Ethnic Jews are White, Per Census Guidelines

Recently, I contacted New York City’s Department of Health to get more information on the reason that so many names of Jewish origin have become popular, and why those names are heavily represented in the “White” category. 

The department replied, stating “Race is self-reported by the mother or parent, and we use the same categories as the census. More details can be found in the Mother/Parent worksheet.

(As an aside, I read the entire reporting form NYC gives to mothers, and I don’t remember seeing some these questions on any of the birth documentation I was given in either Michigan or Israel.

21. What is your HEIGHT?
22. What was your PRE-PREGNANCY WEIGHT?

My profession is Victoria’s Secret model. I’m 5’11 and before the pregnancy I weighed 99 lbs… I’m just going to speak that into the universe.

And who would answer this one honestly?
24. Did you use ALCOHOL during this pregnancy?

I’m not much of a drinker, pregnant or no, but I wouldn’t want to admit to it on a government form. Is this just an undercover way of smoking out bad [and apparently stupid] parents?)

From the NYC Heath Department, I went to the Census website, to see their definition of race. Although I had filled out two census forms during my 40 years, I had never paid much attention to the instructions regarding race, since in my family the answers always seemed pretty self-evident. But now I stopped to read the 1997 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) standards on race and ethnicity:

White – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.

Uh, hello?! Middle East?! So, argument closed, son! As far as America is concerned, ethnic Jews are White. Sephardi Jews are White. Ashkenazi Jews are White. Admittedly, you may sometimes get treated badly, despite being White. I recommend keeping a clipping of the Census definition in your pocket so you can remind people of your entitlement to White privilege. Just treat it like an American Express card, and don’t leave home without it.

In fact, the Census definition also resolved another pet peeve of mine.

Black or African American – A person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.

Any of the “Black racial groups”… I had better not catch another Boer who immigrated from South Africa checking the African-American box on a scholarship form.

I went back through NYC’s baby name lists for the last 15 years, and I noticed that while Sarah and Rachel were almost always in the list of popular White baby names, the infiltration by names that are more connected specifically with Jewish communities started in 2003, with the addition of Esther. Chaya was added in 2005, and Leah and Miriam appeared in 2008. The trend is definitely more noticeable with girl names than boy names, which have already shown a biblical spin for decades.

In an even more interesting twist, we can see confirmation that these names are linked to the soaring Ultra-Orthodox birthrates thanks to NYC’s name breakdowns. The popularity of traditionally Jewish names like Esther, Leah, Chaya, and Miriam shows a ten to twenty-fold increase for Kings County (the official name for Brooklyn) versus any other New York county or borough. Brooklyn is the center of American Hasidic life, famous for neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Borough Park, and Crown Heights. As proven by the reporting records, at least the Hasidim know they are White.

Instead of expending energy arguing how White you aren’t, or how separate Judaism is from White culture, how much more productive would it be to say that even though you are White, you understand what discrimination feels like, and you don’t support it in any form. In this way, you can serve as both an example to mainstream culture, and also show your Jewish brothers and sisters of color that you don’t want to throw us under the back of the bus.


Malynnda Littky moved to Israel from the Detroit area in 2007, and lives with her family in Hadera, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. She currently works as a Content Manager for a software company.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay.

8 thoughts on “Ethnic Jews are White, Per Census Guidelines”

  1. What the census categories do is define the “approved” minorities in this country. So if you aren’t listed as separate, you don’t get whatever privileges are granted to the visible minorities. On the other hand, someone from Spain is perfectly within his rights to call himself Hispanic, even though he’s as white as anyone else. I think ethnic group would be a better solution, and leave people free to identify themselves as they see fit. After all, you wouldn’t have written this article if a good number of Jews DIDN’T see themselves as significantly different from whites, and when you look at statistics for hate crimes, from which Jews suffer the most, you begin to see why maybe a separate status IS needed. We worry so much about Islamophobia, but very little attention is given to anti-Jewishness — what’s wrong with this picture?


    1. Or maybe discrimination isn’t just about Black and White, or about getting something. Perhaps living in a more socialist country (Israel) has made me more attuned to the concept of getting something because you need it, and not just because of a label.

      Instead of worrying about whether discrimination against Islam or Black people is more important than discrimination against Jews, maybe we should just aim for believing that discrimination isn’t okay, no matter who is doing it or who is at the receiving end.


    1. There are several choices besides Black and White, and as the Census Bureau notes, people from any race can be of any ethnicity.

      Also per the Census Bureau:
      “Reasons for collecting information on race
      Information on race is required for many Federal programs and is critical in making policy decisions, particularly for civil rights. States use these data to meet legislative redistricting principles. Race data also are used to promote equal employment opportunities and to assess racial disparities in health and environmental risks.”


  2. Hi Malynnda. I just found this site a while ago. I like your articles here.

    I’m definitely white. Ethnically white, culturally white, etc. I identify with the Jewish nation, but I’m not going to argue that I’m racially non-white.

    But – I don’t get why it’s a problem if other white Jews don’t want to identify as white. For some of them it’s a real emotional issue. Their relatives were murdered in the Holocaust for not being white, or they themselves have been attacked for not being white, and the label’s just not comfortable for them.

    Why does it matter? How is it hurtful to Jews of color? I don’t think that self-identifying as Jewish-not-white makes people any less effective in fighting racism – or that identifying as white-white makes them more likely to fight racism.

    I hope this doesn’t come across as arguing. I’m genuinely interested in hearing your POV.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Maya, for identifying a feeling I was not able to verbalize. I don’t think it should be up to others to classify me by eyeballing me. And I don’t agree with racial classifications in the first place. My parents and grandparents didn’t suffer from discrimination in order for me to be classified as privileged white. If a white-appearing person with black or Native or Asian ancestry can claim that ancestry, then we should be able to do it too.


    2. Generally speaking, I don’t care about other people’s sense of self. However, I have been at the Shabbat table too many times (especially in Detroit) where the conversation has turned into the differences between the Jewish community and the Black one, and why one has succeeded and the other has failed.

      These conversations, which I am unsure are taking place in my absence, annoy me, because they rarely take into consideration the central difference between Blacks and Jews, which is that being Jewish is something you choose to affirm, and being Black is not typically easy to disassociate from.

      There is a whole “we did it, so why can’t you?” superior vibe, when you’re comparing apples to oranges. Many Jews in America succeeded *because* they were willing to give up those things that made them different, kashrut, Shabbat, mitzvot, along with changing names and surgically altering whatever traits they felt marked them as “other”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s