january / february 2007:
She's Single. Don't you wish you were too?
Mischa Van Schet went from being a Dutch soap opera star to becoming an Orthodox Jew in Manhattan. Say hello to the 20-year-old Holland princess.
Profile by E. B. Solomont | Photo by Sam Norval
Mischa Van Schet knows what you're thinking. "The first question is always 'Where are you from?' Every day, all the time,” the 20-year-old Holland native says. It’s an understandable question, of course, when you see Mischa in person with her long limbs, dark skin, and striking features that blend her father’s Asian ancestry and her mother’s European lineage.
And yet, when I tell her over tea at Starbucks that I’ve met other black Jews — in New York City no less — I sense that I’ve turned the tables on her, mostly because I’ve managed to elicit a “where” and “why” from Mischa herself. Indeed, it seems I’ve shaken the veneer of an ambitious young woman who left a modeling career behind and started a new life in America two years ago. “Really,” she says, quietly stunned. “Ethiopians?” she wants to know. Yes, and others, I tell her. “I didn’t know that,” she finally says.
In a certain sense, Mischa grew up standing out among her blond, Dutch schoolmates and neighbors in rural Holland, and later Amsterdam. Certainly, she was always the only black student in her classes.
Mischa explains her dark skin by outlining an extended family tree that has roots in Germany and South America. Four generations back, her great-grandmother, a white Jew, married a black man for his money, Mischa says bluntly. The couple’s children were born with light skin, all except for Mischa’s grandmother, who was promptly given away to the family of the baby’s similarly dark-skinned father.
Mischa’s great-grandmother re-entered the family’s life when her dark-skinned daughter — by then a young mother — lay on her deathbed. Summoned by neighbors, the matriarch arrived in time to assume custody of her daughter’s child.
Even then, a preference for her light-skinned offspring prevailed. “She did love us, but without love,” Mischa says. There were times her great-grandmother forbid her from playing with her white cousins’ toys. And times when her great-aunts told Mischa in disparaging tones that she looked just like her mother.
Yet local talent scouts saw something else in Mischa, who landed modeling contracts and acting parts at age 14. In one of her signature roles, she played a bartender on the show Costa, a soap opera about Dutch teenagers. To this day, Mischa calls it the best job she ever had. “The trick is, you have to understand what you’re saying,” she says. “You put yourself in the position of that character.”
The day I meet Mischa, she is modestly dressed in a black turtleneck and skirt, playing the perfect part of an Orthodox Jew. But in fact, after a lifetime of answering questions about who she is and where she comes from, Mischa’s recent attempt to answer those questions led her to religious life.
Not so in 2003, when just ten days after Mischa’s 18th birthday, she packed her bags and booked a flight to New York. Looking back, she calls Holland boring and describes the mundane details of her less glamorous jobs.
Mischa’s first stop in New York was Times Square, where she stood rooted in one spot for three hours, taking in the whirling dervish around her. (Not only was she overwhelmed, she laughs, but her three large suitcases were too heavy to move.)
That same day on the subway, Mischa spotted a man wearing a yarmulke and followed him off the train. She didn’t know a soul in Manhattan, and once aboveground, she tugged at his sleeve to get his attention. The stranger advised her to contact a certain rabbi who did Jewish outreach work on the Upper West Side. When Mischa showed up at the office of Manhattan Jewish Experience, the presumably perplexed rabbi listened to her elementary English, but offered her a job anyway. She started immediately.
Fueled by her surroundings — and amid the chaos of the city — Mischa sought a quieter, religious life. Growing up, Judaism had played a nominal role in her life, although with ancestors named Weiss and Cohen, she says she became curious once she was immersed in the Jewish community in New York.
During this initial exploration, Mischa lived in a series of hotels, rented rooms and apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn — where the Orthodox community opened its doors to her. “I just tried it and like it,” she says by way of explanation. She took on more and more Jewish rituals until one day, she says she looked in the mirror and saw an Orthodox Jew.
Although the transition is daunting (at a recent wedding, she found herself in the middle of a group of men, having forgotten to maintain a modest distance), her mother’s advice keeps her in line, she says: “If you want to be Orthodox, behave toward it.”
Having adopted a religious lifestyle, Mischa says many of her questions have stopped. While local Brooklyn children sometimes stare at her, neighbors’ doors are always open; she is a frequent babysitter and playmate of neighborhood kids. She says adults — still — “don’t want to ask you if you converted, so they ask in a roundabout way.”
“I tell them I am Jewish,” she says. And “people here like me because I’m different.”
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