Almost every time I see myself represented in American movies, television shows or advertisements, I have a beard and a kippah. Often, I'm wearing a black hat, side curls, and almost always, a white button-down shirt and black jacket. I am almost never a woman. I am, according to American media, what a rabbi looks like.
Except, of course, that that's no longer what most of America's Jewish leadership looks like. We look like you, dear reader. We're young women, old women, clean-shaven, young men, LGBTQ, and sometimes, we're even blonde, or red-headed, or of Middle Eastern, Asian or African descent. Some of us are even attractive. Personally, I'm 5'0", blue-eyed, with long brown hair, and I rarely wear a kippah unless I'm officiating at lifecycle events or prayer. I couldn't grow a beard if I wanted to (I'm not complaining).
So then why does Hollywood think I look like something out of Fiddler on the Roof? Why does Hollywood (and the New York Times, and Comedy Central, and even American Apparel) insist on portraying me and my colleagues as bearded ultra-orthodox rabbis or nebbishy older men? Why does Hollywood need us to look so distinctively "Jewish," so "other," so male and "different"?
I'd point to Daniel Boyarin's thesis in Unheroic Conduct, that the ideal image of Jewish masculinity was constructed in the yeshivot of Europe and idealized a bookish, pale, bearded, feminine male, and hasn't evolved much since. But that's Jewish self-construction, just as early Zionism's creation of the macho strapping new Jew/Israeli valorized traditional ideals of masculinity. That was also Jewish self-construction. Is this too? I honestly don't know. How many casting agents and writers in Hollywood or on Madison Avenue are Jewish? And if they are, why are they so set on portraying Jewish leadership so narrowly? Why do the entertainment and advertising industries need us to look like hasids or caricatures of Jewishness? Why is the image of a female rabbi, or a clean-shaven, young, attractive male rabbi with all his hair so rare? Why do they insist on "other-ing" us?
The problem is this: These images make our jobs harder. Especially for female rabbis. When we stand on the bima to deliver a sermon, or officiate at a wedding or funeral, or comfort a family by a deathbed, or meet with students on university campuses, and the first reaction is that we don't "look" like rabbis, or that we're too young, or too feminine, our holy vocation is denigrated and belittled, and we're judged less fit for the job before we've even opened our mouths. That's because the Jews we serve don't recognize us. I don't either. It's time for that to change.