Thursday, January 3, 2013

Looking Jewish: Sally J Freedman and Me

I'm on the left. Sally's on the right. I know it's hard, but don't get us confused.
Last year, when I bought this little, vintage, vanity table, thoughts of Judy Blume’s Sally J. Freedman returned to me from my distant past, and I propped her picture against the mirror for several months. When Beau took these pictures, my resemblance to her at her vanity again struck me and I just had to turn it into a post.

As a child, with two tight, copper braids, a cute, freckled face, and a petite frame, I was constantly compared to three characters in children’s literature: Pippi Longstocking, Laura Ingalls (of Little House on the Prairie), and Anne of Green Gables. I could see the resemblance, of course, but it wasn’t until I saw the cover of Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself that I found my true literary double.

Sally and I had a similar hairstyle in mind. Both she and I had that unruly curl problem at the back.
I still didn’t get it though. My entire paternal line, what there is of it, is Jewish, of Eastern European background, and, but for a slightly larger frame, and lighter skin, I look exactly like them. But I didn’t really know that. I certainly didn’t know that I looked Jewish. 

You see, I was raised by my maternal, WASPy, Quaker side of the family, all tall, thin, almost hawkish, blue-eyed, and, as children, blond. Think Abraham Lincoln (though, in fact, our line apparently traces back to Washington). 

I looked nothing like them. My hair was dark and curly from birth. I was small. My eyes were brown and wide set, my lips were full. I was petite. My difference in appearance was cause for frequent (often favourable) comment but I was never told anything about what this meant in terms of ethnicity. Indeed, I was taught nothing whatsoever about Judaism, culturally, ethnically, historically, or religiously.

Plain barrettes: Goody; Fancy barrette: vintage
My first conscious memory of being Jewish was when my mother and I moved to a small, redneck, Canadian town and she told me, “Don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish. They might not like you.” I’m Jewish? What’s that?

I was, of course, a voracious reader, and I devoured the work of Judy Blume among many others. I read Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret over and over again but I resonated with all the puberty stuff. That Margaret and I were both half Jewish and half Christian was totally lost on me. Even her struggle to choose between the two religions sailed over my head. 

I looked just like Sally J. Freedman, but I didn’t know why. She was a little American girl in 1947, coming to terms with her identity and with the impact of the Holocaust – and the only parallel I saw between us was our appearance.

Dress: vintage
Then, when I was about ten, I had two experiences that changed that, at least a little. First, a family friend married a Jewish man. When I met him, he kept staring at me and saying, over and over again, “My God, she looks Jewish!” He said it like it was a good thing and I felt proud. I wasn’t Laura Ingalls or Anne (with an ‘e’). I was Sally J. Freedman and, yes, I did finally understand why she looked like me.

I also saw a movie about the Holocaust on television. I thought all those Jewish people had beautiful, compassionate and mournful looking eyes. With a thrill, I realized that I had the same eyes, or would when I grew up. This thought pleased me.

And, slowly, I had another, more horrifying realization: If I’d been there, in Europe, at that time, the Nazis would have come for me too. Never mind that I’d never been to synagogue, had been raised Quaker, and knew absolutely nothing about Judaism. In the Nazis’ eyes, I would have been a Jew – and I would probably have died for it.
This was the beginning of my physical identity as a Jew, and the beginning of my desire to know more about Judaism. If I could reap the negative effects of being Jewish, I wanted to reap the positive ones too. 

Eventually, I did, and I still do.

Ain't nothin' wrong with being petite. It's cute and that's fine.

(I'm linking this up to The Thoughtful Dresser literary Thursday at My Closet Catalogue.)


  1. I can relate to your post here. I have felt like I have looked Jewish for years and over the years I have people ask me before if I am. Another thing I have always noticed was when I was a freshman in high school and 14, in all of my pictures I had a startling resemblance to Anne Frank. I was born in 1968 and I was adopted when I was one month old, I have very little info about my birth family, I know that my birth mothers grandmother was born in Holland and was considered black dutch (she was petite with dark hair swarthy skin and grey eyes). I too am petite, dark hair, light olive skin and green eyes with a very Jewish looking face and nose. I believe my birth family could very well be of Jewish decent and they just never let it be known in any of the paperwork (because of fear I guess) but once I realized that I kind of felt like hey I have an identity when before that it was always kind of unknown.

    1. What an interesting story! There are a lot of stories of hidden or buried Jewish heritage and each story is unique. Nowadays, if you wanted to, you could do a DNA test to find out for sure. Either way, you owe it to yourself to learn more about Jewish culture and, if you're interested, religion. You can take it or leave it, but at least you deserve to know just what you're taking or leaving.

  2. How funny that I mentioned Pippi then. :)

    Your face looks like some faces you can see in Russia, I did not think of it as Jewish, but I guess you're right. It's always fascinating to learn about your cultural/ethnical background, isn't it? It helps to understand ourselves better...

    1. Yup. I'm Russian Jewish on my father's side. Turns out I'm technically German Jewish on my mother's side but with a lot of non-Jewish papas in the line.

  3. Thank you for linking up with Thoughtful Third Thursday, Charlotte! Your pictures are great, and the story of your journey to discover your identity is enthralling.

  4. You are positively glowing in these pics! I'm familiar with Judy Blume as another era's YA icon but I think I moved to America a few years after her popularity? Besides, I was more a fantasy/sci-fi/mystery kinda gal. You make me want to read her books now, though, so thanks for linking up to Thoughtful Third Thursday and for sharing your memories. It is a pleasure and an honor! We hope to see you again next month!