My one-time experience at a Jewish sleepaway camp (I know, I know, don’t get me started on the absurdity of the phrase “Jewish 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 coffee-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 my 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, just hovering at the edge of preadolescence, when having the right look started to become very important. For me, that “right look” was shiny, fine straight hair like my friends in ballet class had. Their buns looked smooth and effortless; mine threatened to burst like a shaken soda can with the release of a single bobby pin.It’s not an exaggeration to say that hair has a huge impact on one’s identity and self-esteem, and living in a culture that worships shiny, straight hair as the ideal standard of beauty certainly doesn’t help.
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 ranted for days on end when The Princess Diaries heroine, Mia Thermopolis, received a “royal makeover” that turned 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 can be 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 “Jewfro” 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?
To be born into a particular heritage is a critical piece of identity that you don’t get to choose. That piece was decided for me by fate, before I could develop the cognitive ability to form my own beliefs. If the Jewish piece of me is something that “just is,” was I right to be somewhat offended when someone told me during a church retreat, “I thought you looked Jewish!”? She was merely stating a fact, not an insult…right?
For some of us, how we look cannot be completely severed from who we are. There are so many ways to assimilate before coming to terms with the radical thought our natural states are the way we are meant to be.