Remember when people "passed"? No, they didn't pass cars on the highway, exams or the salt. They passed for a different color or ethnicity, dreaming of passage into a more brightly-colored and moneyed world. Light-skinned blacks passed for white and, in my world, some Jews passed for gentile. Many of us cursed with the indignity of frizzy black hair and ample thighs didn't try to pass but believed that when we grew up we would mature into the blonde, straight-haired, slim-hipped screen stars that we obsessed over. To that end, some of us even Anglicized our profiles, i.e., nipped our noses in the bud to aid in the process.
It started with Dr. Jacques Joseph, a German Jew who is considered father of the modern rhinoplasty. He performed nose jobs in a world in which Jews sought Aryan-looking noses for survival. Way back in 1885, he operated from within the nose, so there were no scars. He had a lot of takers because Berlin was full of Jews who wanted to assimilate. He started his own hospital when Jews came from all over Europe to have nose jobs. Later on, after the Nazis took power, looking Aryan became even more crucial. Joseph disappeared when the Nazis took away his medical license.
Generations later when the Anglicized nose filtered down to my high school in Brooklyn, it was cruelly-called a "ski-slope nose." You knew it when you saw it. It was small, bony and so straight it conjured up a perfect Aspen slope. For many girls in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s it was a gift to herald in their "Sweet 16."
But nose jobs are not the only way that Jews, assimilating into a largely Gentile culture, sought to strip themselves of ethnicity. According to author Virginia Blum, "we straighten curly hair, dye dark hair light and get very thin to disguise what we imagine are Jewish-coded thighs and hips."
Nothing epitomizes the period of Jewish assimilation in the suburbs of New York City better than "Goodbye Columbus," a 1969 film based on the Philip Roth novel. Ali McGraw, a lean and sleek suburban Jewish princess and gentile wannabe dazzles city-boy Richard Benjamin with her tennis-playing, well-stocked freezer, flawless suntanned legs and straight hair.
"Nowadays the growing prevalence of plastic surgery, even among Orthodox Jews, has made it a topic of discourse by religious authorities from all streams of Judaism, "according to the Baltimore Jewish Times, December 12, 2011.
Elena, a contemporary orthodox Jewish woman with a prominent nose, always wanted to get her nose done but then she met her husband who told her she was crazy. Elena gave birth to Esther. Elena's mother (Esther's grandmother) took one look at baby Esther and said, prophetically, "Don't worry; she'll get her nose fixed." However, as sensitive and intelligent woman, they put this plan on the back burner and waited for Esther to grow up. One day, Esther came home and said, "I hate my nose."
Esther's nose job was performed and Esther was very happy with the outcome. Mother Elena says, "It looks natural. She still looks like herself, and it doesn't seem like many people even notice the change." For me, this is the great plastic surgery paradox: you spend thousands of dollars changing your appearance, but what will make you happy is when people don't notice the change.
For example, if you're a woman like me, you want to blend in and look like everyone else. But you don't want to be wallpaper; you want to stand out and look special. If you undergo plastic surgery, you allow your surgeon to deal with your ambivalence by means of his scalpel. He (she) is charged with the unenviable making you look the same and special all at once and meanwhile retaining your identity.
For Jews especially, there is conflict and ambivalence about plastic surgery because of the prohibition against chavala or self-injury. But anyone familiar with the Jewish way of thinking knows that it is famous for "on the one hand" and then "on the other hand." Here's an example: Rabbi Mark Washofksy says Reform Judaism frowns on plastic surgery unless it is for healing. But he also acknowledges (on the other hand) that cosmetic surgery may serve a useful medical purpose by enhancing psychological well being.
If, on the one hand, you want to look better but, on the other hand you want to look the same, there's a big club you can join.
It's a challenge to be a human being. In making your way from dusk to dawn, you will find mine fields, hazards, booby traps and pitfalls even if you don't leave the house. Many of these will be of your own making. Today, few of us are invested in "passing for" another race or ethnic group. Plastic surgery has become the arena in which we fight to look how we used to look, adding just a bit of improvement, all the while hoping that these changes are undetected and appear completely natural. Further, like an old kitchen with new cabinets, we hope everything blends in.
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