The Jewish Advocate had me writing about being a blonde Jew this week. Check it out:
“So,” he said, leaning on the countertop of the bar. “You don’t look Jewish.”
My guard flew up. “Well, I am.”
“It’s the blond thing. And the Texas thing. You just don’t look Jewish,” he said, and he seemed pleased by that. “It’s good.”
I wrinkled my brow. “I don’t think it’s good. Being Jewish is part of who I am.”
“Well, I mean it as a compliment.”
I bit my straw, thanked him for the drink, and turned to find a friend to talk to instead.
Until a few years ago, I never had this kind of experience. I used to be more or less a brunette, with shades of auburn in the winter and natural blond highlights in the summer from the Texas sun. I had never colored my hair artificially beyond makeshift efforts to make it lighter, like squirting on lemon juice or squinting into the glare of the sun.
Back then, no one seemed to give it a second thought when I said I was Jewish, although neither my last name nor my physical features signaled any particular ethnicity.
I changed my hair at the urging of my mother and my hairdresser, who was bored with cutting it the same way for eight years and humored me when I expressed my insecurities about getting highlights. Finally, I was persuaded to try it, and since then I haven’t looked back.
Truth be told, I think I look much better as a blonde, and most people don’t even remember what I used to look like. They’re surprised when I brandish my license, nearly up for renewal, and its picture of an 18-year-old with long brown, curly hair. But while, as the saying goes, I’m having more fun as a blonde, I now have to put up with the religion question. Guys I meet at a Jewish event in Boston, online on JDate or through friends, tell me they are shocked to find that I am, in fact, Jewish.
When a guy says, “Oh, you don’t look Jewish,” I know he intends it to be a compliment, but that’s not how I take it. Rather, I’ve come to see it as the shiksa complex. Like it or not, many Jewish guys think of blondes as some kind of forbidden fruit, as the antithesis of the woman with stereotypically Jewish features. In American culture, blondes are associated with bombshells, the symbol of sex, of the libidinous.
It’s that shift in the tone of your mother’s voice when you’re shopping at the supermarket and run into Mrs. Lieberman, who laments that you and her son Josh had broken up after eighth grade and that now he’s marrying a girl named Lisa. When Mrs. Lieberman rolls her cart full of matzo meal around the corner, your mother leans over and whispers, “Lisa’s a shiksa” – as if revealing some naughty secret about Josh’s sex life when that naughty secret is just a Protestant from Ohio whom Josh met at college.
My blond evolution was born out of boredom and nothing more. It was an experiment that didn’t go awry. But in the Jewish community, especially among singles, it has come to define me, categorizing me as part of an anomalous sliver of the female Jewish pie chart.
I suppose it’s ironic: People pigeon-hole me on the basis of a characteristic that isn’t even natural, while expressing astonishment at my being Jewish, which I consider to be at the heart of my identity.
We learn at a very young age that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and the cliché is true. I don’t want to be considered a play thing, or some object of curiosity because I happen to be blond and Jewish. I want to be given a chance to be somebody’s someone, not just a novelty.
The same goes for judging people by their interests or their professions. It’s possible to love theater and investment banking or to enjoy a heated basketball game as much as a good book.
There is something to be learned from all of this, and it’s not to rush to the nearest salon and pop some highlights into your hair.
Use your unique qualities as a conversation starter. But go beyond that. Discuss your experiences as Jews, as young people and as singles in the Boston area. We all tend to stereotype people at first, but the more you get to know them the more you’ll be surprised – and, if you’re lucky, quite pleasantly.