A commonly asked question is: What is a Jew? There is no simple answer to this question. Jews vary from their geographic location to their religious beliefs (whether it be Orthodox, Reform, etc.). However, no matter where they may come from, and what their observance level is, at the end of the day, a Jew is always a Jew. Many think that the worldwide Jewish staple foods are bagels and shmear with a side of gefilte fish, and that their grandparents are called Bubbe and Zayde (Yiddish for grandma and grandpa, respectively). This is far from the truth. Jews come in all different shapes, colors, sizes, and speak a variety of languages from Yiddish to Arabic.
While a good portion of the population believes that Jews are all white, speak Yiddish, and eat matzah ball soup, and somewhat resemble a man in a black hat and with a long beard, in reality, this only represents one particular group of Jews. Jews defy all stereotypes, and come in a rainbow of varieties that makes it impossible for one to fit Jews into a cookie-cutter description.
Jewish stereotypes are yet another misconception that the world associates with all Jews. Some of the common stereotypes about Jews are: Jewish mothers being painted as being overbearing and a little too obsessed with their sons, and Jewish girls are often labeled as JAPs, better known as Jewish-American Princesses, depicted as spoiled and whose only aspiration in life is shopping. Although this may be true for some people, this certainly does not apply to all Jews,
Jews do not all fit into one box. One simply cannot stereotype all Jews into one category. The beauty of Judaism is that we come in all sorts of colors, sizes, and geographic locations. This misconception of the Jew as being white stops here. I myself hold a triple identity as an Iranian American Jew. Some people who come across this fact about me get confused and find it hard to believe, “how can you be Jewish if your family comes from the Islamic Republic of Iran?!”
Most Jews fall into the three subcategories based on their geographic location pre-Diaspora: Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrahim. Ashkenazim are known to be Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, Sephardim are Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, and Mizrahim are oriental Jews (Middle East). Most people from North America identify Ashkenazim as the most easily recognizable Jewish group through the black hats of Hasidim and matzah ball soup. The term Sepharadim was first coined during the “Golden Age” of Spain. Many Sephardic Jews speak Ladino, which is a Judeo-Spanish language. People often mistake Mizrahi Jews with Sephardic Jews because of their similar religious customs, however Mizrahim hold their own Jewish identity. Some of the largest Mizrahi communities come from Iraq, Yemen, and Iran.
Across the globe, Jews differ in their language, food, attire, heritage, and customs, yet manage to maintain their Jewish identity through shared Jewish beliefs, laws, and values. Many hold various customs that may seem odd to one another. During the Passover Seder, Persian Jews partake in an activity called Dayenu. Fun and chaos erupts all at once as family members “hit” each other with green onions in remembrance of when they were whipped as slaves in Egypt. Another tradition that is particular to Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews is Henna. Hennas are typically done prior to a simcha (happy occasion), such as a wedding, or bar/bar mitzvah. During weddings for example, the matriarch of the family smears the henna into the center of both bride and groom’s hands to symbolically bring forth fruitfulness, prosperity, health, and good things to their marriage. A tradition that is celebrated exclusively by Ethiopian Jews is the Sig’d festival celebrated on 29th of Cheshvan. Members of the community fast, recite prayers, and celebrate their arrival to Jerusalem. Traditionally, on their wedding day, an Ashkenazi bride circles around the groom seven times during the ceremony under the chuppah, the canopy under which a Jewish couple stands on their wedding day. This symbolizes the building of the couple’s new life together, as the world was also built in seven days.
Many Jews live in multi-layered Jewish communities, with an overlap in Jewish traditions. One may see Ethiopians attending a Hassidic synagogue, or Persians serving matzah ball soup at their Passover Seders. Jews from all different backgrounds often borrow each other’s traditions. In Israel especially, one will find an overlap of traditions from Jews all over the world.
Through my time in Israel, I came to realize that there are Jews from all over the world. While walking down the street in Tel Aviv, you’ll recognize the different colors of the people and the different languages they may be speaking. Israel is a melting pot that houses entities from all over the world. Even now, as I attend UCLA, I have had the opportunity to meet Jews from Panama, Turkey, Barcelona, and Geneva.
An article posted by news magazine, Pop Chassid, breaks the boundary of what a Jew is, by displaying photos that remind us that Jews don’t fit into a stereotype and never have. There is a photo from 1922 of Iranian Jewish Dervishes, which was a practice that was strictly Islamic. The two Iranian Jewish brothers in the photo were able to integrate themselves into the Dervish lifestyle while maintaining their Jewish identity. Another photo shows an image of a Jewish scout group in Iraq in the early 1920’s. It is hard to imagine the existence of such a photo since there are no Jews left in Iraq today, having been forced out of Arab countries in the 1950’s. Another featured photo shows members of the Jewish Brigade Local Defense in India in 1939. Finally, there is a fascinating photo of fully Chinese, fully Jewish people lighting the Sabbath candles.
Gulienne Rollins-Rison, a Black Orthodox Jew who was featured in a powerful piece by the NY times titled the Black Orthodox, conveyed her feelings on how most people react to her identity, “As a Jew of color, you’re this mythical creature that supposedly doesn’t exist.” Another photo features a couple who people would at first glance label as an interracial couple, as the woman named Zehava is black and Orthodox and the man named Baruch is white, however Baruch says, : “I don’t think that people relate to us as an interracial couple. We’re both Jewish, and that seems to speak louder than color.” The purpose of these amazing photos is to remind one that you don’t have to be a certain color in order to be Jewish.
Throughout time Jews have pushed the boundary of who they are and what they are capable of. There is not one word out there that could apply to all Jews, as we all come from various backgrounds, speak different languages, hold different customs, eat different kinds of food, and think differently; but at the end of the day one fact always remains true that applies to all of these Jews: You don’t have to be white to be Jewish.