Life & Culture

Is this what a Jew looks like?

Can Shannon, a Liberal Jew from York, replace the stereotypical image most British people have of Jews - the black-hatted, bearded Strictly Orthodox men? A new book aims to try.


Black-hatted, black-coated, bearded Jews walking down the street, their backs to the camera. Who among us hasn’t seen photos of Charedi men illustrating all manner of stories about Jewish life in the UK – and sighed? It’s a stereotype, visual shorthand, that misrepresents the diverse people we are.

Lecturer and author Keith Kahn-Harris has been sighing and writing about the problem for years. Now, he has collaborated with photographer Rob Stothard and produced a book of portraits entitled What Does a Jew Look Like? that showcases Anglo-Jewry’s dazzling diversity.

“There are only about 300,000 Jews in Britain so it’s quite easy to live here and never meet a real, live one. The way we are portrayed in the media, in public, is important, it’s how impressions are formed,” he says. “So the aim of the book is simple – we want non-Jews, and even some Jews, to understand that there is no such thing as the generic Jew.”

Stothard, who isn’t Jewish, was open to the book’s thesis from the outset. Kahn-Harris first contacted him in 2018 after discovering he was the photographer of what has become picture editors’ go-to image of British Jews, a photo of two Charedi men in Stamford Hill that has now been published hundreds of times.

“Getty Images commissioned me to do a set of images depicting increased police presence on the streets in the wake of the 2015 Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris. There were fears of copycat attacks in Britain,” explains Stothard. “So when I took the photos they were news pics. But since then, one image in particular has been clumsily repurposed, become a decontextualised and ubiquitous stock image. It has even been used to illustrate a story about campus antisemitism. It made me very uncomfortable.”

So they decided to work together to produce some different images of British Jews. There was a clear division of labour. Kahn-Harris tracked down people to photograph – “some I knew, some were recommended, others I had heard of online,” he says – and when Stothard took their pictures it was generally without Kahn-Harris in the room.

“I didn’t want a box-ticking exercise, but I did have some markers,” says Kahn-Harris. “I didn’t want everyone to live in London, and I wanted to include Orthodox, non-Orthodox, LGBTQ, Zionist and non-Zionist Jews, the old and young. And I definitely didn’t want everyone to be Ashkenazi – there are a fair number of non-white people in the book.”

But he stresses that some Jewish demographics have been left out. “This is not exhaustive coverage. We’d have needed hundreds of images to achieve that.

“We asked people to choose where they wanted to be photographed. We wanted the locations to be meaningful for them. In some cases they are photographed with objects of significance too.”

And each picture is accompanied by the person’s own words. “I either interviewed them, or they wrote something themselves. This approach makes it difficult to see the subjects as representative of any particular way of being Jewish.”

The book will be hand-delivered, he says, to the nation’s picture editors and “people who are generally in the public eye. We are putting a list together.” Stothard was The Times Young Photographer of the Year, in 2012, and went to work for the paper and also the New York Times and New Yorker, so “we are drawing heavily on Rob’s contacts”.

“There is nothing else like this book out there,” says Stothard. “We hope it will become a reference point for editors, make them think more carefully about how they illustrate stories about Jews.”

The book already has the endorsement of one high-profile journalist. Associate editor at the Financial Times Stephen Bush, who chaired the Board of Deputies’ commission on racial inclusivity in the community, has written its foreword. In it, he admits he has been “one of those awful journalists” who has been guilty of illustrating a story about Jewish life in Britain with a picture of the Charedi community. “I’ve made all the usual journalistic excuses: the desk wanted a picture, it’s hard to illustrate abstract stories, harder still to illustrate stories about race or religion in a sensitive way.” He even “engaged in special pleading about the fact, look, I’m Jewish, so of course I know there’s more to Jewish life in Britain than living in Stamford Hill.”

But the truth remains, says Bush, that everyone deserves to have their own story told. And Charedi men merit more than being a journalistic crutch to illustrate every story about British Jews.

What Does a Jew Look Like? (Five Leaves Publications) will be launched at JW3 on April 11

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