The Magazine

Funny, But I Do Look Jewish

The photos of Frédéric Brenner's "Diaspora."

Dec 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 14 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Homelands in Exile

by Frédéric Brenner

HarperCollins, 508 pp., $100

FUNNY, BUT I DO LOOK JEWISH, at least to myself, and more and more so as the years go by. I'm fairly sure I didn't always look Jewish, not when I was a boy, or possibly even when a young man, though I have always carried around my undeniably Jewish name, which was certainly clue enough. But today, gazing at my face in the mirror, I say to myself, yes, no question about it, this is a very Jewish-looking gent.

The article "Types, Anthropological" in the old "Jewish Encyclopedia" (1901-1906), written at a time when the Jews were anthropologically still considered a race, notes that "persons who do not have the Jewish expression in their youth acquire it more and more as they grow from middle to old age." True enough in my case, apparently, though much material in the rest of the article now seems comically antique: such as that Jews commonly wear their hats on the back of their heads because of the need to put their phylacteries on their foreheads, or have posture of a kind known as the "ghetto bend" from studying Talmud so relentlessly.

The remainder of the "Jewish Encyclopedia" article, which is accompanied by illustrations ("Composite Portrait of Ten Jewish Lads, New York"), works around the notion that the precise nature of the Jewish expression "is very difficult to determine with any degree of certainty or accuracy." Admitting all exceptions--Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, "was not distinctively Jewish [in appearance], all observers drawing attention to his resemblance to the Assyrian rather than to the Jewish type"--the article nonetheless insists there is a "Jewish expression."

AGAINST MUCH SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE to the contrary, I happen to believe there is one, too. Noses used to be considered the defining Jewish physical characteristic--"chosen noses," in the phrase I myself sometimes use. High arching, aquiline, hooked, long, nostril-flaring, sometimes bump-bearing noses have generally been taken for Jewish. My own nose is fairly regular, in shape and in size, though its straight bridge now seems a touch high and it has become a tad beaky and, in profile, begins to seem more prominent.

I somewhere read the phrase "Jewish ears," implying large and fleshy appendages, and, if such Jewish ears exist, these I indubitably have. My ears have always stuck out, but now they seem to be growing larger, in proportion to my head, and a bit pointy into the bargain. Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, had such ears. So, more famously and pointily, did Franz Kafka, giving him the look of a bat, or other member of the order Chiroptera.

Where I think I may look most Jewish is in the eyes. Once dark brown, my eyes are now more mottled, even containing bits of blue. The skin over my right eye is beginning to sag slightly--my mother's right eye did something similar late in her life--and my eyebrows are growing grayer and bushier, more unruly. But it's the look in my eyes that strikes me as most Jewish: It seems to me worldly, not to say a trifle world-weary, melancholy, if not mildly depressed.

The human face, we now know, is not symmetrical, a fact that painting seems to capture better than sculpture. Of my two sides, the right is the more lined, weather-beaten, battered-looking. I think of this side of my face as even more Jewish than my left side, which, to be sure, I don't exactly think of as Swedish. Am I equating suffering here with looking Jewish? I hope not, because not only have I never knowingly suffered in America for being Jewish, but I also take genuine pleasure in thinking myself a Jew, or member of what I, perhaps chauvinistically, prefer to think the most lively minority group in the United States.

A man named Sam Profettas, a Greek Jew from Salonika, photographed in 1991 by Frédéric Brenner for "Diaspora," his two-volume photographic study of Jews, has the face I may have a chance of attaining. Mr. Profettas has thin lips, deep-sunk, pouch-underlined eyes, a straight but prominent nose, and no fewer than seven deep furrows in his forehead, with white hair brushed straight back. If I can survive another fifteen or so years, I shouldn't at all mind having a face approximating his, thoughtful, ironic, melancholic.