I wonder how many people can relate to being told that they don’t look like their identity. I also wonder who can understand what it’s like to endure the new form of antisemitism that Ben Freeman describes as “Erasive Antisemitism” which is “connected to other categorisations of antisemitism, such as Conspiracy Fantasy. “It can take two forms: 1. The erasure of Jewish identity. 2. The erasure of Jews as victims of prejudice.”
But this piece is not about the ins and outs of antisemitism and how Jews aren’t allowed to define antisemitism, or even how the world justifies our deaths by ranting “Free Palestine” — it’s about the microaggressions that I’ve endured my whole life as a Canadian Jewish woman.
What is a microagression? “Microaggression is a term used for commonplace daily verbal, behavioural or environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatised or culturally marginalised groups.”
Have you ever noticed how others like to talk about Jewish privilege? Have you ever noticed how we’re not allowed to define antisemitism and if and when we do we’re being “too sensitive”?
Society has never been interested in knowing what it’s like for Jews to be Jewish. Instead, they tell us what it’s like and use microaggressions like “You don’t look Jewish”! How am I even supposed to answer that?
I can’t tell you how many times someone has had no problem in telling me that I don’t look Jewish. What does a Jewish woman even look like? Am I supposed to have a big nose? Is it my petite features that throw them off?
Am I supposed to look like Barbra Streisand or Mayim Bialik?
Is a Jewish woman supposed to have curly, frizzy hair? Is she supposed to be stout? Short? Tall? Thin? Well-dressed? What is it, exactly?
Should she look like a Jewish American Princess (JAP)? You’ve heard of that stereotype, right? It’s essentially a Jewish valley girl — a derogatory saying popularized in the 70s-90s.
I mean I do have dark brown eyes and I’m naturally brunette, but I’ve grown fond of the blonde highlights. It’s not like they’re even a far stretch. As a child, my hair turned lighter when it was sun-kissed in the summer.
Although being half Spanish Moroccan, my colouring comes from my Abuela, Simy. While I didn’t get my Bubbie Toby’s (a Romanian Holocaust survivor) blue eyes and blonde hair, my firstborn son did.
When I gave birth to him it was clear how much I internalised favouring blue eyes because I was so shocked to see his slate blue eyes look up at me. It felt like I had won the lottery or something. My father often speaks fondly of the moment he realised his firstborn grandson had blue eyes.
I’ve been considered “pretty” my whole life. As a young woman, people loved to compliment me on my looks rather than on my qualities or higher education. So does that mean I don’t look Jewish? Are Jewish women not supposed to be too pretty? Is that why people were so shocked?
No, really, what does a Jewish woman look like? Anyone?
Because Jews come from all over the world from China, India, to Morocco — Jewish women are of various colours and ethnicities.
I’m a first-generation Canadian, and no one ever told me how I don’t look Canadian. What does a Canadian look like? We look like a mosaic — that’s what! It’s similar to how a Jew manages life in the diaspora. Only no one would dare say someone doesn’t look Canadian!
“Your Surname Doesn’t Sound Jewish!”
The next microagression I get a lot of is about my surname. What does a Jewish surname sound like? Do we all have to be Gold, Cohen, or Rodstein to be Jewish? The truth of the matter is that since Jews come from various regions of the world, our surnames also reflect that.
For example, although my father was born in Morocco, his ancestors are from Spain. But since the Spanish Inquisition happened, Jews were exiled from their homes, only to be scattered across North Africa and Europe. This was long after being kicked out of Israel by numerous colonisers (but that’s a whole other story).
You can read about the Four Major Exiles here: “For almost as long as the Jewish nation has existed, it has been persecuted and forced to wander from land to land: starting with slavery in Egypt, to the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem, to the Crusades, the pogroms, the Holocaust, and finally, modern day anti-Semitism.”
Now back to my paternal lineage — the surname “Soberano” comes from the word sovereign. In Spain, there is a famous alcohol brand known as Soberano. The assumption is that in part of our assimilation, our family may have served the monarchy in some respect.
When it comes to my husband’s surname “Wilson”, we’re always told how shocking it is to learn that we’re Jewish. What many don’t realise is that new immigrants opted to change their surname to assimilate, and therefore not be identified. How’s that for privilege?
My husband’s family had a very Jewish identifying surname, and so they changed it, and looked to the President of the United States at the time for inspiration — Woodrow Wilson.
Though some families chose to assimilate, historians explain that when some Jews immigrated to North America that they filled out their personal information incorrectly when they named their profession instead of their surname like the last name “Taylor.”
The microagression of being told my whole life that I don’t look Jewish or that my name doesn’t sound Jewish used to chip away at my identity. There are so many ways I’ve been discounted and insulted at the same time.
Unfortunately, I’ve had the displeasure of meeting people who are antisemitic, instead of just being misinformed, because I’ve been told that my Jewishness means I’m not Canadian, or that I’m a fake Spaniard.
For example, when I published Casa de mi Corazon: A Travel Journal of Poetry and Memoir, a troll said that I appropriated the Spanish language.
But this is all just part of my “white” Jewish privilege, right?
(Previously published in the Judean People’s Front)