My white Jewish privilege was reading myself into all atypical characters

I’ve written before about how complicated it is to be Ashkenazi in the US, both othered to the extreme by virtue of being non-Christian and having features that are definitely NOT considered the American ideal (curly dark hair and big noses being the obvious ones), while also very much passing as white. Growing up in New York, it was easy to ignore or at least shrug off a lot of the American standards that felt othering, because, frankly, most New Yorkers don’t really think of themselves as “typically American” anyway. But despite New York’s tremendous cultural influence and the massive bubble New Yorkers are often able to build around themselves, as Americans we still consume plenty of culture and media that is based in the social and cultural standards of the rest of the country. In fact, having lived in Minnesota and California, I’ve come to realize how much of what I think of as typical American culture is really an invention of California in the 1950s and ’60s, probably due to the fact that the film industry is based here. So, as a kid who was always aware of feeling not quite white and not quite American, I was always drawn to movie and TV characters who were signaled as strange, different, or exotic. And, I realized very recently, the mental gymnastics I performed to help myself identify with them was that I decided that they were all Jewish.

This thought really crystalized as I was watching this most excellent recent video from the YouTube channel BeKindRewind. At one point, the video discusses how two different adaptations of the Addams Family approach Christmas (which, as a colleague reminded me when I attended a Catholic university, is an American holiday). While the 1960s sitcom had the Addamses play out a pretty standard Christmas plot of convincing the children that Santa is real, the original comic and the ’90s movies on which I was raised showed the family pouring a boiling cauldron on carolers. BeKindRewind’s interpretation of this, which I think is probably correct, is that the Addams family is showing its distaste for the saccarine schlock of caroling and its insincere wishes. But as a kid, I thought this gleeful disdain was based in the fact that the family was Jewish. I mean, they hang out in their family graveyard. They wear all black. They perform a family dance called “the mamushka”. Tell me I’m not crazy to interpret them this way. (There’s an argument to be made that the kind of creepiness the Addams Family taps into is the same one behind the original Dracula novel, which some people have also argued is meant to represent a Jew, although it could also be just straight-up Orientalism.)

For me, the Addamses, especially Wednesday, in their refutation of classic Americana, were everything that felt right to me. They were funny and joyful without performing. They celebrated being dark and angsty. They had close and genuine relationships within their very insular family. It also didn’t hurt that my mom looked like Morticia, with her signature long dark hair. And my dad clearly loved these movies for their humor and transgressions, which is why we had VHS tapes of both of them in our regular rotation.

But it wasn’t just the obviously weird outsider Addams Family that I read this way. I always identified with the strong-willed female characters who were visually established as not properly white. And it’s not that much of a jump to see them as Jewish. Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Jasmine in Aladdin, Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Why is Belle singled out in the town as weird? Because she reads and, so the visuals of the movie imply, she’s the only pretty girl with brown hair. If you were raised in an Ashkenazi household, chances are you had the value of education beaten into you, while also being told you were attractive enough despite your “darker” features.

Jasmine, well, she’s… let’s just say Oriental and put the subtext out there, shall we? But she’s also a self-possessed young woman trapped by a structurally sexist society. And my experience of Judaism has very much been that. The Jewish tradition I was raised in is explicitly patriarchal. It also helped that around the time I first watched Aladdin was also when I was learning about my familial connection to Israel. The movie and my experience of the country played off each other in my mind: the market scene where Jasmine first goes out of the palace in disguise, the Jerusalem shouk, and NYC summer street fairs all swirled together into an open air market dreamscape.

Esmeralda is a gypsy (I’m not saying Romani or Roma here because she’s written in the book and the movie as the gypsy stereotype, not the actual Roma ethnic group). That one is a pretty obvious connection. There’s an international club of minority ethno-religious groups that have been systematically abused and shunned by Europeans (and some countries in western Asia), and that includes Jews, the Roma, the Kurds, the Druze… It’s the same association that made me love the Kurdish militia when I first started to learn about them back in high school.

These associations are pretty well-grounded, even if they’re not 100% accurate.

Are you ready for what I realize is probably my strangest interpretation?

Star Wars.

To this day, you can’t tell me that I’m wrong. The Skywalkers are Jewish.

This one is harder to explain. It’s not so much that Luke and Leia tap into actual stereotypes or associations with Ashkenazi Jewishiness, but that I identified with these characters so strongly that I had to make them Jewish in my mind so that sympathy was acceptable. I’m very literal. Someone has to actually be me for me to identify with them. I didn’t just love Princess Leia, I was going to grow up to BE Princess Leia. I mean, sure, I could find explanations that make this fit a little better – the destruction of Alderaan (which as a word kind of looks like Canaan) and Leia’s resulting homelessness, Luke’s feeling that he didn’t belong; those ring true for me as part of my identity as the grandchild of refugees, as well as my own ambivalent relationship with the state of Israel. But I don’t think that’s why I saw them as Jewish. Maybe part of it was just that Leia has brown hair, and I really appreciated seeing that (seriously, hair is a big thing).

There’s a part of this strange habit of mine that I think is more important than just a thing I do. I am able to do make these associations because all of these characters are still essentially white. Maybe not Jasmine, unless you’re the US government. But the same degree of whiteness that allows me and other Ashkenazi Jews to pass most days in America unmolested (despite the very real and present threat of antisemitism) is also what makes all of these characters acceptable as protagonists or supporting characters in major works of American media. If you’ve never seen someone who looks like you represented in film, it’s hard to understand why that representation is so important. But the reality is that it is difficult to really identify with and care about characters that you don’t feel that fundamental connection of identity to. The degree to which that identity is literal is pretty variable. But I think race and ethnicity have a lot to do with it. If you are white – by which I really mean of primarily northern European descent and Christian – you have a bit more freedom to see yourself in a range of characters based on their upbringing or their personality traits. But if that identity doesn’t read onto your own in a meaningful way, that difference can be a barrier to feeling a connection to what you see on screen. In my case, I would describe it as a fundamental mistrust. Similar to what I wrote previously about the baked in sense that people who aren’t Jewish won’t stick their necks out for you, I find that I am not fully convinced that a character understands the issues they are purported to be grappling with (otherness, patriarchy, discrimination based on their (relatively) darker features) unless I have reason to believe that they have really been othered in a meaningful way. And so I invent this Jewish identity for them to convince myself that what they have to say about their struggle is actually a valid comparison to my own struggles. It’s a thoroughly self-centered way to consume media. And so recognizing that I do this has also made me aware of what it must mean to people who experience much more direct and systemic discrimination not to have those connections to a character. My white privilege as an Ashkenazi Jew is in being able to invent connections to people who were not intended to be me, but are similar to me in ways I find compelling. But those connections are simply harder or not available if you can’t suspend your disbelief to interpret the Addamses or the Skywalkers as a marginalized group that is distinctly non-white.

I’m finding some optimism in the greater racial diversity of media at the moment, but this habit of mine is cluing me in to just how superficial that representation is. So, after reading all this, I want you to ask yourself “how much does this character’s racial image actually impact their experience in the narrative?” If the answer is not very much, then representation isn’t really doing enough, is it?