The idea of riding the U-Bahn train for 45 minutes to and from university as a summer session college student in Germany seemed, in advance, like a mundane, time-consuming detail of a potentially enlightening and enjoyable study abroad trip. I was staying in a part of town that was formerly East Berlin, in a dilapidated neighborhood near the end of one of the subway lines.
So each morning, I grabbed a seat and watched the train cars fill up, stop after stop, as we approached the center of the city. My initial forecasting of the train ride proved inaccurate, as the cast of characters was never dull: city workers in canvas dungarees with neon vests, urban professionals in crisp dress shirts and shiny shoes, young adults with surprising hair colors and impossibly cool garb, mothers and their small children, individually harnessed by a wide range of baby carriers and strollers.
Children—and babies—were always on the train in the morning. After about a week of watching them aboard, giggling or whining or singing, a dampening pang of dread struck my gut: nearly every child I had observed was blond-haired and blue-eyed. In that instant, it appeared that Hitler had won; he had achieved his hate-fueled, eugenic victory by weeding out the Jews, the Romas, the “undesirables,” and all that Germany had left were these tiny prototypes of a ridiculously imagined superior Aryan nation. I shuddered, shaking my head to erase the thought.
I’d heard rumors about a neighborhood I passed through on the train each morning on the way to school. People whispered of its working class German-born citizens, and the defiant proliferation of young Neo-Nazi groups within it. One day, sitting in a seat with my head resting on the window, a young man on a distant platform caught my eye as we pulled into the feared station.
I sat upright, drawn into this man’s presence, as my eyes shifted over his mud-colored overalls and buzzed haircut, his frighteningly muscular build and menacing demeanor. His icy blue eyes caught mine briefly as the train stopped, and we existed for a moment, in a locked glance. Harrowed, it was as if I had seen a ghost—a ghost of Germany’s past, embodied in the present. He was a skinhead. I knew it in my bones.
I’ve always enjoyed people watching. Any time I am in a place of large-scale human gathering—airports, concerts, or subway cars—I consider it an immersive and highly stimulating lesson in human variation. Every face carries a name, an individual story, and a hidden ancestry. It is a gratifying exercise to play out people’s lives in my mind with the information I can glean from their profile, furrowed brow, or smile. But the moment my observation transitions into a real-life encounter, I have to be willing to drop the fantasy and invite the infinite possibilities of this person’s actual existence. Because this exercise, this game of snap judgments, does not reflect the truth.
I also know I’m not the only player.
“You don’t look Jewish” is a phrase I’ve been told throughout my life, by people old and young, of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions, including other Jews. They aren’t wrong: I have my mother’s Irish features: her fine brown hair and green eyes, a slightly bulbous nose, and my grandfather’s cleft chin. My physical presence has always been a stark juxtaposition to the dark eyes and hair, long slender noses, and remarkably small statures of the coterie of Jewish women I grew up with. As a tall young girl, I towered over Hebrew school friends, unable to trade clothes and shoes with friends while we innocently experimented with our images and styles. When I developed teenage crushes on boys at Jewish summer camp, they joked about my being the “perfect height,” their eyes embarrassingly square with my blossoming chest.
I’ve since overcome many of the self-conscious fears formed in childhood and adolescence, but the fact still remains in adulthood that I’ve always struggled to fight for inclusion in a group—Jews—that doesn’t assume on my appearance to be inclusive of me. Conversely, because I don’t initially look Jewish, or “other” enough, I’ve witnessed some real human ugliness, including anti-Semitic remarks in unexpected places, because the source of hatred or ignorance believed their audience to all be permissive members of their club. In those moments, there is nothing more satisfying than breaking rank to proudly reveal my invisible membership to Judaism.
Nevertheless, “You don’t look Jewish” always lands with an alienating thud. When another person’s fantasied idea of who I might be shatters in front of me with the proclamation that I am not as I appear, it is another strike against my own desire to imagine the lives of others, because my image, my projection, is never going to match what the world at large expects my identity to be.
When my son was born a blond-haired, blue-eyed baby, I was incredulous. It simply had never occurred to me that the mixture of my genes with my redheaded husband’s (I can’t count how many times I wished for a redheaded baby) could result in someone so…Aryan looking. As I learned his face in those first days, weeks, and months, these traits continued to confound my expectations, because it also never entered my consciousness that his physical appearance wouldn’t reflect his story—his family ancestry of Jewishness. One would think it wouldn’t be so jarring, given my own lifetime in defense of my own internal identity not matching my outward appearance, but nope—it’s still shocking at times.
Over time, my son’s golden curly mop of hair, and deep ocean-blue eyes have become my most personal reinforcement of the adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” His physical being, simply a result of genetic transcription and translation, will be marked by society at large as indicative of his character, his true identity. He’ll likely size up other people on the train someday, too, as he is sized up. My hope for him, at the intersection of construct and reality, is that he may discard his preconceptions, his gross observations, in favor of listening, learning, and respectful engagement with others in the world.