My one-time summer at a Jewish sleep away camp was full of, shall we say, unique experiences, from a production of The Sound of Music featuring nuns with popsicle-stick Stars of David instead of crosses to lively debates about who looked “most Jewish” and who could pass for a gentile. In that contest, I ranked somewhere in the middle with my ashy-brown curls and pale skin. The winner of the Most Likely to Pass for a Gentile award was a tall, blonde, blue-eyed girl who was half-German, half-Swedish. Before camp, I had no idea such a Jewish person could exist without the help of colored contacts and hair dye.
I never knew whether to take offense when people occasionally told me I “looked Jewish.” I imagine it’s somewhat similar to being told you “look gay”: it’s offensive, a compliment, or a casual observation, depending on who says it. But how can it be offensive if it’s true? I am Jewish, ethnically speaking. My heritage is a mix of Polish (my last name, pre-Ellis Island, was Czaplinski), Russian, and a dash of German. As previously mentioned, I check off Ashkenazi any time it’s required for an accurate assessment of medical history, and with that background comes an expectation – read, stereotype – of physical appearance. But don’t all stereotypes begin with a grain of truth?
Growing up, it was not my so-called big nose or thick eyebrows that gave me grief over my Jewishness, but my thick, unmanageable curly hair, which only decided to be curly on some days. The only consistent thing about it was its poofiness, frizz, and tangles. When a stylist commented “You have enough hair for three people!” as I settled into her chair, I cried. I was nine years old at the time, and extremely sensitive. It’s not an exaggeration to say that hair has an impact on one’s identity and self-esteem, especially when living in a culture that worships shiny, straight hair as the ideal standard of beauty.
My battle for curly hair acceptance began three years before that moment at Great Clips (which made my mother realize it was time to join her at an official Grown-Up Salon) when a ballet teacher told me my bun wasn’t smooth enough. Well, news flash: curly hair is anything but smooth! I posted several angry rants on the forums of NaturallyCurly.com when The Princess Diaries heroine, Mia Thermopolis, received a “royal makeover” that made her wild mane sleek and unnaturally straight. Couldn’t those royal stylists, with every kind of product supposedly at their disposal, have given her a different haircut and recommended a special shampoo and leave-in conditioner instead? Why enforce the idea that curls somehow equal disorder and sloppiness?
Today, it’s somewhat of an embarrassment to admit that part of my acceptance of being Jewish happened when I learned to properly care for my hair. To me – and to anyone belonging to an ethnic or cultural group marked by a very specific kind of look – having the right hair could make or break an effort to assimilate. A jab about frizz is akin to a jab about who you are as a person, and where you belong.
To that end, the limitations and boundaries about the appropriateness of cultural jokes are still blurry. I can make jokes about the “Jew fro” I had when I was six, but if someone else makes a similar comment, does that make it anti-Semitic? And today, is it fair to say that my beliefs may be Christian, but my hair never will be? I’ve had friends light-heartedly tell me that if I straighten my hair and dye it a lighter brown, I can “pass” for a typical gentile; but if I leave it curly and dye it dark, I look “more Jewish.”
For some of us, how we look cannot be completely severed from who we are. Right or wrong, that is just how it is. There are so many trends we can try to squeeze into (at great financial expense) before we are forced to come to terms with the radical thought that the way we are made is the way we are meant to be. Recognizing that has saved me a great deal of time and stress getting ready in the morning.