Nice little old blue-haired lady: "You have such beautiful red hair!"
6 Year Old Me: "My hair is brown!"
Nice little old blue-haired lady turns to my mother, who nods vigorously up and down and sighs, "It's brown." Nice little old blue-haired lady thinks we are both nuts and walks away confused.
This scene played itself out more times than I can recall (substitute any number of other people for nice little old blue-haired lady) throughout my childhood. I had beautiful red hair. And I was in denial. Who wanted to be a redhead? Ronald McDonald was a redhead, Raggedy Anne and Andy were redheads, Pippi Longstocking was a redhead, and that obnoxious kid on The Partridge Family reruns, Danny Bonnaducci. But not people I knew. Not any Jewish people outside my own family.
Certainly as a kid, with my red hair, blue eyes and milky white skin, I felt somehow less Jewish than all the curly black-haired, dark-eyed kids around me. As one of only three redheads (one of whom was my brother) in my entire elementary school, I was an anomaly. It was my otherness within the larger otherness of being a Jew. Some insisted that I must be Irish or Scottish. Who ever heard of a Jew with red hair (and blue eyes, no less)?
That neither my parents (both jet black!) nor grandparents had red hair did not help matters. Where did it come from? Techinically, there was one great-grandparent on either side who had red hair, and which, skipping over two generations, came through in two of my siblings and myself. But try telling that to me as a child. Maybe I was Irish or Scottish - or fictional!
Later, of course, I would meet a number of other redheaded Jews (and many more who had red beards, at least - the men, that is) and I would learn that red hair plays a prominent role in Jewish tradition, from Eisav through King David to Moshiach (not to be confused with Moshiak), who I have heard numerous times will also supposedly be a redhead. That red hair is associated with anger and bloodthirst (think Eisav or Erik the Viking marauder, or even King David, who found ways to channel his rage) and passion did not do much to make me feel better about my hair color, though (I have that fire, too, but it takes a lot to bring it out. A good friend with twin rambunctious redheaded 2 1/2 year olds confided that he is holding on to me as his hope that his children can grow up to be calm and mellow even as redheads).
I don't know exactly at what point I stopped insisting that my hair was actually brown, but it probably coincided with my first being called "gingi," which I was not particularly fond of, but as it was invariably an Israeli who would employ the term, at least it was inclusive - of course I am a Jew! I'm a gingi! When in Israel, even to Israelis who knew my name, my red hair took over my identity. I was not MC, but "gingi blondini," as my shade of red veers toward reddish-blonde, especially in the sun.
Easy to burn and freckle as a child, I was rarely allowed in the sun unless I was covered from head to toe with gobs of sunscreen and wore a hat - not exactly redhead love inducing. As a teenager, I would try to tan anyway, always to be disappointed by - and in pain from - my red and peeling skin.
It was not until I was im my mid-teens - when fitting in was not as crucial and it felt good and right to be an individual - that I not only became comfortable with having red hair, but grew to appreciate its uniqueness. Apparently, only 2-3% of the U.S. population are redheads, and within a century redheads worldwide may be extinct (start the save the redheads campaign now!).
I am especially wistful about my "brown-haired" redheaded days now, as just a month ago a lone white hair showed up in my trimmed beard. I have checked every few days since then for more, but it sits there all by itself. I'm sure no one else would even notice it. I have not decided yet whether to pull it out or leave it. I am in my early thirties and I am not worried that my beard and hair will turn white overnight, but will it be 10 years, 20, 30 or 40 before my hair is a mix of red and white or even all white?
It was startling to me how this status of other I had held on to for half my life is just a question of pigmentation, and how short a time it may last. I picture myself at 85, and a young child will approach me and tell me how beautiful my white hair is. I wonder if I will respond, "It's red!" and I wonder who will be there to nod and sigh.