I am puzzled by my son Ari’s nose. He has a narrow little button nose that is as adorable as it is confusing. How on earth did my Jewish background combine with his father’s African American heritage to produce a petite white Anglo Saxon Protestant snout?
I start by looking in the mirror. Much as I would like to deny it, I really do possess the proverbial Jewish beak. When my great-aunt was descending into dementia—which apparently involved simultaneously losing her social inhibitions—she glanced at a photograph of me and said, “I didn’t realize your nose was so big, Beth.” She put the photo down on her dining room table and looked into my face. “I guess it is,” she told me, not altogether reluctantly.
We chatted briefly about lunch. And then, with unsettling consistency, she took another look at the photo, and my face, and shared the same thought about my nose. Not the kind of comment I needed to hear twice before lunch, but I knew she wasn’t going out of her way to be polite.
A description common enough to be cliché, the Jewish nose seems like a meaningless stereotype—until you look around at the faces in a synagogue on Shabbat or a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day. It is, alas, apt. Apparently, plastic surgery textbooks consider my nose (and its to-the-grindstone compatriots) to be a standard physical deformity requiring correction. When I was in eighth grade, the post-bat mitzvah ritual in my middle school was the nose job; most girls spent a few weeks in school with bandages on their faces, or did “nothing much” during their winter break or summer vacation.
For better or worse, as my great-aunt pointed out, I have a virgin Jewish schnoz, complete with bump on top to hold up my glasses. I didn’t realize how advantageous that is until my daughter told me about a flat-nosed Asian friend whose glasses routinely fall off.
I accepted my nose with little thought beyond an acknowledgement of its role in holding up my lenses and containing my snot until I was pregnant. One day it hit me: A biracial Jew could end up with a wide, elongated schnoz that eclipses, literally casts a shadow, on the rest of her face.
I did a little research. It turns out that nose shapes have a lot to do with the shape of the ethmoid bone, which is found at the top of the nose, as well as the nasal septum and the cartilage, which causes the nose to protrude. But what leads to the variations among these physical properties?
One theory I read about is that nose shape stems from geography, that it is a physiological adaption to different weather conditions. Extreme cold conditions—such as those in Eastern Europe, where my ancestors lived—led to fat pads over the sinuses and narrow noses, like my personal protuberance. The humid heat of Africa, on the other hand, often led to wide noses with large nostrils, preventing warming of the air in the nasal passages—like Ari’s father.
This explanation addresses my cold-origin nose (though not my propensity to double- and triple-up on sweaters) as well as the African American nose smack dab in the middle of Ari’s father’s face. But it does not help at all with the enigma of my son’s delicate beak.
In Nazi Germany, elementary school children were taught to recognize Jews alongside memorizing multiplication tables. “One can most easily tell a Jew by his nose,” says the children’s picture book, “Der Giftpilz” (The Poisonous Mushroom). “The Jewish nose is bent at its point. It looks like the number six,” notes the book, which was written by Ernest Hiemer and published by Julius Streicher. The publisher was later executed as a war criminal.
Ari’s father, of course, sports a nose that is short, concave, with flaring nostrils and bulbous tip.
But even at age 10, Ari had possibly the least ethnic nose I’ve ever seen. Especially for a kid with café au lait skin and a Jewfro in desperate need of a trim.
As a culture, we seem fascinated with noses. They stick out (don’t cut off your nose to spite your face; get your nose out of my business; why? It’s as plain as the nose on your face). They go where they don’t belong (rub your nose in it; pay through the nose; don’t get your nose out of joint; and worst of all if you think too much about it, brown nose). And noses are less than admiral traits (hard-nosed, look down your nose, have your nose in the air or in a book, thumb your nose, or turn your nose up).
Some nose qualities apply directly to me. As a writer, with always a question at the ready, I am sometimes considered nosy and I certainly nose around to find out what I need to know. Though I do try not to stick my nose in where it is not wanted. Hopefully I usually see at least a little further than the nose on my face.
Perhaps Ari’s little snout is a genetic throwback to an ancestor who entered his gene pool inadvertently—either a white Southern rapist or a Cossack on a pogrom rampage. Or maybe Ari just sports a composite. Possibly he got the length of the typical black nose and the width of a Jewish one, sort of the opposite of my original worrisome image.
A little more research showed me that, according to the Social Science Research Council, there is no genetic basis for passing along the shape of the nose. In other words, when it comes to my son’s schnoz: Who knows?