Friday, November 01, 2013

"[T]wo different Rabbis wanted sex"

As is so often the case, another newspaper comment has managed to outdo the article it's appended to. Not in, like, research, nuance, etc., but in discussion-fodder. Susan Katz Miller's essay on raising children as Christians and Jews is plenty thoughtful, if unlikely to convince anyone whose concern is Jewish demography. Meanwhile, commenter "anonymous12," Jewish on her father's side, has this to say:

As the daughter of a Jewish father who was anti-religon and a mother who was from Christian stock but had no practice, I grew up figuring it out on my own. I have always been drawn to Judaism and in my thirties, I reached for it. I have never figured out if the rejection I experienced was because I was a pretty blonde single women who looked like a Swede ("Are you here for a new husband, dear?"). After making attempts to achieve an Orthodox conversion (and being accused of being a "xtian infiltrator"), I tried a Conservative conversion and wasn't welcome, and then Reform (two different Rabbis wanted sex), I gave up and stayed away. I once went into a shul to ask a question and the two women behind the counter actually nearly broke their necks trying to answer my question to my friend who had given me a ride, because she happened to have dark features--so perhaps Jewish people could drop their own stereotypes. Over and over I experienced a complete disregard for my interest, beliefs, heritage and sincerity.

Recently I moved to a new city and made a casual connection with a very mixed congregation that is very open and liberal. The Orthodox may howl, but I promise you that unless you "look Jewish", show up to convert in order to marry a Jew you already know (no shopping), and/or look like a troll, you're not actually very welcome at all. 
Every person deserves a faith community and after years of loneliness I have a place to go for the holidays where I am welcome.
For those who don't read the block-quotes, the commenter's claim is that her prettiness and blondness prevented her from being welcome in Jewish communities. Well, except that some rabbis wanted to sleep with her. (Wasn't there a "Seinfeld" about this?) She was simply too sexily non-Jewish for all but the most progressive of congregations.

Having never experienced life as a non-Jew, or as a stunning blonde, who am I to say if that's how it might have gone? Conversion to traditionalist forms of Judaism is a notoriously difficult process. And Jews aren't somehow magically immune to broader societal racism, so if someone non-white had a tough time, unfortunately I wouldn't be surprised.

But in this case, allow me some skepticism. The sticklers for Jewish law aren't concerned with your hair color (note the number of blond Hasids! and I don't mean married women with blond wigs), just with your mother's Judaism or lack thereof. Nor do you receive automatic Jewish status if you "look like a troll." (Sheesh!) I don't believe Bar Refaeli, Natalie Portman, etc. have been excommunicated.

There's a lot of particularity out there, and some of it's easy to take personally if you don't see that it applies across the board. A bit like when people will fly to Israel and think that the airport security were sizing up them for insufficient Jewishness, when it's like, no, they do this to everyone. That, and it's so ingrained in the culture that Jewish men would be weird around Swedish-looking women that a woman who fits that description may well attribute any weirdness she does experience to her physical features. Meanwhile, says Science, men are only looking at us from the neck down anyway.


caryatis said...

I guess she didn't get the propaganda about how beautiful Jewish women are.

Hot and Bothered said...

But, Phoebe, what did you think of the op-ed itself!?!?!?

It actually annoyed me a lot, for reasons that I'm finding very hard to put onto paper. Maybe the overall feel of the op-ed was too new-agey and filled with annoying buzzwords "I want my kids to be bilingual in religion" for my liking. But it just seemed very shallow to me. Obviously no one wants children to grow up hating other religions, but is celebrating Christmakuh the only way to accomplish that?

Phoebe said...


Ha! She and the Reform rabbis she met alike.

Hot and Bothered,

What was frustrating about the op-ed was that it didn't seem to be addressing the usual arguments against that kind of choice, either the demographic ones (will the author's grandchildren be Jews?) or the religious ones (Judaism generally discouraging belief in Jesus's divinity). It's quite reasonable not to care about either of these things, but if the goal is convincing those who do...

There's a non-new-agey way of approaching this, which is to say that whether you try to do this or not, if you have a child in a mixed-background home, your child will have some of both cultural backgrounds. Which is true even if the parents are from two different Jewish cultures. But because culture and religion are wrapped up together, it's tough to accept a non-Jewish parent's culture without any religion getting into the mix.

I do find that discussions within the Jewish community about intermarriage too often forget that a non-Jewish spouse isn't a sort of blank slate whose only role is to dilute Jewishness, whose only culture is observing Christmas. So maybe the op-ed was a step in the right direction, if it indirectly gets that conversation going?

Less Hot, but Still Bothered said...

Yes, Phoebe, that's exactly right!

What bothered me about the op-ed was that she wrote it with the (unstated) assumption that the entire world shares - or should share - her extremely secularized view of religion. It's almost like she would be shocked - shocked! - to find out that perhaps some Jews are NOT OK with other Jews celebrating the resurrection of Christ. So to the extent that her argument relies then on her unstated view that everyone should be universal humanists, well, you can do that without being raised in a "bilingual" household. Jews can read and grapple with the Gospels without being raised Christian, believing Christ is the messiah, or having a Christmas tree. But if all she's really saying is that it's good to be exposed to many different cultures, well, then, that strikes me as just banal advice that's not really related to the interfaith question. It would be more appropriate as an op-ed response to someone arguing "let's start another Crusade" or "let's kill all the Baptists." But it's not a response to the concerned Jews out there.

Anyway, I'm rambling a bit, and I'm still not sure if I'm able to properly communicate all of my annoyances, but I will blame that more on her poorly argued op-ed!!

Sigivald said...

My impression has always been that part of the conversion process is getting told no and sticking with it anyway.

Like you said, "notoriously difficult" - but if she "stuck with it" very much it's not apparent from her words...

Benjamin Lewis said...

Regarding the Science at the end, it looks like the study sampled about 40 men, and they were probably 18-22 yoa undergrads. So really, at best it says that 15-25 yearolds only look from the neck down.

jena said...

Actually, regarding the Science, they just reported it wrong:

I get so frustrated about stuff like this. Like, what's the point in doing science at all?

Phoebe said...

The capital-S Science was meant to indicate skepticism regarding this "finding," but debunking link and comments much appreciated!

Britta said...

I'm curious as to when and why "Swedish" became synonymous for gorgeous or sexy, to the point saying that one "looks like a Swede" is an unambiguous compliment and indicates a level of attractiveness that doesn't come with other ethnicities, even other "hot" ones. E.g., no one says, "she looked like a Brazilian" or "looked like a Pole" as shorthand for looking hot in a certain way, even though Brazilian and Polish women are also thought to be good looking. Also, it's not a compliment in the same way to say that someone looks Norwegian, Danish, or Dutch, even though people of these ethnic backgrounds are generally held to be the same or similarly looking to Swedish people. Apparently the same stereotype existed in Nazi Germany, so it's clearly somewhat old and not simply American-specific, but I'm wondering where it arose from, since it seems so random.

Petey said...

"Also, it's not a compliment in the same way to say that someone looks Norwegian, Danish, or Dutch, even though people of these ethnic backgrounds are generally held to be the same or similarly looking to Swedish people."


I've always had generic 'Scandinavian' in my mind as a trope for gorgeous / sexy. Danes and Norwegians have always had the same basic meaning in my mind as Swedes.

As to why Swedes may have broader currency than other Scandinavian countries in the trope, perhaps it may have to do with Sweden's greater population and greater political power over the past few centuries than the other Scandinavian countries, no?

(Tangentially, one should give a shout out to the Baltic nations, post-USSR, as catching up to Scandinavians in the trope.)

"it's clearly somewhat old and not simply American-specific"


Phoebe said...


I think this has come up before in WWPD comments, and the idea is that Swedes are thought to be beautiful as well as sexually available/enthusiastic. No hangups, or so goes the stereotype. The equivalent stereotype doesn't exist re: Eastern European women who might look just as close to whichever Western ideal.

As for why Swedes and not Danes, etc., I think it's just a question of familiarity, like what Petey says. "Swedish" and "Scandinavian" are basically synonyms for those not terribly familiar with that part of the world.