What Does a Jewish Man Look Like?

June 12, 2014Rabbi Victor S. Appell

Recently, I Googled images of Jewish men. I was wondering what – or more precisely, who – represented the modern Jewish man in our culture. Hundreds of photos appeared. Surprisingly, neither Woody Allen's nor Jon Stewart's photo topped the list. The photos fell into two categories. The first included men who were handsome, young, and dark-haired. They were Jewish actors or actors who had portrayed Jews. The second category comprised ultra-Orthodox men in Hasidic-style clothing, including long back coats, white shirts, and shtreimels, the large fur hats worn by many Hasidic men. Of course, the men had long beards and pey-ot, long sidelocks. Very often they were wearing a tallit or tefillin. They were shown studying, praying at the Western Wall, or in large groups of similarly clad men.

Absent from this page were photos of what I might call a "nebbish." You know, that sad-sack of a hapless Jewish man. Of course, you can Google that term and there you will find many images of Woody Allen. Also absent were images of a sabra, a native-born Israeli, who epitomizes the idea of the strong, muscular Jew, capable of dredging swamps, planting trees, and rebuilding the land. You know, the antithesis of nebbish. Google sabra, however, and you will be directed to the ubiquitous manufacturer of Middle Eastern food products, including hummus.

Absent, too, were images of Jewish men in professional settings. Although I expected to see images of lawyers or doctors, there were none. Similarly, I thought I might see photographs of shopkeepers – remember Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street? – but, again, no such images appeared.

Images that might have represented my father were missing.

In our homes, my brother and I each have two photographs of our father. The first is a picture of him in the Navy during World War II. Wearing his blue "service uniform," he is standing on the mast of his ship, the USS Topeka. When he was not hanging precariously off his ship, he was a chef in the boat's kitchen.

In the second photo, he is at work as a shopkeeper at Delson's, the small Harlem grocery store he owned, which was named for my father's wife (Del) and his children. Wearing a long white (and unusually clean) apron, he is smiling at the camera. Though the photo likely was taken late in the day, my father does not look tired despite the fact that he probably had left the house before five that morning to go to the Hunts Point Produce Market in The Bronx before opening the store. His arms are large from lifting heavy boxes of fruit and vegetables day after day. The smile, I think, is a smile of satisfaction. "The store," as we always called it, gave my father all he ever wanted. It enabled him to leave the Lower East Side tenement of his upbringing, to do work he enjoyed, and to support his family.

I guess that is what a Jewish man looks like.

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