“How Jews Look” and the Identity Police

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.

We started the “How Jews…” video series because MJL wanted a how-to series, but Judy and I wanted to do a series that was descriptive instead of prescriptive — that is, something that showed how Jews do live rather than how they should live. We didn’t choose people for their skin color or identifiability. But then, there are as many stories as there are people in the world. Yes, we’ve got two hemispheres and four languages covered in our first two videos. But there’s a whole universe of other cultures, other places, and other Judaisms.

Judy Prays, our resident auteur, just moved to Los Angeles — and while we’re sad about it, it also gives us access to a whole new cast. One of the stars of our next episode is a Black Jew. This makes me nervous for a whole different set of reasons — that people will be so elated that we’ve got someone Black, or so hyper-tuned to what he’ll say that relates to his blackness, that they’ll miss the amazing insights that he has to offer that may have nothing at all to do with his skin color.

But I guess we’ll see, right? What “How Jews Look” did do is kick off a lively, spirited, and thought-provoking conversation. Curiously, though, the most traffic from talking about our video didn’t come from any of the above sites. It came from Frum Satire, whose mostly-Haredi commenters said things like, “Nothing Jewish about wearing immodest clothing, women singing in front of men, or not wearing kippah / tzitzis” and “Once you start quoting reformed so-called rabbis, you’re probably closer to protestant.”

There’s a really interesting recent article in the New York Times which analyzes how Internet commenters comment — hostility, coherency, and other characteristics — by date, time, whether or not a login is required, and whether someone’s hiding behind the handle of “anonymous.”

But the comment that warmed my heart and sated my brain, and made me feel justified for my role in this video in the first place, came from a commenter on Frum Satire’s site known only as Leeba. “I look Jew-ish,” she writes. “I am an auburn-haired, blue-eyed. fair skinned woman. I suspect that even my cousin, whose ancestors fled Iraq through Singapore and somehow ended up with nice, almond eyes, looks Jew-ish as well.” She goes on to describe the rest of her family — filling in every shade of the rainbow, from skin color to religious affiliation — and concludes, “I’ll have to agree with Mark. Jews look with their eyes.”


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