While the Chavis family is one of Eastern European descent, my sister and I have a running joke in which we affectionately refer to ourselves as The Sisters Chavez—a wordplay on the novel called The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The joke, however, has nothing to do with the novel. I am, if nothing else, an English major nerd at heart.
The Chavis sisters have always been somewhat of a novelty and subject of conversation, namely, because we come in three. Often, the discussion is one of pity for my poor, sonless father who relies on our family dog for male companionship—worsened only by the fact that my dog never learned the game of “catch.” When we were little, people commented on how the Chavis sisters all had extremely long, curly, hair down to our butts (yes, we were a product of the 1990s Full House generation). As we grew older it was, “Which schools are the Chavis sisters attending?” As of late, it’s “Are any of the Chavis sisters married yet?”—to which my mother solemnly replies, “No! (*clicks her tongue*) I want grandchildren!”
Chavis became “Chavez,” however, after years of people confusing just what ethnicity the Chavis sisters are. We, Sisters Chavez, are a bit of an ethnic conundrum—one that manifests differently with each of us. In general, I think Jewish people look somewhat ethnically ambiguous, partly because many of us are. However, my sisters and I all look pretty different even within the same family. My oldest sister is very fair-skinned with curly, brown-black hair, my middle sister has an olive complexion also with dark curly hair, and I (the youngest) am light skinned with freckles and reddish-brown curly hair.
My middle sister, like my parents, often gets confused for being of Hispanic, Greek or Italian origin. In fact, my dad proudly reminds us that on one or two occasions his hair dresser told him he looks like Antonio Banderas (Wishful thinking, but we all humor him).
My middle sister says when people first meet her they often give the same puzzled look, as if they’re trying to figure her out. I’ve witnessed it, particularly when I’ve gone out to dinner with her in Greek Town. Once she tells them her last name, they seem relieved because people almost always hear Chavis as “Chavez.” Poof! They have figured her out, she must be Hispanic. She must then explain that she’s mostly Russian.
My sister has always said that I (of the three sisters) look the most “American”—whatever that means? I think she means to say that I don’t have features that immediately align me with a certain ethnicity. However, people often think I’m Irish because of my freckles and big eyes. This confuses them further when they hear my first name “Blair,” (Irish) and last name, “Chavis,” which they hear as “Chavez.” In all honesty, "Chavis" was probably something else at one point, but after Ellis Island, it's anyone's guess.
My sister and I experience a strange reversal in which her physical appearance, which is ethnically ambiguous, is somehow wrongly clarified by her name; whereas my appearance is less ethnically ambiguous, to be made more ambiguous by name.
What’s the point? The Chavez sisters make for an interesting case study in what it’s like to be Jewish in America. Also, this happens so frequently to us, that it has gotten me thinking about people’s need to categorize and compartmentalize other people. This is nothing new, and is the reason stereotypes exist. However, it’s actually amusing for us to watch people become unnerved when they can’t figure us out. What does it mean to people if I’m Irish, of Hispanic origin or Russian? Will they view me differently?
In general, Jewish people have a fascination with sniffing each other out. I think it’s fair to say that a great majority of them are Jewish mothers scanning prospects for their children, however, we all do it. I’m reminded of Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song, in which he identifies movie stars who are various fractions of Jewish.
What need does it satisfy in us to ethnically or religiously place each other? Why the anxiety? Have we not progressed as much as we think?
When I meet people, I find that I rarely wonder what their ethnic background is. Like many Americans, my first question is about what they do for a living. Many Europeans, however, make fun of Americans for identifying so strongly with their professions and for that being the first question out of their mouths. I never felt so aware of my heritage as I did when I studied abroad in London during college. When I would engage with Europeans, they would ask where I was from, to which I would reply, “America.” And they would almost always follow with, “But, where are you really from?” I then would go into a long history of my family’s descent from Russia and Lithuania to Austria, America and Israel, etc., something I never had to do in the U.S. Europeans were fascinated with my ethnic history. In the U.S., we look, point and decide. Five questions in, the Europeans would ask what I did for a living.
What really defines us and what should define us? As I’ve written in a past Oy! article, as Jews it’s important to hold on to our identity and our heritage. However, are we Jewish first? Are we American first? Such questions define people’s election ballots, spouse selections and various other large life decisions.
I’m not sure there’s an easy answer as to how we should prioritize our various identities. Meanwhile, when I meet people and they give me that funny look after hearing my name, I smile, pause and often prefer not to clarify things, just so I can watch them squirm.