Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Understanding Judaism: The Jewish Look

When I lived in America I once hung around a group of people who seemed to always get into the classic "Jewish Look" conversation. That is to say they were always talking about who looked Jewish. Many of the times this conversation came up it was amongst people who weren't Jewish, or Jews who were either from a Reform or Conservative Jewish background. In Israel you don't hear this conversation, since we have Jews from all over the world here, and it is pretty much recognized that if you either have Jewish ancestry or you converted you are Jewish simple and plain.

On one hand there are some, not many, characteristics that can be found amongst certain Jewish ethnic groups. Yet, none of these physical characteristics are Jewish in and of themselves. That is just like saying that certain names are specifically Jewish like Goldstien, Yankel, etc. When the truth of the matter is that Biblical and Talmudic names are the first level of Jewish names, and then local regional names are also names that were taken on by Jews. Some names were also indicators of a person's trade more than their religion. For example, in Yemen there was a Yemenite Jewish family named Najjar. From what I understand they used to train horses thus this is where their name came from. Also, in the Middle East some very common Jewish names were Sualiman, Sa'adya, Musha, Yihhyah, even a number of Jews were named Muhammad. So there are many elements of Jewish history that are often unknown in the West even to Western Jews.

Back To The Topic

So getting back to the Jewish look. I have heard all kind of weird arguments in this range. I have heard people claim that all the ancient Israelites and Jews were black. I have heard that all of the ancient Israelites and Jews were olive colored, etc. etc. The dumb part of these are arguments is that the Hebrew Bible never concerns itself with the exact look or the skin color of an Israelite. It is more concerned with how the Israelites were supposed to live, i.e. their relationship with Hashem (i.e. G-d) and their fellow man. People can argue all day about what English translations of the Bible says, but English is not a valid medium to discuss such things since English is not the language of the Bible: Hebrew and Aramaic are.

There are very few indicators on how all ancient Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews actually looked. There are accounts of how INDIVIDUALS and particular groups looked, but there is no overall image of how ALL of the people looked. We do know that ancient Israelites converted and then married peoples from the Middle East/Asia, East and North Africa, and Southern Europe. So the below images give us an idea of what various Israelite tribes were mixed with early on.


Emissaries from various cultures, as the Egyptians saw them. From left to right Ludim (North African), Kushim (East African), Semitic (Middle East), Yavanim (Southern European), and Mizrahim (Maybe Asian). The ancient Israelites converted and married people from these different ethnic groups so they would have been a mix of these also.


Ancient Egyptian bas relief from the period of the Hebrew enslavement (at the Necropolis bani Ghassan near Karnak). We identify these as Hebrew slaves practicing the origins of the Israelite fight style Qesheth/Abir. They can be identified by (1) their Semitic skin coloring (2) their beards (Egyptians could not grow natural beards), (3) their poor dress (4) their wearing the ‘ephod-bad’ a traditional dress maintained by Hebrew warriors down to the 20th century in Hadramaut. (5) The center warriors appear to be performing the ‘dum-tak’, an ancient war dance we practice in Qesheth/Abir to this day. (Provided by the Torath Moshe site)

We have no idea how every Israelite looked because ancient Israelites didn't spend any time drawing pictures of themselves. Yet, we can get an idea of what SOME of the ancient Israelites looked like by viewing wall carvings and paintings from nearby kingdoms and ethnic groups.

Ancient Egyptian bas relief from the period of the Hykos period. Believed to have been Ivrim (Hebrews) from the region of the Canaanites. They entered Egypt to trade and they are distinguished by the types of beards, garments, and weapons as being from the region where Israel existed.


Ancient Egyptian bas relief just a few of the types of women that were known to live in Egypt.

Assyrian relief of Jewish prisoners they Assyrian army captured during their attack on Lachish, Israel circa 680 BCE. This relief can now be found here in Israel in the Jerusalem museum.

Yet, the bigger issue is that people who joined the Israelites became a part of the Israelite culture, not the other way around. Just as today in Judaism, when a person converts they are Jewish first and foremost and they blend into the Jewish fold. The use of the English terms Black, White, Olive, etc. are all WESTERN/American terms used in the American racial method of dividing up people. These are foreign to the Middle East in that context, because here things generally go by ethnic group.

So in order to disprove this whole Jewish look is this or that, I made the following video. Everyone in the video has Jewish ancestry.


The Jewish Look

Though about 1 in every 600 people in the world is Jewish, due to the travels of our ancestors we have looks that we absorbed from a numbers of cultures and nations. So in a nutshell, a supposed Jewish look means nothing because anyone who has Jewish ancestry or converts to Judaism looks Jewish.

6 comments:

Miriam said...

Hi Ehav,

Why is it so hard for people to accept that a people can have various shades?

Some have an agenda, I think.

Ehav Ever said...

Hey Miriam,

I think it is mainly because most people just don't know. Outside of Israel, there is not as much Jewish diversity that is visible in books, the media, etc. Most Jews outside of Israel view non-Ashkenazi Jews as being exotic simply because there is more visibility of Ashkenazi Jews.

One of the reasons I started my blog was because there were very few Sephardic blogs that I could find that were visibly Sephardic.

Miriam said...

BTW -Misha is thinking about going to an Abir session. Do you still go?

Ehav Ever said...

Hey Miriam,

Yes, I have been training in Abir for a year now. We are only in Tel Aviv now. We meet at the Athletic Center there. Abir is now recognized officially by the Wingate Institute. There are about 17 guys who are training there to become Abir instructors.

If he wants more information on Abir Rabbi Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron wrote a good article. You can read it here.

KeyLawk said...

Fascinating images; thanks for your effort. More questions:

1. Descendants of...Abraham came from Ur at a time when there were no Semitic people in that region. Wrestling with the fact that Abraham was not Semitic. Sumerians are linguistically and genetically/DNA distinct.

2. Jews/Arabs/Phoenecians/Syriacs. For a millenium, the Arabian Peninsula was mapped as the House of Judah. Archeologically, when did the first distinction between Arabs and Jews actually appear?

3. Examining the Jews depicted in the Egyptian art. I notice an exhibition of wrestler-fighters in their fighting gear/head-dress, and traders, and elegant women. Do you see Slaves?

4. "Tribes". What were the differences between the tribes of Israel. Archeologically have we found the symbols or costumes that distinguish tribes in the region? It seems likely that one of the efforts of the leadership was to unite wandering shepherd people who may not have even spoken the same tongue.

Again, thank you.

Ehav Ever said...

Greetings Keylawk,

To answer your questions.

1) If one looks at the Tanakh (Torah, Prophets, and Writings) one never finds the term "Semitic peoples." Avraham is never claimed, in the Torah, to be a Semite. Being Benei Shem more than likely didn't mean then what it is taken to mean now. I.e. people from a particular location vs. a particular lineage. Concerning the title Ivri (עברי), which Avraham is called in the Torah, the word does have an existing similarity to the term Habiru. We know, based on the Amarna letters, that Habiru was the name given by various Sumerian, Egyptian, Akkadian, Hittite, Mitanni, and Ugaritic sources (dated, roughly, between 1800 BC and 1100 BC) to a group of people living as nomadic invaders in areas of the Fertile Crescent from Northeastern Mesopotamia and Iran to the borders of Egypt in Canaan. Various Midrashim give different ways that the term Ivri or Ivreem can be understand in terms of its meaning.

2)The distinction of Arab is an identity that has a lot of problems to pin down. One reason exists that there is connection that is often made to anything Islamic being Arab. I once saw a program where a North African Amazigh Muslim was arguing that the Maghreb is not Arab while several other Muslims argued that the Maghreb is very much Arab. A clear distinction between peoples from the Arabian peninsula and Jews has been noted even as far back before Talmudic times.

3) I think that one can not take carvings as 100% one thing or another. Often drawings are at the prejudice of the artist. It is like how the body types of various carvings often fit within one almost fit and athletic look without much distinction between skinny and large people. Also, the difference between a servant of temporary service and slave is a distinction that is hard to make without written info explaining it. Also, some bodyguards could be labeled as servants while others could be higher class enslaved men.

4) More than likely archeology won't find much in the way of symbols except from the very early period, like they find in Negev. The Tanakh seems to indicate that by the time of Shaul HaMelkh that some of the tribal distinctions was fading away. Less is mentioned of any symbolism at this juncture. The Sefer Shoftim does indicate that there was a huge lack of unity, as it twice mentions how each group "tribe" did its own thing. Further, commentaries state that Shmuel the prophet compiled the Sefer Shoftim to convince them that the monarchy was the better option. Various archeological finds from the time period that there was a common language in this region and that education was more wide spread than some scholars had thought.