“You Don’t Look Jewish!”


Why those four words can be so hurtful, and how to handle it when you hear them.

by Gil Mann

Below is an excerpt from the Koret International finalist, Sex, God, Christmas & Jews: Intimate Emails about Faith and Life Challenges, by Gil Mann. The book collects the best emails he has received over the years about every topic under the sun. For example, despite increasing numbers of conversions, interfaith marriages and assimilation, many people—Jewish and not—still seem stuck on there being one Jewish look. We all know it: thick, dark hair, brown eyes, big nose, relatively short. Jews who look “the part” often resent being called “Jewish-looking.” They feel defensive and singled out even when they’re proud of their Jewish looks. But here’s the thing: Many Jews who don’t fit the stereotype are equally resentful—tired of having to explain themselves and prove their Jewish identity. It is for this latter group—and those who may be guilty of saying “you don’t look Jewish”—that we run a series of emails sent to Mann, along with his response to this maddening comment.

Dear Gil:

I have heard the phrase “You don’t LOOK Jewish!” for as long as I can remember. It is true, I do not have the typical dark hair (mine is red), my eyes are gray-green, and I have missed out on the typical “Jewish” nose, too.

I do not ask anyone their religious preference, but when they ask me and I respond in truth, I am always stunned by that phrase. My initial response is to say, “You don’t LOOK Methodist (or whatever), but I can’t—it is too disrespectful, in spite of how they have reacted to me. Any suggestions???? By the way, I wear Jewish jewelry every day.

Dear Gil:

I welcome the day when I, a Black Jew, will walk into a shul and be readily accepted for who I am… a Jew. I hate always having to explain all about me. I hurt sometimes to feel the eyes, trying to figure me out. I look forward to the today when all Jews will be warmly welcomed.

Hi, Gil.

I’m a convert, and I’ve heard it all, too. Sometimes when you know the comment is anti-Semitic, you are tempted to say, “Isn’t that strange! And you don’t look like a bigot.”

Dear Gil:

I live in Sweden where most people have light blue eyes and blond hair. I am one of those people, but I’m also Jewish! No one believes me when I say that I’m Jewish. It’s very strange because my mother is dark and my farther is also dark; so when I go to the temple, all of the old and Orthodox people look at me like I was an invader or something. I don’t like this stereotyped picture of a Jew!

Gil’s response:

We all know that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we do it anyway. Human nature, I guess. Really I think this is our animal nature.

Animals quickly size up situations by the first sensory data they receive. For animals, this is probably a survival mechanism or a defensive measure to quickly identify friend or foe. Humans also do this with the first sensory data we receive, which is usually visual. Sometimes we are served by this ability; for example, if we see a dangerous situation, like a person with a gun, we can react quickly.

But most of the time, after a quick look at others, we make decisions about them that have nothing to do with danger and more to do with stereotypes. Theoretically, we humans are above animals because we have the ability to take advantage of our intelligence to stifle our impulse to hastily judge based on another’s appearance.

But, alas, we humans often stifle our intelligence and revert to our animal impulse to judge others based on what meets our eye. Looking at a person, Jew or any other, and then judging based on stereotypes is inaccurate or worse.

Judaism maintains that humans can either act like animals or rise above this nature to divine behavior—elevating ourselves to behavior that is holy. This includes the commandment in the Torah to judge others fairly.

And on a personal note . . .

I have had similar experiences as not only do I not look “stereotypically” Jewish, but also, my name is WASPY sounding. The irony in my case is that Gil is not short for Gilbert. I was born in Israel and Gil, my given name, is a modern Hebrew name—pronounced more like “geel.”

If people are surprised because I “don’t look Jewish,” I am not offended (if anything, I am amused). I don’t give their comment much weight, viewing it as neutral, though I know that, in reality, their attitude could be positive or negative toward Jews.

My response has been this: “You should go to Israel. There you will see Jews of every color, shape, and size. This is because Judaism is not a race. Judaism is a way of life—anyone can convert and become a member of the Jewish people.” […]

About the Author

Gil Mann
Gil Mann is a journalist, lecturer, self-made entrepreneur, husband, dad, and former Little League and kids’ soccer coach. He has lectured in over 70 cites and his writing has been widely syndicated. This excerpt is from Sex, God, Christmas & Jews (Leo & Sons Publishing, 2006). Visit www.BeingJewish.org. He welcomes your emails: Gil@beingjewish.org.

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