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Passing

Ariel Beery pins the tendency of left-wing Jewish communities to self-destruct on Jews’ having made “the Holocaust as the pinnacle event of Jewish history.” I’m going to agree with him, for the most part, and take it a step further, or maybe just a step more specific:

Last night I saw “Black Book,” a movie about a Dutch Jewish woman who, through luck, cleverness, and sex appeal that melts the heart of many a Nazi, survives World War II and ends up in Israel, which we all know is a country in which no Jew will ever be killed on account of being Jewish. (At least not by the state, which is something, but not, alas, everything). In other cheeriness, one of the movie’s messages is that everyone hates the Jews, from the Resistance to the Nazis. In fact, those who are seemingly kindest to Jews may well hate them the most, yet the Nazis are, of course, Nazis. No-win, indeed.

The more striking, all-encompassing aspect of this movie, as with the similar “Europa Europa,” is that it is advantageous for a Jew to be able to “pass.” While you’re obviously not supposed to agree with an ideology that would have a man killed for not having a foreskin or a woman killed for having dark hair, you nevertheless root for the protagonists of both these movies to succeed in appearing “Aryan.” That early-mid-20th century European Jews did, often enough, blend in with their non-Jewish neighbors, was why the Holocaust required so much paperwork and investigation to carry out. It seems we do not, after all, have horns.

The problem with these movies, as fascinating as they are, is that American Jews see enough such scenarios, and after a certain point begin to associate survival with a Jewishness that is visually imperceptible. When someone tells me I don’t look Jewish (some say I do, some say I don’t) there’s a certain sense of this being a relief, not in the sense of this making me more attractive, but in this less obvious notion of it meaning I’d have been able to “pass” if need be. To ask a blunt question: if Holocaust education weren’t so central to Jewish learning, and if the passing-for-survival narrative weren’t all over the place, would so many American Jews today get nose jobs? (And are Israelis so much better-looking than American Jews not simply because they are more ethnically mixed, but because they do not, by and large, try to look something other than their own ethnicity?) In any case, plans for things like restructuring Jewish communal life and hoping for less intermarriage are, I would say, missing the point.

Cross-posted at WWPD.

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16 Comments

  1. themiddle

    4/11/2007 at 7:36 pm

    Many Jews who have any form of “plastic” surgery are doing it for the same reason as many non-Jews – they are influenced by media images of people, have absorbed the sensibilities that indicate what/who is or isn’t “attractive” and wish not to assimilate but rather to dis-assimilate by standing out in attractiveness. At best, even if assimilation is their goal, it is because for some their insecurity drives their desire for the surgery mostly because they deem themselves unattractive to a degree where surgery brings them up to “normal.”

    This has nothing to do with Holocaust or “passing,” in my opinion.

    Then again, we could easily make the claim that since the Hollywood studios and the tv networks were either founded or run predominantly by Jews in their earlier years (to a lesser degree today), as were many publishing houses, fashion houses, and of course designers, photographers, directors, actors and other media “players” who were Jewish, that the entire notion of modern beauty has, to some degree, been defined by Jews.

    Oy!

  2. phoebe

    4/11/2007 at 8:23 pm

    Not all beauty standards are racial. Some have to do with age, symmetry, gender conformity, appearance of health, and so on. However, some beauty standards are undeniably racial. Just as there is a “politics” of “black hair,” there is one of Jews and nose jobs, one I’m not remotely the first to notice.

    As for Jews themselves defining beauty, there’s that video ck showed us on Birthright about the Jewish refugee from Germany who came to America and brought us Barbie. In other words, even when Jews have defined beauty, the results aren’t necessarily less “Aryan”-philic.

  3. LastTrumpet

    4/11/2007 at 8:26 pm

  4. phoebe

    4/11/2007 at 8:30 pm

    I feel like this poem was recited in the movie I just mentioned…

  5. Stanley Kards

    4/11/2007 at 8:34 pm

    The movies are made,that is the good part abou t them, is for educational value. Many people do not read anymore, books that is, so the movie is a very good way of telling a story to many. THis being both the truth and a history. Many non Jews are equally interested in this historical period as well. I also do not think the passing thing exists much anymore. There has been a kind of new openess to American society in the past 10-15 years, much more than existed in the past. I think the Jews are simply one such component of this mosaica of people’s who move to here.

    There are also other people’s who have suffered ‘Holocausts’ so you would have to apply your questions to them in all honesty and see if the conclusions match or not.

  6. VJ

    4/11/2007 at 8:52 pm

    My head hurts after one of these. Really. TM got the first bit right, beauty standards need not have anything to do with ‘passing’ and indeed need not have much to do with ‘racial’ or ethnic qualities either. Indeed Most Do have to do with ‘age, [facial] symmetry, gender conformity, appearance of health, and so on’. You could look it up. Of course this is also where a fuller understanding of media might come in handy.

    BTW; most Germans now & then don’t look very ‘Aryan’. That was the carefully crafted mythos of the Nazi’s. Ditto for the stereotypical looking Jew that they grafted onto from earlier historic & 19th century screeds & attacks in print. To this day, even images of Jews in the ME & around the world still use these racist & anti-Semitic images of Jews that were developed in Europe by the 19th century.

    But over here, TM is right, the Jews helped create Hollywood & the screen images we all associate with glamor & ‘Americaness’. They studiously neglected to include the portrayal of many Jews in their studio productions though. We can all speculate on the reasons, but this has little to do with passing per se. Assimilation is a fairly complex topic, there’s enough ‘draw’ & pull for everyone in each generation w/o even getting into side issues like ‘passing’. Cheers, ‘VJ’

  7. Ariel Beery

    4/11/2007 at 10:54 pm

    Some great points in here Phoebe–especially about the way that Jews in the media have consistently projected a “goyish” aesthetic in the hope that they’d be accepted by society (and market forces). So, TM and VJ, you’ve lost on this point–unless you want to argue that “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” was really a Jewish boy’s desire to project pride in his heritage.

    I’m actually very interested in this idea of “looking Jewish” because it seems to me that many of the hip Jewish fashions are, in a way, attempts to make the Jewish meld with the hip fashions of the day–in other words, it is a hybrid: a way to “pass” through being fashionable–but to pass through joining a moment of ethnic pride.

    Finkielkraut’s critic of context-less Jewish identity here seems relevant: by focusing on the Holocaust and the most flagrant of Jewish symbols (the kippa, talit and big noses and whatnot), and then claiming that such symbols and reference points are only expressions of a universal consciousness, Jewish identity is no more than a two-dimensional reflection of the world passed.

    Tragic.

  8. themiddle

    4/12/2007 at 2:52 am

    Whoa, hold yer horses, Mr. Beery. Phoebe does not say that Jews in the media projected a “goyish” aesthetic to be accepted by society. She doesn’t say that or even allude to it anywhere in her post.

    Phoebe is referring to two European movies, only one of which is directed by a Jewish director. She then says that American Jews “see enough such scenarios” and that this may influence them. Where do they see such scenarios? In Schindler’s list? Nope. In Sophie’s Choice? Nope. In the Warsaw Ghetto miniseries? Nope.

    You raise two issues, Ariel. The first is the question of why so many Jewish artists and media figures stressed imagery, music, looks and stories that focused on decidedly unidentifiable subject matter, Christian subject matter and, of course, on people whose looks were not perceived as “Jewish.” Phoebe and you would like to suggest that they are trying to “pass” or hide their ethnicity in order to assimilate. I don’t entirely reject this notion but believe that it is minor relative to what is really driving them which is a desire to reach larger audiences and have more mass appeal.

    If Irving Berlin writes “I’m Dreaming of Oil Drenched Latkes,” he makes no money. If he writes “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” he has a shot at selling the song to the (at the time) 90% of Americans because 90% of them celebrated Christmas. It’s a no brainer from a career, income and marketing perspective.

    Likewise for the cinema moguls. They want to reach masses. Who cares about Jewish stories in 1925 or 1935? Nobody. Who has even met Jews outside of New York, Boston, DC or Los Angeles in those years? Not many people. The moguls know this and are smart enough to recognize that Hollywood isn’t America and that they must recreate America in Hollywood. This is their goal and it has nothing to do with proclaiming their identity or even with hiding their identity (although that might influence them to some degree). Rather, they are seeking to find a way to reach the broadest possible audience by giving that audience what the audience will understand as their own familiar culture.

    The second issue you raise, regarding the hybrid fashions, actually rejects Phoebe’s claim. She is suggesting that Jews have been influenced by the “passing” they see in films and then seek to pass by, for example, getting nose jobs. Putting aside the fact that I don’t know too many Jews whose nose fits the stereotype, and putting aside my own cute button nose which does not need repair, those people who I know who have bothered with “plastic” surgery are not people who seem mildly interested in the implication of their “Jewish” looks. They’re concerned about their looks or physical well-being. Period.

    Your suggestion that they do it to enjoy some ethnic pride while sharing the fashion element with the broader society is the exact opposite of getting a nose job because one wants to “pass.” The person wearing the hip Jewlicious t-shirt wants to be noticed as a Jew at the same time that s/he is identified as a “regular” person who wears cool and fun clothing like other cool and fun people.

  9. VJ

    4/12/2007 at 5:40 am

    Some more minor points here amid all the confusion.

    1.) 1927. In The Jazz Singer, Asa “Al Jolson” Yoelson depicts a quintessentially Jewish story, and contained Jolson’s first serious ‘hit’, ‘Mammy’. Much imitated, but there was only one original. Yes, they did these things once upon a time. It was strange, even back then though. But yes, you had to sell this stuff on the open market, which was constantly & swiftly changing. George & Ira Gershwin & Irving Berlin & other NYC composers & ‘tin pan alley’ artists had to sell first sheet music (remember those?) and then songs for reviews & shows and then finally for Hollywood movies & records to satisfy an ever growing public demand.

    2.) Cranial & facial shape & form vary not only within families, but among local populations. People will tend to look more alike the longer they live together (generation wise), due to interbreeding & the influence of similar environments. (So do finger prints in some regions, BTW). Ergo, not all Jews have ‘the Jewish nose’, not all Blacks have thick lips & wide noses either. Still stereotypes in the media from way back will depict each group with easily characterized (and satirized) exaggerated physical features just to reinforce their own biases & prejudices. Cheers, ‘VJ’

  10. Tom Morrissey

    4/12/2007 at 9:34 am

    Well, if this is how Jews feel about media-driven norms of beauty, how do you think other ethnic groups feel? US Jews obsess about the pleasures and terrors of assimilation, yet have been far more successful than innumerable other cultures in preserving a distinctive cultural identity in this country.

    Think Americans of Hungarian or Croatian or Finnish or Portuguese descent can even compare memories of their own heritage with Hollywood’s imagery?

  11. phoebe

    4/12/2007 at 11:07 am

    I’m not sure if a blond ideal would be that off-putting to the Finnish. But I’d be curious to see comments on Hungarilicious, Croatialicious, Finnilicious, and Portulicious on such matters. I wouldn’t know where to begin.

  12. Tom Morrissey

    4/12/2007 at 11:51 am

    Zimbabweilicious. Czech Republicalicious. Democratic People’s Republic of Korealicious.

  13. themiddle

    4/12/2007 at 1:37 pm

    Lilliputianicious.

  14. VJ

    4/13/2007 at 2:05 am

    “Think Americans of Hungarian or Croatian or Finnish or Portuguese descent can even compare memories of their own heritage with Hollywood’s imagery?”

    Perhaps not Hollywood per se, but I can recall watching films from & about each. Strangely enough each had a war context. The thwarted Hungarian Revolution’ (1956), the Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian wars of the 1990’s. And of course the Finns heroic defense against the Soviet army & then the Nazi’s in WW11. Oh yeah, in my newsreels the Portuguese were all over Angola in the 1960’s & 70’s too. But this is history & foreign countries. And none of these blokes owned Hollywood studios, right? Cheers, ‘VJ’

  15. themiddle

    4/13/2007 at 2:43 am

    Well, we do have Scorcese and Coppola, not to mention HBO, giving us the Italian experience. Or at least one aspect of it.

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