There’s No One Way To Look Jewish
Because we’re tired of hearing, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”
Why is May 2019 different from all other months? It’s Jewish American Heritage Month for one, a period that feels especially important to mark given the rising insecurity coursing through Jewish American life. Because visibility is more important than ever before, Refinery29 brings you our celebration of Jewish American culture. L’chaim!
There is no template for a Jewish woman. Again: There is no template. We don’t all have frizzy hair and big noses that will, according to the trope of the Jewish American Princess, be “fixed” as a high school graduation gift. A Fran Fine-esque nasally voice does not emerge from all of our mouths. We are not all white. Our ancestors did not all speak Yiddish. Some Jews keep kosher (observing dietary rules set out in the Torah); some do not. Orthodox women maintain certain modesty rules regarding their clothing and wear sheitls (wigs) to cover their hair when in public. Ethiopian Jews celebrate sukkot — the festival of booths that marks the end of the harvest — differently than descendants of European and Spanish Jews.
What American Jews all share; however, is that we are part of the diaspora, or Jews who live outside of Israel. Our ancestors came here from Spain, from Russia, from Ethiopia, from Syria, and more. They are Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Converso, and Beta Israel. We may have different traditions and cuisine, but we all observe the same holidays every year: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shavuot, Passover, and more. They are times to gather together with members of our community to celebrate, atone, eat, and sometimes not eat.
Jewish women have been in America since the mid-17th century. The poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus,” which contains the iconic lines “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — repeated by millions of immigrants as a welcome to the land of opportunity — was written by Emma Lazarus, a Jewish writer, political activist, and translator. She’s just one of many influential Jewish women in U.S. history.
Jewish women in America have forged their own way and crafted their own destinies. The eight pictured here were photographed by Yael Malka (herself one of the subjects) for Refinery29 for Jewish American Heritage Month. Here, they showcase their individual style and personalities, and discuss their unique life experiences. You’ll see very quickly that no two people have the exact same story, but they all share a fierce sense of independence, love for Jewish culture and their specific ancestry, and desire to share their world with others. Their differences are myriad, but a strong sense of Jewish identity courses through their veins.
“I grew up ultra-orthodox; Hasidic. My Hasidic high school closed down when I was entering tenth grade. I could’ve continued on to a non-Hasidic school (my parents were open to that), but I was very devout when I was younger and wanted to continue with Hasidic schooling. Looking back I think the Big Apple was calling. I moved to Brooklyn in high school. Now, I’m devout about other things; different things. I’ve invented my own spiritual practice, which is non-linear. It involves a lot of checking in and the question of what will bring me closer to myself, to my divine self, and to the cosmic self.
I’m 100% Eastern European Ashkenazi. That took a long time to embrace because they have a very specific history [with] the Holocaust. Intergenerational trauma is not talked about as much as it should be. It’s really important because I grew up feeling a lot of things in my body, not even in my mind, that I didn’t understand. There’s been a fear there since I could remember.. All of us — even non-Jews — have these stories of our ancestors embedded in our DNA.
A lot of anti-Semitism is about not having exposure to Jewish people in the same way that any form of hate has to do with that. I think humanizing Jews and showing that they’re real people can be really powerful. Instead of having them be this separate group, showing that Jewish people are just people.
The most important thing right now for Jewish people to focus on is this really old Jewish idea of tikkun olam, which means healing or fixing the world. The world right now is in such a precarious state on so many levels — political and environmental. It’s really insane if you try to think about it too much. For Jewish people, the question should be what is my response and role in the state of the world as a Jew? How can I make the world a better place? What are the Jewish values that will help me to clarify what I need to do and how to do it? Being an advocate; being an ally, those things are really important right now.
It’s very interesting to think about how to be politically active; environmentally active, and generally how to be present with what’s going on in the world and making the world a better place. I find that it’s actually not about huge things, but the smallest little details. It’s about the smallest exchanges and — it sounds a little corny — being the light for people. We have no clue what other people are going through. We might be that one moment in the day when they have a smile… I will be so happy when I am a full mentsch. It’s in the process, always. The little details. Deep listening to others. We don’t know anyone’s story, but if we really quiet ourselves, then we can hear it. We might not be able to do anything, but just hearing it is actually doing something.”
“Both of my paternal grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and they came from Poland. My Papa was in the woods in Poland — if you’ve ever seen the movie Defiance, he helped them fact-check that because it was basically his life. He was too young [to be in the resistance]; his older brother says he was a part of it. They were in the same woods that the partisans were fighting. My Papa has been honored at partisan dinners.
My grandma was hidden by her nanny. Her family was taken to the Dubno Ghetto, and she was saved by her nanny in the chaos. I was shocked to see the scene in Schindler’s List of what happened to my family. My grandmother’s aunt’s house was in the ghetto, so she had a hiding spot. So the scene where all the kids are hiding, and they come out at night and the Germans get them; that’s what happened to her family. They hid during the liquidation and came out at night when they thought it was safe, and that’s how they got killed. It was very jarring to watch that.
The biggest thing that sometimes frustrates me is having to defend my Judaism. It’s weird when people look at me and say, ‘You don’t look Jewish. You have blue eyes and blonde hair.’ I’m like yeah, my [Jewish] grandma and papa have blue eyes as well. But I’m a clone of my mom, who’s Catholic. Whenever I say my mom was raised Catholic, people say, ‘Oh, so you’re not Jewish.’ I’m like I am Jewish. I was dipped in a mikveh [a ritual Jewish bath] when I was a baby. I was raised on the stories of my Jewish grandparents; they lived 10 minutes from me. I was very much so raised in a Jewish household. I went to Hebrew school.
I really love how I was taught how to be Jewish. You question everything. You’re raised on stories. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I wanted to become an actor to tell stories. I like a lot of things about Judaism. I’m gay, so I go to the gay synagogue up in Chelsea. They have a siddur [prayer book] that they basically wrote themselves, and it’s all about connecting to nature and seeing God in nature. It doesn’t have to be the almighty guy in the sky kind of deal. That’s kind of how I see it. So it’s weird when people say, ‘You’re not really Jewish.’ I’m like, well, I am Jewish, but it’s the Judaism that a lot of young people are drawn to.
Jewish people have been really good at helping others because of what we’ve gone through, and not alienating ourselves to the problems of the world, whether it be immigration or refugee crises or anything like that. I’m involved with the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center of Westchester, which helps high schoolers tackle topics that seem unrelated to the Holocaust — like the Flint water crisis, gay rights in Russia, hunger in Uganda — and connect them with one another. I think I come from a place that sometimes people don’t expect, of I’m Jewish, and my grandparents are Holocaust survivors. I know what trauma looks like 60 years later from events that we’re causing around the world or that are happening around the world. I want to prevent that from happening. I’m glad that I feel empathy in the way that I do because of my grandparents, my Judaism, and how I was taught.
Jewish women in America are a unique bunch. I hope I can say that most of us are empathetic and strong-willed and come from strong women. I hope that we continue to be leaders of change.”
“I’m born and raised in Brooklyn. I grew up in a little town called Seagate; it’s the only beach town in Flatbush. It’s really small and not very accessible to the outside world. I grew up like that in a fairly orthodox home. We keep Sabbath, kosher, and things according to those lines. I went to Hebrew school and all-girls school. I went to all-girl camps. I wasn’t really exposed to the non-Orthodox world until I got to college. Throughout high school and stuff like that, I obviously went out. I went to concerts. I went to shows and plays and had a great time. But I didn’t really feel that being Jewish was so different until I was part of the real world. When I got to college, I realized, I try to say blessings before I eat food, and then I have to be conscious of like, do people think I’m talking to myself?. I don’t care about that anymore. It’s just these little differences you realize that you didn’t know were so different growing up.
There have been people I’ve met throughout the years in college and through my jobs, where I’m the first Jew that they’ve ever met. So initially that was so surprising to me. But then again, now, it’s so niche. Everyone comes from somewhere. We’re all part of something. We all have a history, so this is just mine. The thing that I hold onto that I feel sticks out the most to me is that Jewish people are part of an ancient culture, but we’re living in a modern time. I’m married now; I just recently had a son. I feel tethered to the past in that I want to respect it, and I want to be able to pass it onto my child. Whether or not he decides to do all the things that we do now is up to him.
I just started wearing a wig after I got married. I used to dye my hair when I was a teenager, but I only did really neutral colors because I went to an orthodox school. They wouldn’t really allow green. Even if I wasn’t covering my hair — though I do it for orthodox reasons now— even if I wasn’t doing it for that purpose, I would still wear wigs because it’s so much fun… Sometimes I’ll wear three different wigs in a day because I’m matching it to the look that I’m doing. So the inspiration for the style would be sometimes I match the look to the wig, and sometimes I match the wig to the look. It depends on what I put on first.
There are a couple of reasons why women cover their hair after they get married. Some people may not agree with my definition of it, but this is for me. Originally, there’s a certain idea that when you get married, the sexuality of a man and a woman belong to the other person. No one owns anybody, but your sexuality should be for your spouse, whatever it may be. You know the term ‘sex hair?’ There’s something real about it. A woman’s natural hair, natural look, there’s just something about it. It doesn’t always have to be sexual, but there’s something to the idea of it that when you uncover it, it’s just for your husband or your wife or whoever it is. For my purposes, there’s so many things that I struggle with that are hard for me to do. This is not hard for me to do. This is something I enjoy doing.
I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a ‘modest dresser.’ There are certain things I would wear and certain things I wouldn’t. In that definition of modest, I’ll use that term. I would say the general terms would be — or they used to be — your collarbone, your elbows, and your knees [had to be covered]. I would say that the lines have become blurred in terms of people that consider themselves orthodox and modest dressers may not adhere to those specific lines anymore. I think it got a little bit blurred in that sense. Still, modesty doesn’t inhibit style. So you can still get whatever you’re trying to go for, even if you’re not completely covered from head to toe.
Being a Jewish woman in America is just like being a woman anywhere. Yes, there are definitely opportunities in America you don’t get in other places, but i I don’t feel like I am different. I feel like everybody put 20 people in a room, regardless of what culture they’re from, you’re all chasing your own dreams and goals. I have friends who have a more restricted diet than I do [keeping kosher] because they’re gluten free. Everyone has their own practices. People should have more of an open mind; something you don’t know so much about doesn’t mean that it’s closed off. There’s always more to it.
We’re all people. We’re just people. It’s something that I would definitely love to push. You can tell from Instagram now and social media, on my page I specifically want to show people that you don’t have to be restricted by your culture, regardless of which one you come from, or by your practices or traditions. You can still live your best life, and you don’t have to compare it to anybody else’s. I don’t feel like I’m restricted in my goals or dreams because of my Judaism. If anything, I feel like it gives me a push and a drive to try harder and do more.”
Haftam Yizhak-Heathwood, 32, community organizer
“I was born in Ethiopia. We fled in 1990 before the second big aliyah (immigration of Jews in the diaspora to Israel) in 1991. I was 3 years old. From Ethiopia, we moved to Beit She’an, an orthodox community in the north next to the Dead Sea. For years, I was not familiar with other Jewish people outside of Israel. An agency came to our town when I was 15. They were collecting teenagers to bring them to other places in the world. I passed the test and went to Cleveland, OH. I fell in love with the culture; how people are so welcoming and very different and more relaxing than the Israeli people I was used to. From that moment, I decided this was going to be my home. I did everything in my power so that after I served two years in the Israeli army, I came to New York for one year just to see where I should live. I had the greatest experience. I went back to Israel for two years to work out things with my family and close out my life there, and I came to the U.S. permanently in 2011.
Coming to New York was eye-opening for me. I came here as an au pair, and I worked for Jewish families. When I started to be a part of the Jewish community here — the white Jewish community — I saw how much everybody is involved with each other’s lives; how much they know, like the services you need to apply for.
For many years, I stayed away from my Ethiopian Jewish community. The racism the Ethiopian Jewish community was going through in Israel made people very isolated and very resentful and very angry. They’re in the form of surviving, but a different type of surviving. They don't let themselves open up. For me, this was depressing. There are other, better ways to be out there and actually live. Why do you want to transfer this same thought to your own children? You sacrifice your life for them; to be free and to live. I didn’t know how to change their opinions, especially when they don’t want to change. They don’t trust others, and they don’t trust each other, so it’s very complicated.
There’s another Ethiopian woman who runs an organization here. She told me there are around 800 Ethiopian-Israeli Jews in the New York area. I thought how is it possible that we don’t know who they are, where they are, and what their situation is? Kids are here with no connection; growing up distant from their Jewish culture. They don’t speak Hebrew, they don’t know anything about Judaism. This is what my people have sacrificed for? They died in the desert to bring those kids to have a safe life here and continue with Judaism and their culture. And they just don’t do it because the parents have no methods to apply that. They’re working hard just to pay for their children to go to school, to have meals at home. They don’t see their identity getting lost completely. This is the thing that hurt me the most.
I decided I wanted to change the situation. I needed to find a way for my community to heal. They need to overcome the struggles of depression and anger and get out and live. That’s how I came to create my own way to build up the community from scratch. I made it my mission to hopefully build an Ethiopian Jewish center here in New York.
To be honest, it’s very stressful to work with the Ethiopian Jewish community. In the past, they’ve been failed and disappointed. We’re very separated; no community accepts us or is involved with us. Jews of color...or Jews of non-color — none of those people are being welcoming and opening the door to us. I don’t know what the reason for that is, but I want to build that bridge and bring my Ethiopian community to that and finally to be part of it and live, not just survive. I’m going to give them a physical place to call their own. They will feel at home in a safe environment there. If any trouble happens, they can come there. Something like that has never existed — not in Israel, not here, not anywhere in the world.
To be Jewish today is very hard. To be a Jewish Black woman, it’s very hard. But I’m very proud and feel so happy. I will never change who I am, what I went through, to be who I am right now. I’m very proud to be a Jewish American woman.”
Yael Malka, 28, photographer
“I’m originally from the Bronx, where my mom grew up and is a fourth-generation New Yorker on her paternal side. I lived in the Bronx until I was 6 years old, and then I moved to Israel, where my dad is from. His parents emigrated to Israel from Morocco. They moved to a kibbutz, which is a socialist movement that basically was the foundation of Israel. My dad was one of the only Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern, Jews on the kibbutz, and his family were the only Moroccans there. A lot of Sephardic and Mizrahi — Spanish and Arab Jewish descendants — were looked down upon in Israel and seen as, This country wasn’t meant for you; this was for us. This was our savior from the Holocaust; it’s like our sacred space. Also, just being darker-skinned and coming from a culture that a lot of Ashkenazi saw as primitive or barbaric. My dad dealt with a lot of racism growing up.
I lived in Israel from ages 6 to 8. My dad tried to rock the boat at the kibbutz; tried to change things to create a place that is more inclusive and more accepting. The thing about socialism is while there are so many positive aspects to it, it really doesn’t value autonomy or individuality. I think my dad was trying to figure out a way to negotiate that to create a more harmonious place to be yourself while also respecting boundaries of this community. It didn’t work out in the end, us living there. So we decided to come back to New York.
Judaism in our life is very much a cultural thing. My mom wasn’t raised religious. The kibbutz my father is from is very secular. They didn’t even get a synagogue there until 2018. They had religion class in school, and they did shabbos and celebrated Yom Kippur and all the High Holidays, but it was never really part of either of my family’s lives. My mother grew up in New York very New York culturally Jewish, but they were a Jewish family that celebrated Christmas also. They had a Christmas tree, which is a very common thing I’ve found for New York Jews. I wouldn’t even call us reform; I don’t even think you can really categorize us. But growing up in New York as a Jewish person and being Israeli, I always felt that being Jewish was a huge part of my identity. I’ve gotten both the Ashkenazi from my mom and the Mizrahi from my dad, which have very different traditions, so I feel very fortunate to have an understanding of both.
In middle school, it was a dirty thing to be called a Jew. I was definitely called racist slurs, but that’s not the case anymore. This time in history is incredible because of all the things that people are learning, and how language is being reshaped. It does seem like there’s kind of rampant micro-aggression anti-Semitism happening, and I hear that stuff all the time. I feel very awkward as a person who is an Israeli to defend it, because there are so many things I agree with, but I’m not going to let you erase my history or my culture. On the other hand, I feel really proud to be from a Mizrahi family, seeing how they are women of color being represented more and more. I’m an Arab Jew. Seeing more Arab women in politics and seeing that there’s more visibility feels so incredible.”
Alba Hochman, 41, marketing coordinator and “home chief of operations”
“I was born in Queens, and my family is Colombian. My father is an evangelical preacher and bilingual. As a kid, preacher’s kid, you read the Bible for ‘fun.’ So I’m reading it in Spanish, and I see our last name, Garzon. I’m like our last name’s in the Bible? So I grab an English Bible, and I’m like, our last name is Gershon. I asked my father if he knew our name is in the Bible, and he said, ‘Yeah, we’re Jewish.’ It turns out that my family is descended from Converso, or crypto-Jews. This was a secret within the family that it wasn’t until you reached adulthood that the secret was passed on. Still, to this day for generations, they kept the secret that there was Judaism in the family.
That was my discovery of my Jewish roots. Growing up, even before I came out as queer. I had issues with Catholicism. I had issues with the strict hierarchy. I guess that’s the Jewish part of me — constant questioning. Technically, people would say I’m a Jew by choice. But the way I see it is that any Jew who practices Judaism is a Jew by choice. Now, this choice was forcibly taken away from my ancestors. I am in essence reclaiming that choice, but saying that I re-converted. Taking that back. I remember the first time I went to a synagogue for my spouse’s relative, going to her bat mitzvah. It was the first time I’d actually sat through a whole service and heard the Torah reading and the psalms; everything in Hebrew. It was a really powerful moment for me, because it was like I was hearing my ancestors. It was something that was very powerful. The first time I stood at the Torah, it was extremely powerful again. It was feeling the weight of generations behind me.
What I want people to know is that Latinx Jews, we exist. That means Hanukkah is latkes and fried plantains and other fun stuff. People don’t always believe that. Dropping my kids off at a Jewish preschool, people ask if I’m the nanny because I speak to them in Spanish. I’m like no, these are my kids. We’re Jewish. And always the, ‘Where are you from?’ New York City. Queens. 57th Street.
My congregation is very activist. They do a lot of social justice activities and projects. My rabbi’s been arrested for protesting. We’ve done services at the immigration and detention center. That for me is a big drive. I want my children to see that, because I am also an optimist. My parents were immigrants; I’m first generation. I grew up on welfare. There’s a lot of these issues that are very dear to my heart. I want my kids to see the intersection of activism and Judaism. It’s about repairing the world.”
Yael Buechler, 33, rabbi
“I’ve known since I was very young that I wanted to be a rabbi. My father is a rabbi. Being a rabbi is everything I love in one thing. For me, it’s all about Jewish values and continuing them from generation to generation. There’s so much richness to the Jewish tradition. I love Torah, and I’m trying to share my love of Torah in any way possible with all the families of the school that I work with.
The fact that I’m a woman and a rabbi is all the more exciting because we have a tradition full of history and rabbinic writings of hundreds of years with male voices. And this is an opportunity for us to add female voices to the mix. My youngest son recently turned 1, and I finished pumping at work a few weeks ago. I had a special ceremony to mark the end of pumping at work, which is something that would not have been described in the Talmud. It was really amazing for me to take a moment and be grateful that I had the opportunity to pump and to produce milk for my baby and to thank God for that.
The year I was born, 1985, was the first year a woman became a rabbi in the Conservative movement, and I was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I feel so lucky to have benefited from all the work that went into making that happen. There’s still much work to be done, because when we think of a leader, when we think of a rabbi, it’s not typically someone who has their fingernails done. But I think this is such an opportunity because I have the chance to be a mentor to literally thousands of people across the globe.
There’s so much room for creative Jewish expression, which is why I founded Midrash Manicures. It started with me from a very young age doing my nails each week for the Torah portion or a Jewish holiday. I started a blog when blogs were still in, and before I knew it, people were saying, ‘Where can I buy those?’... I studied to become a Jewish entrepreneur, and I learned things I never learned when I was learning to be a rabbi. I figured out how to produce nail decals. Since then I’ve expanded the company to include Hanukkah scrunchies, which I’m wearing. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has one. I mailed it to her, and she wrote back saying she would wear it year-round even though it’s just for Hanukkah, so that was exciting. We have Hanukkah leggings, Hanukkah headbands, matzah leggings. I made a cold-shoulder shirt for Hanukkah with a dreidel on it. I try and think about what’s current fashion and find a way to make it Jewish.
Each of us has the opportunity to make a difference in this world through figuring out how the Torah applies to our lives and applying those values to everything we do. To me, that’s what Judaism is all about: How do we preserve the beauty of the richness of the tradition and expand upon it in our own lives today?”
“I was born and raised in Brooklyn. My father is Syrian — both his parents came here from Syria — and my mother is Ashkenazi. The Syrian world is very insular, it's very protected in a way. People just really don't get it … if you're not a part of it, you're never going to really see it, because you're just not accepted. It's hard. I mean, even with me, I don't feel accepted because I'm not fully Syrian, and I've been told that before. Also, I identify as queer, and it's tricky navigating those spaces because being Middle Eastern and being Jewish you have compound homophobia from both places. Being Sephardic [is also] very different from being Ashkenazi Jewish. Most people know Jews as being Ashkenazi.
Sephardic Jews have different foods and pronounce things differently, like Shabbos versus Shabbat. We eat rice on Passover. Kibbeh, lahambajin, sambusak, and spanekh jibn were staples of my upbringing. My grandma always called this string cheese with nigella seeds ‘Syrian cheese,’ even though Amazon says it’s Armenian.
People are surprised when I tell them that I'm Middle Eastern. I still have a hard time necessarily referring to myself as a woman of color even though I am. I remember having a debate with somebody once, and they were telling me that I couldn't claim that because it's not how the world responds to me; if the world responds to you as being white, then you're white. I said, ‘I guess so, but how are you going to define somebody else for them?’ So it's tricky. I think if I walk around saying that I'm a woman of color a lot of other people will be pissed off, but it's hard given the situation that I'm in, also being queer.
I go to these queer Sephardic Shabbat dinners once a month. They're amazing, and I feel so welcomed being there. But also because I'm not fully gay I wonder, what does that even mean? I's just tricky navigating all these cross sections of where you fit in. There is somebody who comes to the dinners who’s from Jamaica. It's really cool to learn about the cultures. There's an organization called JIMENA — Jews Indigenous to Middle East and North Africa, that — that spreads stories of Jews many Americans don’t know about, but should. “
Interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.