My early teenage years were the worst.
My curls were unruly and took way too long to straighten, new body and facial hair seemed to sprout up in unexpected quantities every other day, and I was ugly. I knew I was ugly, I had always known, because I was so unavoidably “Jewish-looking.”
Sure, I didn’t have the dreaded nose, but no one ever had to inquire about my identity; in my overwhelmingly white Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish suburbs, one glance at my thick, dark hair and olive skin was a dead giveaway. And if that didn’t do the trick, a short conversation would reveal that I attended Jewish school, Jewish camp, various Jewish youth groups. I was so Jewish — at a time in my life where “Jewish” had degrees (a little Jewish, very Jewish, super Jewish) — and I was overwhelmed by simultaneous pride and embarrassment.
“‘You’re Jewish? Wow! You don’t look Jewish. You don’t act Jewish.’
And he says it in this tone that sounds like he’s complimenting me
And I say…
I say nothing, which when combined with a flirty smile translates to ‘thank you’
I say nothing ’cause I got a contact high from someone’s anti-Semitic crack pipe
I say nothing because somewhere along my life’s graph I’ve been swayed to believe that being Jewish is not too cool, not too sexy.”
When I was sixteen, I watched Vanessa Hidary’s “The Hebrew Mamita” for the first time and started to make sense of an experience – Jewish womanhood – whose complicated threads I’m still unraveling. She fervently, courageously, angrily offered her audience the words I had been searching for, and the validation of it produced chills that made all my thick arm- and leg-hair stand on end.
Vanessa Hidary was one of my first teachers in counteracting the internalized anti-Semitism and sexism that so toxically controlled my self-image. My next great teacher was scholar and activist Penny Rosenwasser, through her book Hope Into Practice: Jewish Women Choosing Justice Despite Our Fears. Her words, like Hidary’s, break through my stubborn dislike of my Jewish-girl-ness. She writes, “Let’s be clear: For Jewish women, ‘too much’ is code for ‘too Jewish’ – or ‘not Christian/WASP enough.’ One implies the other. And anti-Jewish bias piled onto misogyny is doubly disparaging.”
My internalized anti-Semitism/misogyny now means being embarrassed by my loud voice; feeling like I’m overly needy when I worry about my friends and want to take care of them; seeing myself as beautiful and hot only in comparison to other white Jewish girls with dark curly hair (“You’re so pretty for such a Jewish-looking girl”); getting frustrated with other Jewish women when I find them to be overbearing, “JAPpy” (Jewish American Princess), or otherwise true to negative stereotypes; disproportionately disparaging insular Jewish communities for the sexism or racism or Jewish exceptionalism I see within them; or feeling embarrassed to bring up my Jewish identity in conversations about oppression with my friends and fellow activists.
My internalized anti-Semitism now means that I almost didn’t write this. I’m still nervous writing it now, still feeling like a bad ally for bringing forward my own relatively subtle oppression, still finding ways to discredit my experiences, still imagining the sneers of my (Jewish and non-Jewish) friends when I share this on social media. But I picture myself at 12 and 16 and 18 and a week ago – grappling with a history of oppression, a life of privilege, and an unacknowledged legacy of internalized anti-Semitism and sexism – and I cannot say nothing. Somewhere, some other confused Jewish girl is mixing her pride with shame.
Acknowledging that anti-Semitism is real, and has affected my life, feels like releasing a breath I’ve been holding for twenty-three years. And as Penny Rosenwasser writes, “Learning to feel good about who we are, to disregard the inner critic, is an ongoing practice; and then we’re more likely to feel loving towards others.” This can be true for any identity; knowing and loving ourselves is the best way to do good for anyone else.
Every day, I discover new ways I have internalized my people’s oppression. And every day, I find new reasons to celebrate my identity as a Jewish woman – through enjoying my looks; through unlearning the harmful and exclusive stereotype that all Jews do look like me; through exploring my roots; through activism and allyship; through spending time with the other Jewish women in my life, particularly my mother and older sisters, who teach me how to love myself in deep and radical ways; and through sharing my discoveries with people who might just have similar experiences. Join me in my celebration.