New Voices: Arts & Culture

My Life as a Shiksa Jew

What it's Like to be Jewish in a Gentile Body

By Daria Vaisman

I’m six feet tall, with a (mostly) natural head of (mostly) blonde hair, and with a sort of broad geniality to my face that is not generally associated with Jews. Though I’m only half-Israeli and have always lived in the U.S., I usually use the epithet “Israeli” if I need to preface my Jewishness to skeptics. When Jews ask me what I am, and I gather up the courage to tell them American, and yes, Jewish, a momentary flicker passes over their faces—a moment of confusion, a betrayal. Because closely linked to this great scam of mine in appearance is the fear that we squirrely Jews are getting away with something—for us to walk, undetected, among those blonde Midwestern babes, among the solemn goys, among the tight-lipped WASPS. Not only are we getting away with more and more these days—we even have the nerve to look like them! I’ve been conducting an experiment lately, which consists of engaging Jewish men long enough to confuse them. A Jewish man will begin to talk to me with a certain interest, a certain guardedness, a certain irony funneled inward, meant for himself and the walls—“How marvelous,” he thinks to himself, “here is this shiksa who has no idea what I’m about.” Soon I’ll throw a word like schmutz—pretty low-key and still passable under the permutations of Yiddishisms—into the conversation. From there I quickly escalate. First, an inventory of the only acceptable jobs laid out for me by my family: doctor or lawyer—and my subsequent failure to achieve either one. And then, before the poor shmuck knows what hits him, I’m giddy and nostalgic about my bat-mitzvah, my second teen-tour, and so on. A Jew! He’s surprised, he’s newly interested, and I’m allowed in.

Though my outsider status is subverted, at least partially, once I claim my birthright as a Jew, I do get a sense of what it would be like to be condescended to by a group to which I belong. Talking about prejudice towards gentiles might seem like talking about Men’s Lib, but it’s necessary if we are going to bitch about its alternative, prejudice towards us. Shiksa is a loaded term, and usually offensive. It does not merely describe a certain kind of non-Jewish woman, but rather refers to the certain kind of woman no self-respecting Jew would want to be. For a more general cultural currency, insert “blonde” every time you see shiksa, and you get the point.

I’ve thought about Jewish identity a lot, since I’ve been given the freedom, through “passing,” (a phenomenon in racial politics in which a member of the minority cannot be distinguished from the majority by his or her physical attributes) to access many worlds and many octaves of communication. I couldn’t possibly just be Jewish, it seems, because a Jewish girl is either bird-boned and coarse-haired, or else zaftig and buttery. And if she is neither, then there has to be a good explanation. The “Exotic Jew” is one such excusable niche. The Israeli Woman is a favorite; her phenotypic variation from the Jewish gentry is attributed not only to sun and fresh produce, but also to the metaphysical bosom of the land and its inimitable ability to heighten and lighten. And so we have the marked shift from Palestinian-bound Russian Jews to their Sabra offspring who look like Scandinavians on vacation in the Middle East.

The stereotypes, of course, change: before, it was the dark hair, the small and small-boned haughty elegance, the slightish mouth. Now the new fetish, at least in the Midwest reeking of the homogeneity of church-goers who mean it, is the Jewish sorority girl on a four-year sabbatical from home. The East-Coast sorority girl at an American Big-Ten school, that ubiquitous creature—here she goes getting a sesame bagel at Einstein’s, there she goes practicing with pearls—is easily identified. Not only does she wear that outfit—those stretchy black pants, that eyelet white shirt, those enormous platforms without even the intimation of indentation around the heel, she also has that adorably particular talk, manner, and gait. That softly aerobicized body. The long hair. The raspy, cigar-smoking voice. One girl I know, to whom this description is especially apt, was introduced by her adoring Unitarian boyfriend as his “little Jewess.” What else besides fetish can explain the desire to define someone immediately upon introduction? I end up causing ethnic whiplash by cross-referencing fetishes. For these people—the ones who comment, fear, or praise, are invariably men—because both the term shiksa and the fantasy of the Jewess who still has a faint shtetlness around the eyes are libidinal cues and sexual reveries.

But women are to blame as well. We so often torture ourselves to look (or not look) a certain way. This applies not only to Jews but to everyone. Hair too “black?”—get it straightened. Ass too “Greek?”—get it sucked. Nose too “Jewish?”—get it shaved. In my family, the aesthetic and the medical have converged into a single vigilant upkeeping that is not only used to defer death and decay, but on an only slightly less distressing level, the possibility of looking unattractive. Growing up, the position of my teeth was used to gauge my moral righteousness; if they stayed straight, it was a mitzvah, but if they shifted, it was a busha (shame) due to the lack of attention I paid to my retainers, bands, and braces. If a hair grows on my chin, it is my obligation to call the electrolysist. If two, a hormone specialist. If my streaks start to grow out, someone is immediately shipped over from the salon so that I don’t have to leave the house.

Now that I am on my own, there are still the leg-lifts, stomach crunches, and blush contouring that I might tend to concern myself with any given day of the year. It takes a lot of work to become low-maintenance, and even more to look it. But written in is the narrative of effortlessness in looking good and, more importantly, in looking generic, like the models who make a point of noshing on fries or cookies during interviews. The “shiksa Jew” is this way too, for if you look like a gentile but are, in fact, Jewish, there’s only one way to do it: accidentally. How else to appease a community that sees you as the physical embodiment of its worst nightmare: assimilation?

Daria Vaisman graduated from the University of Michigan last May