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Last year, about two hundred red haired Israeli Jews gathered for a conference at Kibbutz Gezer in Israel. While that is a nice size group, there were, apparently, many hundreds who were interested in attending, but unable to do so. Those who attended the conference shared stories, sang a popular children’s song called “I am a Redhead,” and reportedly had a good time. Gezer, by the way, is Hebrew for carrot.
And then there is Stav Shaffir, the not even thirty year old Member of the Knesset whose hair is vibrant red. Stav, by the way, is Hebrew for Autumn.
There is even Hebrew slang for redheads: gingi (Jeenji) for a male and gingit (Jeenjit) for a female, both Hebraicized corruptions of the English ginger.
What’s with Jews and red hair?
The Jewish connection to red hair turns out to be quite complex. The first possible references to redheaded Jews appear, not surprisingly, in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. Two well-known personalities, Esau and David, are described as admoni, meaning red or ruddy. (See Gen. 25:25; 1 Sam. 16:12, 17:42.)
Some commentators leap quickly from admoni to red hair, but there is both more and less here than meets the eye. With respect to Esau, the text suggests that he was red and hairy all over, but admoni also serves as a pun for Edom, whose residents were said to be descendants of Esau. (See Gen. 36:9.). When used regarding David, the reference is even more obscure, and does not clearly involve hair. Rather, it is more suggestive of a ruddy complexion.
Even if the two references were to red hair, they provide no consistent signal or message or even information because the two men are viewed quite differently. David, the poet-warrior and king of united Israel, has been idealized, the founder of a royal dynasty that God promised to last forever. (See 2 Sam. 7:12-16; 1 Kings 9:4-7, 11:36, 15:4; 2 Kings 8:19.) By contrast Esau has been marginalized in the Hebrew Bible. Tricked by his younger twin brother Jacob, the patriarch to be, Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of red lentil stew, later married two Canaanite women and a daughter of Ishmael and is viewed as the progenitor of the Edomites. (See Gen. 25:30-34, 26:34, 28:9, 36:1-3, 9.)
In any event, these two instances of red hair, if that is what they are, seem isolated situations in the Tanakh, and not particularly indicative of anything worthy or special. To the contrary, black hair was view as normal, even idealized. (See Eccles. 11:10; Song of Songs 5:11.)
Of course, whether Esau and even David actually existed is open to question, and the description of hair as red may have been more a literary device than actual reporting. Or not. In 2000, Dr. James Tabor entered a recently broken entrance to a first century tri-level tomb south of Jerusalem. Inside he found not only skeletal remains of a Jewish male, but a preserved sample of his hair. And the color of the hair was “reddish.” (For more, see here.) So the notion of red haired Jews during biblical times may not have been entirely fanciful.
Many centuries later, in English drama and literature, two Jews were portrayed with red hair and quite unfavorably. William Shakespeare’s Shylock was frequently costumed with red hair, really a fright wig, in productions of The Merchant of Venice. (See here, at 7/11.) Charles Dickens’ Fagin, the manipulative criminal in the novel Oliver Twist was adorned with natural red hair.
While the anti-Semitism prevalent in England during those times (at least) cannot be denied, one should be cautious about drawing a connection between the red hair and antipathy towards Jews. Shakespeare himself did not portray Shylock in unmitigated bad light. To the contrary, the bond story in which Shylock is prominent is of a piece with the two other principal themes in the play, the casket story and the ring story. In each and all, the playwright through his characters literally asks about form and substance, as well as uniqueness and commonality. So Shylock famously inquires, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” And later, Portia, guised as a young lawyer, wonders “Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?” As the marvelous early twentieth century Shakespeare scholar Harrold C. Goddard observed, this ironical play is about “what is within and what is without” and we are often more like the other than we might wish to recognize. (See The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. 1, at 82 (Phoenix Books 1960).)
Nor is it clear or even likely that Shakespeare would have used red hair as a sign of malevolence. After all, when The Merchant of Venice was first mounted in 1596, the reigning monarch was Queen Elizabeth I. As the queen had red hair, there was nothing to be gained by antagonizing her.
Dickens’ treatment of Fagin was quite different. The original version of his novel, published in 1837, contained over 250 references to Fagin as “the Jew,” and Dickens did not mean it in a nice way. Nor did he temper his portrayal with humanistic utterances. Still, his selection of red hair for Fagin was not necessarily part of the seemingly anti-Semitic package. It surely could have been the literary equivalent of the fright wig associated with Shylock, but it may also or additionally have been meant to be one in a series of characteristics like old age, ugliness, criminality and suggested child predation that marked Fagin as an archetypal villain. That is, the hair choice could simply have been a conventional, accessible and easily understood “marker of low moral character, of fiery hot tempers, of violence, of suspiciousness.” (See also, here.)
Jews have had their own post-biblical fictional redheads, too. In Yiddish folklore, di royte yidn were redheaded Jewish fighters who were strong, brave, independent warriors and could rescue their fellow Jews from whatever was the persecution of the day.
Esau and David, Shylock and Fagin, and di royte yidn, notwithstanding, red hair was and is not a predominant trait of Jews. Hair color, like other traits, is determined genetically, of course, and, in this instance, by the production and regulation of two pigments by the melanocortin 1 receptor (“MC1R”) gene found in chromosome 16. But MC1R is not like the Cohen Modal Haplotype that seems to allow certain male Jews to trace their lineage back 2,500 years to the Second Temple period. Nor is it found disproportionately among certain Jews as are certain BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations which are markers, or genetic signals, for early onset breast cancer.
The MC1R gene appears to be recessive. Typically, for an individual to be born with red hair, both parents must be carriers of an MC1R gene and the MC1R gene from both must combine in the fertilized egg. MC1R operates on two pigments, eumelanin and pheomelanin, and, in general, the more of the latter, the redder the hair. But MC1R is also quite variable, and may be subject to being influenced by modifiers. In fact, according to University of Delaware Professor John H. McDonald in “Red hair color: The myth,” the genetics of hair color is “complicated.”
While human hair color varies enormously, from the lightest blonde to the darkness black, red hair manifests itself only in about 1% of humans worldwide. (See here.) Individuals with red hair can be found around the globe, but the greatest concentrations are in Northern European populations, and in particular, in Scotland and Ireland where, respectively, 13% and 10% of the population are redheads. One theory is that genetic material for red hair was favored in such areas because it would allow for the production of Vitamin D in circumstances of low sunlight and ultra-violet radiation. The prevalence in the United States is 2%. (Id.)
Data on the prevalence of red hair in Jews is uneven and questionable. Hair color does seem to have been a topic of considerable interest at the end of the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth. An article in the Jewish Encyclopedia published in 1906 contains several tables which collect various observations of hair color in Jews around the world. One table concerns Jewish school children in Central Europe (Austria, Bavaria, Germany and Hungary). While most of the children are indicated to have brown or black hair, approximately one quarter to one-third of these children are said to have blond hair. The incidence of red hair is less than 1%. A second table concerns hair color among Jews in selected countries throughout Europe. While dark hair again predominates, the frequency of red hair often appears to be 2% or higher, reaching more than 4% in Poland, Galicia and Russia. The information is of doubtful value, however. Among other problems, the size of the sample populations differs greatly from country to country and the method for selecting the individuals is unknown.
A somewhat similar review occurred in New York City, the results of which were published in 1903 by Maurice Fishberg, a physician and anthropologist, in the American Anthropologist. Fishberg’s paper was titled “Physical Anthropology of the Jews.” With a sample size of almost 2300 Jews twenty years old and older, and reasonably split between males and females, Fishberg found that about 82% of Jews studied had dark hair, meaning black, brown or dark chestnut, while about 15% had fair hair, that is, light chestnut or blond, and about 3% had red hair. (Fishberg, at 92.) The precise percentage of male redheads was 2.53%, and the percentage for females was 3.69%. Fishberg characterized the percentage of red-haired Jews to be “high.” (At 97.) And he stated, without reference to any authority, that “erythrism [a prevalence of red pigmentation] has been regarded as characteristic of the European Jews.” (At 98.) Similarly, he contended that that the condition “appears not to be of recent origin,” referring to the biblical descriptions of Esau and David. (At 98.)
Fishberg also observed the color of beards on 587 Jews and found that 10.9% of them were red. From this, he concluded that “red hair is nearly three times as common in the beard as in the hair of the head.” His calculations are not clear. If the percentage of male redheads was 2.53%, then a 10.9% red beard observation would indicate that red beards are more than four times as common as red head hair. In any event, Fishberg characterized the frequency of red beards as “not at all surprising” because “any one who has observed Jews closely” would know that “the beard is quite frequently red . . . .” (At 99.)
What the percentage of red-headed Jews is today is not at all clear. What is clearer and more important is that Jews come in all shapes and all sizes and all shades, with different aptitudes, attitudes and orientations. Whether Jews started as one wandering family that settled in Egypt, grew over time, and was forged into a nation in the wilderness, or, alternatively, emerged from Canaanite tribes, the Jewish People today is truly a mixed multitude. Jews are a multi-national, multi-racial people whose members are bound together in different ways and to different extents by an uneven mix of religion and culture, language and literature, history and choice, and, yes, genetic material too. For some, that genetic material includes the MC1R gene that may make for redheads.
Red hair is not, however, a marker of Jewishness. Red hair is neither restricted to Jews, nor is it predominant among them. Natural hair grows on Jews in many colors, maybe not as many as the colors on Joseph’s coat (see Gen. 37:3), but more than enough to dispel unwarranted stereotypes. Literary and artistic conventions aside, the incidence of red hair among Jews evidences that Jews are just like everyone else. As Shylock might say today, “Swab our cheeks. Do we not share the same chromosomes?” OK, that’s not as tightly, nor as sharply put as what Shylock said in his soliloquy, but the point is the same.
Ginger Jews remind us of how varied Jews are. Ironically, the most important thing about redheadedness in Jews may well be that it is really not that important at all.