Mistaken identity?

Diverse city
By SHAY STEWART-BOULEY  |  March 7, 2007

The Portland Press Herald probably isn’t on the Rosh Hashanah card list for many Maine Jews this year. The problems started with an ad in the paper by a Christian church promoting a sermon titled “The Only Way to Destroy the Jewish Race.” Turns out the sermon was actually supportive of the Jewish people, but obviously, wording like that makes it seem entirely otherwise. Someone should have caught that.

But another issue seems a little more iffy. A Biddeford-based credit union ran an ad featuring a picture of what was supposed to be an Old West banker, on a wanted poster, with the words “The Fee Bandit” under the photo.

If you missed the coverage about this ad (which made news not only all the way out to Boston but also across the country), I’ll summarize. According to the Jewish community, the man in the advertisement looked like a Hasidic Jew and they felt it drew on hurtful stereotypes of Jewish people as greedy and money-grubbing.

Before you flame me for questioning the uproar, hold on. I grew up in a predominantly Jewish area in Chicago that featured a small but very visible Hasidic community, and I don’t have a single issue with Jews of any kind. More importantly, having spent many years walking past Hasidic Jews regularly, I must say that the guy in the ad didn’t look like one to me. What it evoked for me was the “snake oil salesman,” a western character I associate not with Jews but with charlatans and cheats of general Caucasian persuasion.

I don’t know many orthodox Jews who sport handlebar mustaches all waxed up and curled on the ends. Nor did the sideburns evoke for me the curled sideburns that Hasidic men are known to have. And dark suits and hats were hardly confined to Jews in the Wild West.

Most of the people quoted in articles about the ad seemed to acknowledge that no intentional slight against Jews occurred, but rather said there was inadvertent insensitivity going on. And it would make sense for the Jewish community to alert the Press Herald that the ad could be seen as potentially offensive.

What bothers me, though, is the implication that the “fee bandit” in the ad was clearly a Jew. Now, if the Jewish community had said, “we think that Mainers, who aren’t really familiar with orthodox Jews, will think this is a Jew and that will perpetuate stereotypes,” then I would have been all in agreement.

But instead, the general theme seems to have been, “this is a Jewish caricature and you failed to recognize that.” I don’t agree with that. And frankly, it scares me when members of the Jewish community cannot recognize a non-Hasidic Jew when they see one, or think that someone made a Jewish caricature and couldn’t get a lot closer to what a Hasidic Jew really looks like.

As a black woman, I have run into many an ad with black folks in it that raises my hackles. But mostly, after a few seconds of being offended, I calm down and look at things more closely. And what I often find is that I have nitpicked small details that have caused me to see the ad in the wrong light.

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