By Christa Rodriguez || Contributing Writer
This past Thursday’s Common Hour featured Kerry Wallach, assistant professor of German at Gettysburg College, who gave a talk on why minority visibility matters, specifically with regard to the Jewish community.
Kerry Wallach teaches German and Jewish studies at Gettysburg College. She received her PhD in Germanic Language and Literature in 2011 from the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on early 20th century German and Jewish literature and history, gender and sexuality, media and film studies, and individual and consumer culture. Her recent publications have been concerned with Weimar film, journalism, and Jews in popular culture. She was awarded the Women in German Dissertation Prize in 2012 for her dissertation.
Wallach began her lecture with a few thought-provoking questions for the audience. These included: “What does a Jew look like? When is it possible to spot a Jew? And to conclude that someone is Jewish based only on that person’s appearance?” Wallach meditated on these questions and more throughout her presentation.
Wallach presented the TV show “Seinfeld” as an example of perceived Jewishness. Wallach says that the setting, names, use of language, and food preferences of the characters are stereotypically Jewish. Wallach pointed out that we make educated guesses or assumptions based on clues, but the question remains, can we conclude that these characters are Jewish?
In the Middle Ages, Jews were forced to wear materials to signify that they were Jewish as part of Western European legal codes.
With the exception of the events of the Holocaust, Jewish people became harder to recognize after the enlightenment. Wallach quoted an article that proclaimed, “be a man in the streets and a Jew at home.” This indicated that being Jewish was thought to be a private thing and that in public they should present themselves like everyone else to avoid persecution or discrimination.
Wallach says that many Jews consciously decided to become less recognizable because of rising anti-semitism. However, any Jews who hid themselves were perceived by others as dangerous imitators of non-Jews. Jewish women were stereotyped to be always overdressed and jewelry-obsessed, which is how anti-Semites claimed to identify them. The more modern Jewish women become, the less identifiable they are as looking different. Wallach says that Jewish men are more recognizable because of material signifiers or, less obviously, by their circumcision. In this way, Jews are gendered male, and Jewish women are less visible.
Wallach also relayed the risks of appearing Jewish in public in the 1920s. This meant displaying Jewish-ness on the body or performing Jewish activities such as reading a Jewish newspaper. The fear of anti-semitic attacks conflicted with a new pride of identity. Therefore, people chose to mark their Jewish-ness with caution, only displaying signs that other Jews would recognize. This allowed them to feel safe being Jewish at home and in public. Women in the 1920s controlled their image through things like dying their hair blonde and using plastic surgery for nose corrections.
Wallach recounted the Zionist response to April 1933, when there was a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses in Germany. This occurred during the rise of the Nazi party, when wearing the star of David was enforced. A 1933 article encouraged Jewish people to “wear it with pride, the yellow badge!” This shows a counter-movement of pride in Judiasm even in the face of persecution.
Currently, anti-semitic attacks have reached new heights in Europe. This is also evident in the new products made to protect Jews from being detected
“The history of the Jewish quest to be seen and at times to be invisible or less conspicuous is one that intersects and parallels similar pursuits by other minority groups,” Wallach said.
Wallach cited a few examples to illustrate her point; African Americans with lighter skin can pass as white, and people that identify as queer may not be perceived to be so by their appearance, which lessens the discrimination they face on a daily basis.
“Sometimes revealing one’s identity can result in feelings of shame, being ostracized, by one’s family or society, perhaps a prison sentence or even death or suicide,” Wallach said. “Hiding one’s identity is often accompanied by a counter impulse to proudly become visible through self-identification.”
Wallach feels that people need to act as educated observers and go beyond what is visible to see other differences, and ended her talk by advocating for inclusion and acceptance.
“We must learn not only to read the many codes associated with self-identification and minorities, but also to be constantly receptive to their presence whatever forms it might take,” Wallach said.