I’d never felt more ashamed of my big, Jewish nose.
I was 16, sitting beside my mom at a plastic surgeon’s office in Ottawa and trying to remain calm as the doctor touched my face with plastic gloves. He pointed out all the ways he could make my nose more beautiful: shave down the bridge, cut an incision in my nostrils, lift the tip to make it look more “feminine.”
The surgeon’s various medical degrees were hanging on the wall, obviously meant to make me feel like I could trust him. But I didn’t feel soothed. I felt embarrassed, self-conscious… and angry. In fact, I was furious. I had been sensitive about my nose for as long as I can remember, not only because it jutted out of my face, but because I worried its size and shape told the world something I wasn’t always ready to share: my religion.
My family has always been very private about Judaism. Okay, sometimes I felt they were too discreet, but I was still uncomfortable with what amounted to a neon sign announcing my Jewishness sitting right there on my face. Now, here was someone else telling me all of the reasons my nose was ugly — and Jewish. He didn’t actually say that, of course, but he did keep pointing out all of its stereotypically Jewish characteristics.
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It was confirmation that my insecurities weren’t just in my head. I really was wearing my religion on my face.
My nose felt like a marker of my Jewish heritage
In many ways, I take after my grandmother. When she was alive, my grandmother had a fair complexion, green eyes and beautiful platinum blonde hair that she wore in a chignon. You would never guess she was Jewish by appearance alone, especially since she covered up her naturally dark brown hair with platinum blonde dye. I also have a fair complexion, green eyes and blonde locks — but unlike my grandmother, I do have an obvious sign of my Jewishness: my nose.
Still, that didn’t seem like enough to cause the bullying I experienced throughout my childhood. After all, I don’t actually look very Jewish, or have a Jewish last name. But still, in middle school, a group of boys told me to hop in the oven in our home economics classroom. And in high school, a guy told me to pick up a penny that he dropped at my feet.
I think that’s why, whenever I wanted to tell people I was Jewish, my mom would always say, “Don’t tell anyone. It’s none of their business.” She was trying to protect me; she was scared that telling people meant subjecting myself to the possibility of more anti-Semitism, so it was better not to say anything at all. She never directly experienced this type of prejudice, but I don’t think she had to; intergenerational shame over being Jewish is definitely a thing. For some Jews, there’s a sense of safety in keeping your beliefs to yourself, something that people from many religious minorities can likely understand. I think my mom kept her religion private to protect herself and me.
My family tried to protect me from anti-Semitism, but it made me feel distant from my religion
That’s how I ended up in the plastic surgeon’s office in the first place. My grandmother had been pressuring me to get my nose done for years — for “aesthetic purposes,” she said — but I couldn’t help but feel that the real reason was the anti-Semitic bullying I’d experienced my whole life. I resisted for a long time, but by my 16th birthday, I had started to come around. I thought that if I went through with the rhinoplasty, I would somehow erase the one part of me that made me look Jewish, which might save me from future anti-Semitic comments.
But in the plastic surgeon’s office, I realized I didn’t want to get a nose job.
I felt torn because on the one hand, I was self-conscious about my nose. But I also proudly told people about my religion, despite my mom’s warnings. Of course, when I opened up about my religion, I wasn’t allowed to be “just a little Jewish.” People understood my religion as going to synagogue every Saturday, having an over-the-top bat mitzvah and living my life by the Torah. I never did any of those things because I didn’t identify with traditional, sacred Judaism.
It was only when I was sitting in that chair that I finally realized the real problem: it wasn’t about my nose, it was about my relationship with Judaism, and the fact that it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I was letting the shame that I felt from my family and the bullying dictate the way I felt about Judaism. I didn’t actually want to lose the only physical marker of my religion — I wanted to find a way to be Jewish in a way that felt authentic to me.
Now, I’m learning to love being Jewish
Deciding to embrace my nose — and Judaism — was freeing.
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I made it my mission to connect more with my religion, beyond just putting out a menorah at Hanukkah and dipping some apples in honey during Rosh Hashanah. And I really ramped up my efforts when my grandmother passed away two years ago. She may have celebrated her religion privately, but she did celebrate. She encouraged us to go to synagogue on the Jewish holidays, but more importantly she wanted us to embrace our Jewishness at the dining room table, with homemade matzah ball soup, brisket and kugel (noodle pudding).
Even though I decided I’d stop feeling ashamed of my religion in that plastic surgeon’s chair, my journey to self-acceptance has taken years — and her death was another pivotal moment. Now that she’s gone, following the religious traditions she taught me brings me comfort and makes me feel closer to her. It’s a big part of why I’m trying to bring religion back into my life.
I recently went to synagogue with my aunt for Kol Nidre (the service on the eve of Yom Kippour, which is the most religious holiday in the Jewish religion), run by the Oraynu Congregation in Toronto. The religious organization celebrates humanistic Judaism, which takes a modern, secular approach to Judaism and focuses on how we as humans can be a part of social change. That night, I connected with my religion in a way I never had before. I’ve struggled to believe in a higher power, but I could get behind a philosophy of Judaism that celebrates the strength in all of us.
I’m also learning to love my nose, even though it’s not actually the one I was born with. I ended up getting that stereotypically Jewish bump as a kid — I ran into a screen door and, not long after, crashed into a tree while sledding. (I was — and still am — a very clumsy person.)
It makes you wonder: what exactly is a Jewish nose, anyway?