If you live in New York City, or if you’ve ever paid a visit to the fair metro during a Jewish holiday, there’s a good chance you’ve witnessed this fairly common practice: an Orthodox Jewish man, or perhaps two or three, dressed in traditional garb, stands on a street corner, asking select passersby if they’re Jewish. More often than not, they are — New York, for whatever reason, attracts a high concentration of Jews all over the spectrum, from the unobserving reform to the extremely religious Hasidic.
Having lived, worked, and otherwise existed in Manhattan and Brooklyn for the past few years means I have been called on my heritage by these guys (“mitzvah campaigners,” to be proper) many, many times. I’m never surprised, because although I’m only half Jewish, my dad’s Russian genes are hella dominant — I have thick, dark hair, dark almond-shaped eyes, fair but not freckled skin, and a prominent nose. Y’all have seen me. These features, in conjunction, add up to what any Orthodox Jew on the corner of Bedford Avenue would call a safe bet to shake the lulav during Sukkot. (Sorry guys, I’m in a rush.) But I’ve seen them also make some pretty damn good calls on Jews that, well, don’t look as obviously Ashkenazi as I do.
I’ve always wondered just how they know, but as a religion-denouncing heathen belied by my hereditary Jewish guilt in spades, I’ve never felt comfortable approaching one of these gentlemen to ask them their process of evaluating who might be a fellow Jew. Two mitzvah campaigners opened up to the Jewish Daily Forward and told them just how it is that they go about choosing their prospects. And yes — they call it racial profiling. Surprisingly, Yisroel and Levi Pekar (that’s them, above), 25-year-old twins from Crown Heights, clarified that it’s not about the nose. In fact, it has more to do with the forehead — a “broad, clear forehead” without creases indicates a non-Jew, while lined foreheads are more typical of Jews. (This doesn’t do much for our reputation of being hardcore worriers. I mean, have you seen Woody Allen’s forehead? Then again, he has a lot to worry about.)
But there’s another “process,” one that I had never heard of, called “bageling.” It refers to a “subtle vibe of recognition” — basically, Jew recognize Jew. Urban Dictionary defines it as such: “You are Jewish, and you want other people around you to know that, so you say or do something Jewish in nature in order to drop the hint so they know you’re one of the tribe.” Now, although I simply do not have the time to stand around and sniff the etrog with them, I do always smile at the mitzvah campaigners after they ask me if I’m Jewish (which they do, without fail). And so, yes, although I did not pause during my power-walk home, I did just get bageled. On the other hand, the Pekars say that a second surefire way of determining whether or not someone is Jewish is when they react with anger. A man on the subway, one of the twins recounted, shouted, “I’m not religious!,” after the pair approached him. “He didn’t ignore me,” Yisroel said. “In essence: mission accomplished.” [Gothamist]