“This Is What A Jew Looks Like”

by Cantorial Intern David Fair

I am the son of a Jewish white mother and a non-Jewish, Black father. Navigating Jewish spaces as a Jew of color has presented its share of challenging moments. One of these moments is when I tell someone that I’m Jewish and they respond with “Really? You don’t look Jewish.”

Nobody wants to be told that they don’t look Jewish. When someone hears that, they hear, “You don’t look like you belong here,” or “You don’t look right.” It also leads to greater issues. My friend, a Jew of color, attended a bat mitzvah, and another guest walked up to her to give her his drink order. When I was a child, my Dad was waiting for me outside of our car in the religious school parking lot and was approached by the security guard who asked, “Can we help you, sir?” Last year, I walked into a Reform synagogue and a security guard trailed me and watched me suspiciously for the entire time I was there.  When someone says “You don’t look Jewish” to a person of color it’s as if they’re saying, “Your skin tone would never lead me to believe that you’re Jewish.” So yes, when I hear people say that I don’t look Jewish it is infuriating.

From this frustration, I decided that I needed to make some effort to debunk the notion that all Jews look a distinct way. I began making these collages of Jews of Color who are in my personal and professional network. It’s not that I know more Jews of Color than others, I just like to celebrate it. Black History Month feels like the perfect time to do so.

Rabbi Cantor Angela Buchdahl, the Senior Rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City, gave an incredibly powerful Yom Kippur sermon this past year called “We Are Family: Rethinking Race in the Jewish Context” As the first Asian American to be ordained as a cantor or rabbi in North America, her message is that being Jewish is not a race.  The idea that Judaism is a race was promoted by Pharoah and the Nazis to dehumanize Jews and to create fear. Rabbi Buchdahl says, “When the Torah first calls us a People coming out of Egypt, we are described as an erev rav, a ‘mixed multitude.'”

My hope is that when people see the shining faces in the pictures that accompany this blog, they will try to let go of any preconceived notion of what a Jew should or should not look like. My prayer is that our culture can soon realize that we Jews are not a race: we are a People.