Is this man Jewish? Are you sure? | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Is this man Jewish? Are you sure? 

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Marc Alan Jacobs is constantly playing Spot the Jew. "Sometimes I'll go in real close and see if they are wearing a chi or a Star of David. There are certain facial features or hairstyles people associate with Jews, but it's a look that actually may or may not exist."

Jacobs, a recent graduate of the Art Institute, says "spotting" is a habit he developed when his parents moved from a large Jewish community in Massachusetts to a mostly non-Jewish one in northern California. "For me as a little kid it wasn't such a big deal, but for my parents, who indentified themselves with the Jewish community, it was really difficult. They were always trying to figure out if someone was Jewish or not."

As an artist Jacobs is interested in the unconscious assumptions people make about identity based on real or imagined physical characteristics. "I was thinking about this scrutiny that goes on within and outside of the Jewish community and other groups, where people are always trying to spot each other out. Is he Jewish or not? Is he gay or straight?"

Jacobs's set of postcards, titled "Jews of the 70s," is composed of snapshots of family members clothed in unmistakable fashions of the decade. "When you see the word "Jews' above the picture you start looking for things--"Oh, of course he's Jewish. Look at that suit. Look at that hair.' But really I could take off the title and put in almost anything. Spotting is sort of a compulsive thing that people do, a curiosity. And it's an unspoken subtext that I'd like to bring to the surface. I want to give people permission to spot in a very self-conscious way. By giving them permission, it also makes people think about why they spot."

Friends encouraged Jacobs to issue Jews of the 60s, 80s, and 90s postcards, but he worried that nostalgia for the 70s was obscuring his message. So he asked ten Jewish friends to submit ordinary posed snapshots of themselves captioned with their names, occupations, and hometowns. He then assembled the photos into a book that appropriates the format of souvenir picture books found in vacation spots. "Those books categorize one specific thing and try to document it with very minimal information in a format that you can carry around with you in your pocket."

The young, contemporary Jews in the photos in A Little Book of Jews, 10 Jews in Natural Color are not easily identifiable with any group, but Jacobs believes people will make assumptions about them anyway. "I'm not using pictures of Hasidic rabbis or anything. It could be you. It could be me. I've theorized that people will look at it and go, "Yeah, of course."'

The photos, each with a tiny Star of David above its caption, call to mind Nazi efforts to determine race based on rigid physical measurements. Jacobs admits that he still gets nervous about offending someone. "I always think that with every project it will be the one that gets me, that someone will get upset. But I'm thinking about this benign sort of spotting. I'm excluding people that do it because they are racist. Spotting is definitely a two-edged sword."

At the suggestion that his work perpetuates stereotyping Jacobs argues, "I don't know if it's possible to spot a Jew or not. It's not that I don't care, but that I can relate to both sides of the issue. I'm just putting the subject on the table for discussion. The postcards and the book are products, but they are also experiments for me. The goal is to disperse them as widely as I can and see what happens."

Jacobs's postcards are currently available at Quimby's Queer Store and the Earwax Cafe in Wicker Park, Bookseller's Row on Michigan Avenue, and Flashback and Rocket 69 in Lakeview. He says A Little Book of Jews should hit stores in a couple of weeks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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