Cant judge a book by its cover &mdash or a Jew by her hips

“How do you know she’s Jewish?” I ask my friend (we’ll call her “Olga”), who happens to be a blond-haired, Ukrainian-born accountant and ex-ballet teacher.

“You know,” Olga answers, matter-of-factly, “she just looks Jewish.”

“But what do you mean, ‘she looks Jewish?'” I continue.

“Well, you know, her eyes and lips, her hair and … ” She stops and, smiling playfully, reaches her hand over to tap at the side of my jeans “… and her hips.”

The conversation around our table in a San Francisco restaurant comes to a screeching, uncomfortable stop.

The four other girls I’ve gathered with for lunch stare at Olga and me in silence, waiting to see how I’ll react to this newest of brazen, ignorant remarks.

The last time we’d all gotten together like this, it was just a few days after Passover and one of the girls asked me to explain what the Jewish holiday was all about.

Before I had a chance to answer, Olga offered her own version of the Exodus story. “It’s when the Jews celebrate the killing of all the firstborn Egyptians,” she said, laughing.

Upon seeing our horrified faces, Olga proceeded to explain that she was not anti-Semitic and that she loved Jews. In fact, she declared, her husband’s Jewish.

Whereas before I easily explained the real Exodus story, this time I found myself caught slightly off guard.

I looked down at my lunch — a half-eaten vegetarian crepe — attempting to digest her remarks, and wondered what my hips could possibly have to do with my religion.

What does it mean to “look” Jewish?

It’s a sensitive, loaded subject, partially and indirectly to blame for many years of reprehensible treatment of Jews in various parts of the world. It’s also the butt of countless jokes (good and bad), told by non-Jews and Jews alike.

We’ve all heard of the stereotypical Jewish nose and dark features, but is there really any substance to the mainly destructive fluff that stereotypes are made of?

It’s true: I have dark hair and dark eyes, and I’m sure (due to prior, traumatic experiences as a 6-year-old subjected to cruel and unusual haircuts) that if you chop my undomesticated curly hair short I’d have quite an admirable “Jew-fro.”

But take one little dip into multicultural Israel and you’ll find that Judaism is anything but a racial or ethnic identity; it’s a religion.

My two best friends in Israel, Roni and Shulamit, are as diametrically opposed, appearance-wise, as two people can be.

Roni’s tall with straight, red hair, light skin and freckles. Shulamit’s dark-skinned and short with black, curly hair.

The point is that although there may be Jews with dark features, impressive noses or curves (although I never heard of hips being a stereotypically Jewish attribute, or thought of mine as particularly noticeable), these physical characteristics don’t define Judaism, and shouldn’t be mistaken as the tell-all harbinger that someone is, in fact, Jewish.

But why should I care if Olga thinks Jewish people are “hippy” and dark-eyed? It’s not that I’m trying to be overly politically correct or paranoid about anti-Semitism (like “Seinfeld’s” Uncle Leo, who blames everything — including bad traffic — on anti-Semitism).

It’s just that I worry when I hear otherwise nice, normal people like Olga declaring so nonchalantly what Jewish people are supposed to look like. These statements — seemingly innocuous and funny but ultimately used to set apart and differentiate — are exactly the sort of words that pave the way for an “us and them” mentality and become an underlying precedent for xenophobia and, eventually, anti-Semitism.

Back at the restaurant, I glance at Sonia, a blond, blue-eyed European Jew.

“Does Sonia ‘look’ Jewish to you?” I ask Olga.

“Well, no, but, yes, I guess,” she says, embarrassed.

I look at Olga with a miniscule air of triumph, then poke my fork in for another bite of lunch.

If my hips are what make me Jewish, then I better keep eating these vegetarian crepes.

Michal Lev-Ram, born in Israel, is a journalism major at SFSU who can be reached at [email protected].