There’s a line from Philip Roth’s novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, about the allure of Chinese restaurants to mid-century American Jews: “Here, we’re the WASPs!” The idea being, in more 21st-century terms, that whiteness is contextual. For an American Ashkenazi Jew in the 1950s, accustomed to being viewed as exotic or whatever in white Protestant society, a visit to a Chinese restaurant was a chance to be looked upon (or to imagine being looked upon) as merely white.
This line kept popping into my head while watching the first four episodes of Chanshi, Aleeza Chanowitz’s incredible new comedy series. In it, a young, red-headed, Ashkenazi woman goes to Israel to escape a stifling-to-her Orthodox Brooklyn upbringing, and, not incidentally, to pick up Mizrahi Israeli men.
I am still kicking myself that I forgot to bring up the 1973 Israeli movie Kazablan in the Bonjour Chai podcast conversation with Chanowitz. Are they the exact same thing? No, but both are set in Israel, with an Ashkenazi woman—Mizrahi man plot. The difference with Chanshi is that she’s not just Ashkenazi but American, and therefore arrives in Israel with a whole host of options that native-born Israelis wouldn’t necessarily have.
What I kept wondering, because I’m an over-educated millennial, was whether whiteness is central, or perhaps altogether irrelevant, to love stories involving unambiguously Jewish people of Eastern European and North African or Middle Eastern descent. Inter-ethnic, sure, but does race enter into it?
The equation of Ashkenazi Jews with whiteness is convenient when trying to stuff Jewish identity questions into a broader North American framework, but does not entirely add up. Plenty of non-white Jews have one Ashkenazi parent, and are therefore Ashkenazi as well as BIPOC.
And if you’re just going by what people look like, who can say? I’ve had Moroccan Jewish friends with light hair and complexions, and have 110 percent Ashkenazi relatives with the colouring that elicits, But where are you really from? If you have an instant sense of who’s who, this is probably more about picking up on cues from dress style or accents or whatever.
Then there’s the history itself, which has not been consistent in this regard. Divisions within the Jewish community about who’s the nobility and who are the plebs have included their fair bit of racism or xenophobia, but rarely mapped onto 21st century U.S. definitions of whiteness. In Revolution-era France, the posh and/or acculturated Jews, the ‘good’ ones per French powers-that-be at the time, were Sephardi, while the poorer Alsatian-Jewish masses were looked down upon. The (racist) thing where Ashkenazi Jews sometimes self-identify as the ‘civilized’ a.k.a. white Jews is extremely recent as these things go.
More recently, Western European Jews have looked down on Eastern European Jews, this despite these two groups of people being equivalently white. White, and yet, murdered en masse for being insufficiently white. Confusing, isn’t it.
And then there’s the famous Ashkenormativity, a term I heard for the first time about five minutes ago. Is Ashkenormativity merely North American racial politics transposed onto Jewish communities? Or is it at least as much about competing notions of Jewish authenticity, wherein a self-deprecating Ashkenazi Jew (a certain red-headed, now grey-haired, man with glasses comes to mind) is incorrectly assumed to be what all Jews are like. This can be helpful if your goal is fitting in within the Jewish community, but it is not quite the same thing as white privilege.
But back to the trope (can two instances be a trope?) of Ashkenazi woman—Mizrahi man romance. What if it’s much simpler, and is about the notion that a man should be tall, dark, and handsome, with Mizrahi as shorthand? Or, in the case of Chanshi, simpler still, and about young North American Jews finding their Israeli equivalents more tanned and fit equivalents of themselves, and therefore, alas, hot.
- Listen to Bonjour Chai with Avi Finegold and Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Behind the scenes of ‘Chanshi’, Israel’s steamy new hit TV show
The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz