counts’ [as a Jew of Color or not].”

That poster went on to add, “Whether she’s used as a nonthreatening token is a good question.”

It’s a pretty scary question for someone like me. I used to be one of those people asking questions like these of major content providers — and now I am one of these content providers. I hate the idea that we can be tokenistic or discriminatory, and when we were brainstorming the video, we picked out four people who stimulated our curiosity and talked us into a frenzy of giddiness — they were radically different people who I (and most of our audience) never would have ordinarily come into contact with, each with wild and radical ideas about what it means to be Jewish, and to look Jewish. At first, our plan was to call the video “How Jews Dress,” and to look at the most basic actions that people do, and question what makes them Jewish — but after Judy started filming, it quickly became apparent that this was going to involve more than just the clothes we wear (or don’t wear). We discovered more truths, and more stories, about people’s individual lives, and the ideas kept growing.

Posted on April 30, 2009

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