My roommate Juliette and I are both Jewish, and we both grew up in places where there weren’t as many Jews as there were gentiles (non-Jews). The other day, we started chatting about what it was like to always be the first Jew the gentiles around us had ever met. We quickly realized that we had similar memories about the kinds of things people would immediately say once we “outed” ourselves as Jewish, and we soon had enough of these statements to make a top ten list.
This might go without saying, but the use of the word “top” here is sarcastic. There’s nothing “top” about these things. But let’s chat about that once you’ve finished reading the list.
1. “Really? Oh, I didn’t know!”
As innocuous as this line might seem, it reveals the most common gut reaction of gentiles upon learning that we are Jewish: surprise. It tells me that the person I’m talking to just plain did not expect to meet a Jew today, which means that they assumed I was not a Jew. It tells me that, for them, meeting a Jew is a strange thing, and a big deal. And it really shouldn’t be.
This reaction makes me wonder if they’d say the same thing if I “revealed” myself to be Christian. But most Americans, especially in the white-bread Midwest, expect everyone they meet to be Christian, so if I was one, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to them.
2. “You don’t look Jewish.”
This one is related to the one before it. It tells you a lot about people’s preconceived notions of Jews – that we are strange and different, and you’d be able to pick “one of them” out just by looking. Appropriate responses to this statement include, “What you mean is, I don’t look like a Jewish stereotype,” “Jews look like people, too,” or “I know, right?! I’m like a secret agent!”
I’ve never actually said that last one. But I’ve thought it. Sarcastically.
3. “Where are your horns?”
I wish I was joking. I’m not.
When the only things people know about Jews is what their churches or media sources have told them, their ideas about us can get pretty skewed. It can get to the point where people, without exaggeration, don’t even think of us as human.
4. “You don’t believe in Jesus? Then what do you believe in?!?”
I can’t speak for other Jews, but personally I don’t mind teaching people about my religion. What bothers me about this line is the tone. The shock, the incredulity. The gentile’s eyes widen and their face silently screams at us, “How could you possibly believe something different than me?!?” They just seem so unsettled by the thought.
The worst part is, teaching people about your religion often doesn’t make them feel less unsettled. I once had a very long talk with someone who couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that Jews don’t think that the New Testament was written by G-d. She kept pointing to the verses in the New Testament where G-d says “Jesus is my son” and asking me if I thought that G-d was a liar. It really bothered her.
(Side note: an important prerequisite question to any question about our religion is, “Can I ask you a question about your religion?” If we say no, accept it and look it up on MyJewishLearning.)
5. “Do you speak Jewish?”
This question again reveals how little people know about Judaism, which again makes us feel like there’s something strange or unusual about us. Let’s have a quick vocabulary lesson:
Jew – a noun, a person who believes in Judaism. As in, “I am a Jew.” (Though we generally prefer it when gentiles say “Jewish person” instead of “Jew,” because the latter has been used by gentiles as a slur)
Jewish – an adjective, of or pertaining to Judaism. As in “We are Jewish people,” “We participate in Jewish traditions,” and “I am Jewish.”
Judaism – a noun, the name of the Jewish people’s religion. As in, “Judaism is my religion.”
Hebrew – the language the Torah and most Jewish prayers are written in, one of the two national languages of Israel. As in, “To answer the question you meant to ask, I do not speak Hebrew, but I can read its alphabet and would like to be fluent in it someday.”
6. “You’re one of G-d’s chosen people?”
Sometimes the person we’re talking to gets really serious and quiet, and says something like this. I call it “benevolent antisemitism” – it tells us that the person thinks we’re strange and different, but it’s because we’re “special” and deserving of some kind of extra reverence. It’s like how some sexists, rather than attack women, think that women should be put on pedestals (and it really is called benevolent sexism).
This reaction, though a little nicer than “where are your horns,” makes us very uncomfortable. It’s just as dehumanizing to think of us not as individual human beings but as someone that you should be nice to because G-d “chose” us. Besides, Jews have a complicated relationship with the whole “chosen people” thing. Believing that G-d has put extra responsibilities on your back, and that G-d has given you a distinctive label that other religious groups use to attack you, is no party. As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “I know we are Your chosen people. But once in a while, can't You choose someone else?”
7. “How can you live without bacon?!?”
I’ve heard this one enough times that it’s stopped sounding like the joke it’s probably supposed to be. I mean, it is actually possible to live without eating bacon. It’s also possible to live without combining milk and meat. But people seem to love talking keeping kosher as if it’s something impossible that no normal person would put themselves through. Which reminds us Jews that people think we are – you guessed it – strange and different.
8. “I’m so jealous, you get eight days of presents!” or “You’re so lucky, you get extra days off of school!”
For all that Christian gentiles don’t know about Judaism, they tend to know that (1) Chanukah is a thing and (2) other Jewish holidays don’t fall during “normal” school breaks. I’ve talked about this before, and again I can’t speak for other Jews, but here’s a brief summary of my reactions to these holiday-related statements:
“Well, maybe some people get presents every day of Chanukah, but my family isn’t very big on present-giving, so I don’t. We’re more into spending time together than materialism. That’s all Chanukah is, really – a way to get in on the materialist, capitalist Christmas fun. And no, we don’t get ‘extra’ days off of school. Our holidays are not excused. Yours are. You don’t have to make up homework when you spend Christmas with your family instead of going to school. You’ve never had to choose between participating in a marching band competition and attending Easter Sunday services. So no, you really aren’t jealous of us, and we aren’t lucky. Thanks for reminding me that our public school system treats my religion as less important than yours.”
9. “How can you justify Israel’s actions?!?”
On this one, I will actually be brief: a person’s opinion on Israel is a separate conversation from whether or not they are Jewish. It’s like asking a random Protestant, “How can you justify the KKK’s actions?” You don’t know that they do. This question attributes a hive mind mentality to a person who, like any other human being, is perfectly capable of forming their own opinions.
10. “I’m so sorry!”
Juliette sums this one up nicely: “It’s because they just said something offensive about Jews.”
This is the longest article I’ve ever written for the Odyssey, but every part of this needs to be said.
Juliette and I understand that these statements usually come from a place of ignorance rather than malice. But that doesn’t make them “okay.” Intent does not change impact.
And the impact that these statements have is to tell Jews that we are “other.” They tell us that it is strange to meet a Jewish person, that to be a Jew is to be abnormal or somehow socially unacceptable. These phrases not only make the Jews who hear them feel awful, but also tells the gentiles who hear them that Jews are “other,” because other people think so, too. That kind of thinking encourages dehumanization. And it needs to stop.