At the end of the Beth Chayim Chadashim Humanitarian Award Brunch, I walked over to meet our guest, Bruce Vilanch. Before I even had a chance to open my mouth to introduce myself, Bruce reached over with his gigantic hand, and sporting a huge smile on his face he took my hand firmly in his and shook it warmly. "Funny, you don't look Jewish!" he said. I chuckled at his comment at the time. It seemed like an appropriate statement coming from a comedian, but later that evening I began to doubt. Was he actually joking? Or was he just expressing what was in his mind?
Similarly a few years back, when I informed one of my co-workers that I would be taking High Holy Days off from work, I was met with a burst of laughter. My so very progressive friend thought that I was so desperate for time off from work that I would go to the extreme in trying to pass as a Jew. His reaction was partly because he thought that I was joking around with him, which I did do a lot, but the main reason he was laughing so hard was because in his mind, I don't look anything like a Jew at all; and to think that I could get away taking time off for a Jewish Holiday tickled his funny bone. After he calmed down and realized that I wasn't joking, he said, "Oh sorry, I thought that you may be a Buddhist or Christian, but Jewish?"
So what does a Jew look like?
Have you noticed that in the Torah, there is not one single description of what our Jewish ancestors looked like? You can look it up. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Rachel, Leah, Rebecca, Aaron and Miriam, Moses, Nadav and Avihu, King Solomon, David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth...etc. you will not find one description. Well, ok, we know that Sarah was beautiful, her beauty had helped her gain wealth and benefited Abraham, and that maybe Joseph was a handsome man. We also learned that Moses's face glowed a radiant light after talking to God. But do we know what color hair they had? What facial features? What eye colors, skin colors? Were they tall? Or short? Who knows? No one really knows what anyone in the Torah looked like, and there are no descriptions anywhere to be found.
There are, however, in the Torah descriptions of the characteristics and behaviors of the Jews-what they did and didn't do; how they behaved and what they said and how they said it. We learned that Abraham left his homeland as instructed by God, and that he circumcised himself at a ripe old age; we also knew that Sarah laughed, Rebecca drew water from the well for the camels; and that Isaac loved Rebecca, Jacob wrestled with God and he wept on his brother Esau's neck; Joseph became Pharaoh's right hand man and forgave his eleven brothers. We learned about the actions of the Israelites and the consequences of their actions. We also learned about how one should treat strangers and sojourners, to take care of the poor and the less fortunate, and how we should love our neighbors as ourselves. We learned about the Israelites' relationships with one another and with God.
I believe that the Torah left the description of people's looks out on purpose, so that it is clear to us that being a Jew is not defined by what we looked like or that we have to look a particular way. Our looks aren't as important as what we do or say, how we treat one another, and how we treat others not like us. It is our actions, how we live our lives-what we do, and what we say, how we do it and say it that defines us as Jews.
So, what does a Jew look like? We are a people of all looks: the world.Back to In the News (Closes window)