When I wrote my post about Jewishness and racial identity, I was happy with most of the responses; I was able to hear a lot of different perspectives, and even got a book recommendation. There were a few readers, though, who interpreted the post as anxiety at not being white enough – which was funny, since the idea that Jews want to be white (as opposed to just not wanting our identity constantly called into question) was one of the main issues I tackled in the essay. However, it occurred to me after reading a few responses that many readers probably weren’t familiar with Jews’ long and maddening history with racial categorization – how we’ve been pushed out of and shoved into virtually every race we’ve encountered, without ever being granted a say in our own identities. For hundreds of years, the Western world has torn its hair out trying to decide where to place us. Are Jews white? Are they Arab? Are they Semites? Are they Khazars? Are they black? What are these horrible people? Where did they come from? What unholy combination of cross-breeding and mongrolization produced them? And, more importantly, how do we get rid of them? We don’t want them in our group – whether that group is defined by looks or geography – so how can we define them out of it?
And that’s the tradition gentiles’ compulsion to challenge Jews’ racial identity comes from, whether they’re aware of it or not. Granted, it originally stemmed from white supremacy, but it’s found a wider audience among people – including many people of color – who distrust Jews and want to keep us othered. If a Jew lays claim to a particular identity, not only is s/he wrong – s/he must have ulterior motives. And I should have explained that. As it is, I can understand why, without context, some readers interpreted the post as a white woman panicking over being “mistaken” for a POC. (This isn’t to say that I’m free from internalized racism. But it’s telling that if I’d argued the opposite – that I identify as a POC – there would have been just as much vehement disapproval. Everyone is encouraged to theorize about Jews’ identity, it seems, except Jews ourselves.)
So the discussion helped me make a few connections. In particular, a few of the more, er, interesting responses helped me understand how the myth of the Jewish American Princess fits into cultural anxiety about Jews’ racial identity. (I really wish I’d thought of this before – not only because now it feels completely obvious, but because this is now partly a feminist issue for me, and the post originally appeared on a feminist blog. D’oh.)
Anyway, let me tell you about the JAP.
The JAP is loud, and the JAP is rich. She’s as rich as the richest Gentile girls – or, if she’s not, she makes sure daddy’s credit card keeps up the illusion – but those frail femmes can’t match her in volume. She yells to get what she wants and she yells when she doesn’t get what she wants. She needs to yell because she wants to be seen; she’s going for a synesthetic effect. She’s the definition of spoiled: she controls the people on whom she’s dependent; she’s cunning and manipulative but lacks self-awareness. The JAP is ugly, but she tries to be beautiful. She gets the hook carved off her nose for her sweet sixteen; she waxes, straightens, tweezes, and dyes her hair;* her narcissism is a never-ending loop of effort and fixation. Is the JAP materialistic? Hey, is the Pope Catholic? She wants and wants and wants and uses and wastes and wants some more. “She is,” writes Evelyn Torton Beck, “the female version of the Jew who, according to anti-Semitic lore, is a parasite on society; contradictorily, the Jew has been viewed both as dangerous ‘communist’ as well as non-productive ‘capitalist.'” The JAP uses whatever channels are available to get more money in her pocketbook and more clothes in her closet. Really, she’s little more than her body: high maintenance, expensive, and deceptive. She isn’t very smart. She will never be useful to anyone.
This includes sex, by the way. Guys, don’t waste your time – that part of her is broken. She only cares about herself. Your needs aren’t even on her radar. (Female masturbation doesn’t count as sex – rather, the desire to get herself off is just one more way her self-absorption manifests. And God forbid she should demand that you go down on her.) Don’t try to ply her with gifts; she’ll take them and run. In case you didn’t notice, the JAP is where anti-Semitism and misogyny converge, and Jewish men are often eager to expound upon the JAP. The JAP won’t cook or clean or swallow when she gives you head. If she gives you head. (She probably won’t.)
At first glance, the JAP seems like one of the bad Jews you can make sure to avoid. But any Jewish woman can JAP out at any time, and that means you can’t trust any of us. All we have to do is spend a little too much money on a bracelet, or be a little too disappointed with our haircut, or express one too many needs in a relationship, or get a little too angry when someone rips us off. (It’s significant when Jewish women do these things. Gentile women are excused, because they’re not JAPs. JAPs act like JAPs, even if it appears that they’re acting like everyone else.) The JAP sits eager and unstable in all of us; yes, we all have noble blood.
One of the most peculiar aspects of the JAP, though, is her status as a sort of gatekeeper of whiteness. It’s no coincidence that the stereotype emerged right around the time that Jews were being granted entry into the middle class; the requirements for whiteness slackened partly because Jews were willing – and felt forced – to mold themselves into people who looked and sounded white, and Jewish women’s body modifications facilitated this. Eric Zakim writes at Zeek:
Roth’s empowered, powerful Brenda Patimkin [a character in the novel Goodbye, Columbus] embodies all that is the JAP in a standard Jewish male reading: nouveau riche, cosmetically altered (her nose “bobbed”; the story predates the breast reduction craze among JAP’s in the late 1970s and early 1980s), and alluringly goyische (a Jewish shiksa). In this, the JAP represents a stage in the assimilation of the Jewish community in America. Women always could traverse ethnic boundaries in America more easily than men. As floating signifiers dependent on physical attraction and sexual allure, women in the American experience (from Pocahantas, to the African-American slave women in the manor house, to Brenda Patimkin herself) entered that uniquely American process of transformation and transgression earlier and more quickly than their men (because their selves and their bodies were more appropriable). For Roth’s Neil Klugman, the climb up the hill in New Jersey from Newark to Short Hills, where the Patimkins lived a sort of converso life among the goyim of the wealthy suburb, represented the physical and metaphoric climb into Americanness itself.
In other words, the JAP symbolizes, in part, Jews’ perpetual otherness: not quite white, not quite POC; always straddling the line between races – and always eager to exploit whatever and whomever they have to in order to get ahead. The Jew – and the JAP – is deceptive and conniving, and her ability to sneak back and forth between categories makes her a very real threat. Controlling her identity is essential to controlling her, whether it’s by dictating her race or shaming her when she acts out her stereotype.
This idea is still used against Jewish women today, as I experienced firsthand. The point of my post was that Gentiles often attempt to lay claim to our identities by telling us we’re either fixated on or delusional about our race. Many commenters played into that very myth by dismissing the post as a “quest for whiteness” or an attempt to keep my privilege untainted. Like I said earlier, the context should have been clearer, but notice how often women are the ones who are supposedly obsessed with trying to be this or that – especially when it comes to body image and money? Our culture’s most common associations with whiteness are wealth, (arbitrarily constructed) beauty, and control, which happen to be exactly what the JAP perpetually hungers for. Notice how easily that stereotype washes away the nuances of a very complicated issue? If she identifies as white, then she’s obviously obsessed with whiteness; she’s disturbed and disgusted by the thought of not being pure and beautiful and at the tippy-top of the hierarchy.
Equally pernicious is the idea that Ashkenazim who don’t identify as white must also be lying or mistaken. I read so many stories from European Jews who have been lectured at for supposedly trying to join the ranks of POC (as opposed to simply being there already, and wishing for recognition). The fact that many Ashkenazim and Sephardim don’t physically “pass,” or the fact that, for example, Orthodox culture is pretty far removed from mainstream white culture, is irrelevant; any Jew who has the gall to defy expectations must be telling a falsehood, even if unintentionally. If a European Jew claims she’s not white, then she obviously wants to have it both ways – she wants the privilege but not the responsibilities; she wants the social status, but with a trendy ethnic flair.
Notice how both sides of this dichotomy revolve around entitlement, deception, and self-absorption? Notice how entitlement, deception, and self-absorption are crucial to our perception of both Jews (think of our riches, treachery, and stinginess) and frivolous women (with our elaborate beauty routines, our appropriation of different cultures, our outrageous allowances and manipulation of husbands and fathers)? And notice how all of the ideas I’ve discussed, both sexist and anti-Semitic, lock together quite neatly in the myth of the JAP?
Any way you look at it, the idea that a Jew could just be what she looks and feels is unacceptable. You just know she’s angling for something.
I don’t think I’m finished thinking about this. I plan on reading The Price of Whiteness (thanks to David and Matt for the recommendation), and I suspect a lot of it will resonate with my experiences: the way my father and sister shut down when I bring up the topic of Yiddishkayt, or the fact that I have a ton of Jewish friends but still find myself alone on Passover. I’m learning Yiddish but I have no one to practice with. I can’t make my history feel real. Consider this an ongoing series, in which I work to figure out where I come from, how I can balance my privilege with my oppression, and how I can navigate my way out of what others need me to be and into a cohesive and comfortable identity.
*I still remember the first and only time I underwent a lye treatment to straighten my hair: the sting, the smell, the crushing disappointment when my hair frizzed again within weeks. As far as I knew, there was no other way to make my hair look acceptable. Magazines and salons didn’t have methods of “dealing with” curly hair, and I spent my teenage years jealous of the girls who didn’t have to hide their hair in gel and ponytails and scarves. I hesitate to talk about this because I feel like I’m trivializing black women’s personal, political, and cultural relationship to their hair. I don’t want to be the appropriating white girl, eager to tap into someone else’s pain. Nevertheless, it’s part of my history. I’m still figuring it out.