In an effort to procrastinate, I occasionally like to bounce some ideas around. As I work from home with only my two cats for company, this often means waiting until my children return home from school.
I have wanted to explore Jewish stereotypes for sometime now, so naturally I asked my ten-year old son for some advice. I began by asking him if he knew what stereotypes are. His response, “yes, they are those things you had to listen to before the iPod was invented.”
I think I am alone on this one.
Lets start with the fact that I live in Hong Kong, China. Immediately when a Chinese person learns that I am Jewish the response is almost automatic. I am told that I must be very smart and of course very rich or very good with money. They tell me Einstein was Jewish (I actually don’t mind this comparison), Marx was Jewish (less excited about this one) and often that Rockefeller was Jewish (he wasn’t).
And while I try to excuse this pervasive stereotyping by the Chinese and explain to fellow Westerners that unlike in European and other Western nations these stereotypes are certainly void of the taint of anti-Semitism, I wonder though how far is that void? How thin is that line?
And while it is quite easy to point fingers at other groups for stereotyping, it begs the question why do we do it to ourselves? The common theme that runs through most interviews I conduct with Asian Jews, whether they are Chinese, Indian, Korean or Japanese, is they all express some frustration over constantly hearing the refrain from other Jews, “funny, you don’t look Jewish.” Why are we as Jews so willing to take on the world’s stereotyping of us by assuming amongst ourselves that there really is a Jewish look? And yes, I have often been told that I most certainly have it.
Quite recently a series of vintage 1960s advertising posters from Levy’s (Henry S. Levy & Son’s) were circulated widely on social media sites. These iconic rye bread posters feature racially and ethnically diverse people all enjoying Levy’s Jewish Rye Bread and the caption is “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Enjoy Levy’s.” In the world I live in, in Hong Kong, this campaign simply doesn’t make sense (though I will concede that the man in the full Native American headdress is likely not Jewish or at least not a practicing Jew). The ad, featuring an adorable Chinese boy with his Jewish rye, takes on particular poignancy as one of our closest friends’ son happens to be named Levi, is Jewish and is Chinese as he has been adopted locally.
And to my children, most certainly not raised in 1960s America, this poster is truly entirely incomprehensible. I showed my nine-year old daughter the poster and asked her for her thoughts on what she saw. She was first fixated on the fact that she didn’t know what rye bread was. She is being raised in the East not on the East Side after all. After an explanation that moved to pumpernickel and bialys and other exotic breads from my East Coast past, we were finally able to return to my social experiment. Again, she was a bit distracted by the apple and commented on his healthy snack choice. I found I needed to throw aside ordinary journalistic principles and ask a very pointed question.
“Forget about the food, please! Look at the boy. What about the boy’s appearance?”
She carefully studied the original poster.
“Ah! He is dressed rather fancy. It could be because it is an ad and he needs to look presentable or else it is because he had to go to Synagogue that day.”
She failed to choose to identify the race of either boy. In her world, if you are a child and are wearing nice clothing you must be synagogue-bound.
In contrast however, quite recently, I was speaking to a fellow parent in the local Hong Kong Jewish community at a birthday party. He commented, while watching the kids play, “Levi, Lior & Lee. How is the school (Jewish Day School) ever going to be able to tell all these L-named Chinese kids apart?”
Except for the purposes of clarity, as these boys’ origins should have no other relevance, all three of these Jewish boys happen to have been either adopted locally or are Eurasian. And while his comment was perhaps a bit tongue in cheek, we are Jewish and we live in Asia. If we can’t get it right, how can we expect others to?
So for me personally perhaps it was my move to Asia in 2002 that shifted my worldview, but I truly understand Judaism as it is: racially, ethnically and nationally diverse. It does not take a sociologist or ethnographer to come to this conclusion either. You don’t have to take a trip to my community or travel to other remote and unchartered regions of the globe. Take a close look at the streets of Jerusalem or perhaps even at the Jewish children in your own neighborhood.
As for Levy’s, if you are still producing your Jewish rye bread, though it is certainly not available in my neighborhood, thanks for producing an advertising campaign that wowed the world in the 1960s and still keeps us talking well into the twenty-first century.