The Jewfro Grows Up and Out

Article excerpt

"I love your curly hair," gushes Katherine Heigl's heavily intoxicated character as she runs her fingers through Seth Rogen's kinky ringlets in the hit movie Knocked Up. "Do you use product or anything?" Abashedly, he replies, "No ... I use, uh, Jew it's called." At the butt of the joke lies the mass of thick, curly, unruly fluff Jews and non-Jews alike have come to know as the "Jewfro," or Jewish Afro. Although Jewish tresses come in all manner of textures and colors, the stereotype of "Jewish" hair is rooted in a history of racial pseudo-science, radical self-empowerment and comic self-deprecation.

Jewish hair's distinctive nature 1 is mentioned as early as the Bible, which describes Hebrews' hair as "black" and "thick," characteristics considered beautiful, a sign of strength. Who could forget the Song of Songs enticement, "Thy hair is as a flock of goats"? But through the Middle Ages and Industrial Revolution, this same hair made Jews in Europe stand out from the crowd.

Jews didn't fare well in 1735, when Carolus Linnaeus, the Swede whose botanical taxonomy built the modern biological classification system, began sorting humans along racial lines, kicking off a long, pernicious tradition of "scientific" racism. With their curly hair and Semitic features, Jews fit in neither with the Europeans' "white, serious, strong" features, nor the "lazy, impassive" Africans and their "kinked" hair. Linnaeus was followed in 1881 by German ethnographer Richard Andree, who wrote of "less noble" Jews, who, unlike the more "graceful" specimens of their "race," had big mouths, thick noses, "and often curly hair." Six years later the Frenchmen Abel Hovelacque, an anthropologist, and Georges Herve, a physician, characterized German Jews' "round head, curly hair, large nose, thick lips" as lacking "any delicacy" Interestingly, the stereotypical hue associated widi Jewish curls was not black, but red, which ethnographers estimated was five times more prevalent among Jews.

That Jews as well as blacks were victims of racial prejudice was one of the shared bonds between these two peoples in 19th and 20th century America. So when, in the 1960s, African Americans began to rebel against societal conventions of beauty through the "Black Is Beautiful" movement by displaying their hair in all its natural glory, Jews, some of whom were closely allied with the civil rights movement, took notice. The "Afro" was pioneered by the Black Panthers, but quickly became all the rage. African American magazines like Ebony and Essence featured celebrities such as the Jackson Five and actress Pam Grier rocking the new style. "They figured out how to own their own hair," says Shuly Rubin Schwartz, associate professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. "Jewish women in turn thought, 'Why are we sitting under the hair dryer? …