From Tiny Lights for Travellers by Naomi K. Lewis. Published by University of Alberta Press in 2019. Tiny Lights for Travellers has won numerous awards, including the Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature and the Pinsky Givon Prize for Non-fiction.

The story I wrote about my nose job was first published in 2014, in the Calgary Herald’s weekly magazine insert, Swerve. My editors titled the story—unfortunately, we all came to realize—“A Bridge Too Far: The Story of My Big Jewish Nose.” The magazine’s cover featured a photo of me in profile, with dotted lines drawn on my face in black eyeliner, suggesting surgical incisions. The photograph hurt my pride a little; I wasn’t wearing any other makeup and looked haggard, my face still too thin post-divorce. But I was happy to see the story in print, and received a flood of responses. Women, especially Jewish women, told me that my story was just like theirs. One Jewish woman told me her parents hadn’t let her go through with the nose job she craved, and that she was grateful to them now, thanks to my article. Friends I hadn’t heard from since high school wrote too, telling me they hadn’t known about my surgery, or that they had known, and had found my decision baffling; now they understood. Other readers were simply surprised and interested in the history of the nose job, and of the Jewish nose job in particular. I’d never received so much feedback for an article; I’d certainly never received close to so much positive feedback for an article—usually people only wrote when I’d pissed them off—by disparaging detox diets, for instance, or by arguing that parents should be required to vaccinate their kids. But why (I thought) would anyone be pissed off about my nose job? At first, the most critical remark came from some guy who told me, pretty tamely, “Don’t blame your parents, girl.”

But just a few days later, a full-page op-ed appeared in the newspaper: “Fixation on Noses Plays into Worst of Stereotypes.” Written by the local Conservative synagogue’s rabbi, whom I’d never met.

“Against the genocidal backdrop of the twentieth century and recent outbreaks of racism and anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Rose wrote, the magazine “saw fit to re-introduce the much discredited and dangerous assertion that one can identify a person’s religious or cultural affiliation by their physical attributes.” He claimed that none of his congregants had big noses, though some were Holocaust survivors—survivors who had suffered untold atrocities rationalized by stereotypes. “In all of her self-deprecating and neurotic musings about her nose job,” the rabbi wrote, “Lewis fails to see beyond her own face in the mirror that her article only serves to perpetuate such harmful stereotypes, thereby doing an incredible disservice to the Jewish community and the decent and moral citizens of our city.”

There was more. I was ignorant and badly educated, which explained why I thought Judaism was a race. The rabbi explained: “What truly defines a Jew is that person’s commitment to the values, wisdom, and moral vision that emerge from the Torah … and the subsequent teachings of the rabbinic tradition.” And the final judgement: “Had Lewis seriously dealt with real issues concerning body image among teenage girls, sexist norms of beauty present in society, or minority assimilation into mainstream society, her inclusion of her own story might have been both relevant and instructive. Instead, we were subjected to an embarrassing and self-indulgent personal story.”

Rabbi Rose seemed to accuse of me saying the very opposite of what I thought I’d said. I thought I’d written an article about Jewish identity, about my own slippery hold on that identity, which was surely not unique. I thought I’d addressed the deep entanglement, for Jews, of race and religion, partly because of the identities thrust upon us from the outside. I’d meant to write about embodiment, about my Jewish body, my female body, and about the violence history had inflicted on that body—“real issues concerning body image among teenage girls, sexist norms of beauty present in society, or minority assimilation into mainstream society”—yes, exactly.

My editor told me that another reader, a congregant of Rabbi Rose’s, had sent a similar letter. This reader was particularly offended that I’d included the “air is free” joke (why do Jews have big noses?), saying I’d caused him pain by putting such hateful words in print, as though I’d provided the joke to Jew-hating readers, for them to use as a weapon. My editor informed me that Rabbi Rose had devoted a whole Shabbat sermon to me and my anti-Semitism. The thought of a Jewish congregation shaking their heads in grief over the bigotry in their own city—over me, a traitor who’d provided anti-Semites with fodder, flooded me with nausea. And the way the rabbi alluded to me in his letter, not as a writer, not as a serious person, but as some girl who’d more or less sent her diary to a magazine editor, who misguidedly published it. Rabbi Rose’s whole letter was addressed to the magazine, not to me at all.

I was invited to talk about the story, and about the rabbi’s letter, on a national radio program. The show’s producer was a Jewish woman, and said half her friends, growing up, had nose jobs when they turned sixteen. She suggested, off the record, that perhaps the rabbi hadn’t noticed the phenomenon, or didn’t think it important, because it only affected girls and women. I jumped at the chance to explain myself on the radio, and after the interview I received more emails of support. And though everyone knows not to read the comments online, I did; one afternoon, I couldn’t resist. Most of them were on my side, but I was dismayed to see that some were on my side in a racist kind of way. They said things like, “That rabbi’s so typical. Those people think everything is anti-Semitic—they’re obsessed.” The rabbi’s letter had provided fodder for anti-Semitism, just as he and his congregant had accused me of doing in my article. What a mess.

And of course I couldn’t help but ask myself: was the rabbi right? The rabbi called my story, and by extension me, neurotic and self-indulgent. Fine. I could live with that. I had come by my neuroses honestly, and, yes, indulged a fascination with the self as an object of inquiry and art. I didn’t think writing should avoid the personal or the embarrassing. I’d never questioned that the personal was political, and had often told my creative writing students that our most embarrassing memories, memories of losing our dignity, of accidentally transgressing unspoken edicts, often make for our most compelling and important material.

But worse, far worse, was I an anti-Semite? Was I? Growing up, I’d loved and admired Oma more than anyone. Oma, who once refused to attend a party at my cousin’s house when she learned there would be observant Jews in attendance. And Opa—he and his brother Sam did not want to be Jewish, but it went deeper than that. They didn’t like Jews. It wasn’t that they believed Jews possessed essential ugly traits, though, Oma and Opa clarified. They believed that Judaism was a religion, not a race at all, and they didn’t believe in organized religion, period. And they especially didn’t like it when a group segregated itself, forbidding outside marriage and declaring itself special, chosen, even. It was all backwards, Oma and Opa insisted: observant Jews were racist against everyone else, which was why no one liked them.

At least there was no question that Dad was Jewish. I would have liked to show my father and his mother to Rabbi Rose and say, see? How can I be an anti-Semite with a father and a Mimi like these? Plus, I’d tried so hard, I’d married a Jew, and I’d worked to become a real Jew, and when people made cruel remarks about Jews, I felt like they were insulting me. Once I was at a bar and a man came over and told me, “I love Jewish women.” And once I was at another bar, and a woman came over and said, “You think you’re so smart, don’t you? I know what you people are like.” Then she said, “Do you know Dan Bernstein? I was supposed to go to my prom with him. If you see him, could you tell him I’m sorry I stood him up? And that it wasn’t because he was a Jew?” No, none of this amounted to anything. People called Noam Chomsky an anti-Semite, and Sarah Silverman, too, and Hannah Arendt, and every Jew who’d ever criticized the State of Israel. Jews who allegedly didn’t like Jews were called self-hating Jews. Opa would have said he wasn’t a self-hating Jew; he didn’t hate himself; he wasn’t a Jew. But according to Rabbi Gerry, a Jew is a Jew forever, so if say you’re not a Jew, you’re just a bad Jew, the wicked son from the Passover Seder, the one who says they were enslaved in Egypt, instead of we. Because whatever has happened to the Jewish people has happened to each of us, personally.

What have a lot of flat-footed peasants wandering through the desert to do with me? Opa had said.

Months passed, but people I hadn’t seen in a while still looked a little too long at my nose, and sometimes a stranger, a member of Rabbi Rose’s congregation, recognized me in a coffee shop, but couldn’t say from where. I just played along, said, “No, I don’t go to that gym or that synagogue, do you spend a lot of time at the library, yoga studios, are you from Ottawa, well I don’t know then, but nice to meet you,” never clarified, “I’m that anti-Semite from the newspaper.” Then, during the Days of Awe, the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when Jews are meant to atone for all our (their?) sins of the previous year, I wrote to Rabbi Rose, expressing my regret that we’d never spoken to each other, only addressed each other through the media. My apology was a little disingenuous; I really wanted to elicit a reciprocal apology from him. Instead, he invited me to visit him in his office at the synagogue.

Rabbi Rose was an enormous man, over six-and-a-half feet, and heavy. If he were a tree, he would have been a redwood. If he were an animal, he would have been a bear. In contrast, I felt like a chipmunk scuttling past him, as he ushered me through his door. We sat across from each other in comfortable chairs, in a tidy, spacious office that contrasted markedly with Rabbi Gerry’s jam-packed space with its piles of books.

“I decided not to reread your article before you came,” he told me, gesturing toward the computer on his desk, indicating where he could have read the article if he’d been so inclined. “Because,” he said, “I didn’t want to get into a debate about details. I thought it would be better for us just to chat.”

Faced as I was with this imposing man, a rabbi, in his own office, I could only nod. Already, this wasn’t going as I’d pictured. How could I defend my work if it wasn’t fresh in his mind? How could I explain my position so rationally and intelligently, and with such grace, that he’d see his glaring error and apologize? I’d worn my most official-looking grown-up woman clothes to combat whatever it was about me that made strangers mistake me for a teenager. It hadn’t worked. Our whole dynamic was learned gentleman versus ingenue before I’d even settled into my chair. I wanted to stop him, to clarify that I was in my late thirties, that I’d published several books, that I was a respected professional in my field, which was writing. Instead, I answered his questions about my upbringing, then nodded gravely as he explained that my Opa, and my father in turn, had tried to erase their own Jewishness by marrying outside the community and raising non-Jewish children. He told me, in a sympathetic avuncular tone, that my parents had managed to keep me from Judaism culturally and religiously, but that my appearance had seemed to undermine that effort. Changing my nose had been the last step required to create a wholly assimilated child. Only, he went on, it didn’t work. By withholding contact with Judaism, my parents had only piqued my interest, drawing me back toward my roots and my history. Rabbi Rose said all this kindly, as though he wanted me to see that he understood my plight, and wanted to help me, a lost lamb who’d wandered into his sanctuary. I noted only silently that he’d contradicted his own letter, the part where he’d claimed Judaism wasn’t a race, that it was impossible to look Jewish.

Then, somehow, he was talking about my article after all, describing how hurt his congregants had felt when they saw the headline—“The Story of My Big Jewish Nose”—and the dismay I caused them by putting the dreaded joke in print. Why do Jews have big noses? Why would I do that? Why would I disseminate such hatred? As though the world didn’t have enough ammunition already.

The joke, I tried to explain, I’d cited as a cultural artifact. To illustrate the stigma, the racialized body—to illustrate—I mean—wasn’t it obvious?

“The problem,” Rabbi Rose said, “is that you’re not one of us. From the perspective of my congregants, you’re an outsider, criticizing us in public, when we’ve already been through so much as a people. Your mother’s not Jewish, so you’re not Jewish, but it’s not just that. You weren’t raised in a Jewish home and weren’t taught about Judaism, so you don’t understand what it’s like to be persecuted over your identity. My congregation knows what persecution feels like, and when they saw your article, they felt persecuted again, by you.

“I’ll think about what you’re saying,” I told him. “That certainly wasn’t my intention.” I did not want to continue the conversation by arguing, and I really was trying to understand. I understood that Rabbi Rose was making a decision for me, a decision about my identity that I did not agree was his to make.

“I suppose people have been telling you that it was brave to write that story,” he said, and sighed.

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Naomi K. Lewis is the author of Tiny Lights for Travellers, Cricket in a Fist and I Know Who You Remind Me Of. She is the recipient of the Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature and the Pinsky Givon Prize for Non-fiction. She lives in Calgary.



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