Where’s Our Vocabulary?

I’m sure many of you have seen this Onion article:

Area Man Saddened To Realize Short Jewish Women With An Interest In Theater His Type

CHICAGO—While reminiscing about his romantic past Monday, area resident David Simms was shocked and a little saddened to realize that short women belonging to the Jewish faith and possessing an active interest in the world of theater have always been, and will always be, his type.

“God, how did I never notice it before?” said Simms, taken aback by his unexpected discovery. “Rachel, Sarah, Devorah—Miss Katzenberg, the weekend director at the Israeli Arts Center—it’s all so obvious now.”

“Squat, theatergoing Jews,” added Simms, shaking his head in confused wonder. “I’m totally into squat, theatergoing Jews.”

Okay, there’s enough offensive stuff in here to warrant a whole other blog post – the humor in the article is all based on presenting Jewishness, shortness, and (implied) fatness as undesirable – but that’s not what caught my eye. Notice the wording in the first paragraph:

hile reminiscing about his romantic past Monday, area resident David Simms was shocked and a little saddened to realize that short women belonging to the Jewish faith and possessing an active interest in the world of theater have always been, and will always be, his type.

So Jewishness is clearly a matter of religion, right? Not ethnicity, race, or culture? Hmm. Take a look at these snippets from the rest of the article:

“I always just thought I liked brunettes, or was, you know, a ‘breasts’ man…. I’m going to fall madly in love and raise a beautiful family with a short, curly-haired theater buff….” As long as his date is at least half-Jewish, appreciates some form of live performance, and can be picked up off the ground with relative ease, Simms said, he would be willing to see where things go.

Despite the article’s initial implication that a Jewish identity is based solely on faith, it goes on to describe Jewishness in physical and genetic terms. Simply put, the article can’t help but contradict itself.

I bring this up because this exact contradiction has been around for decades and decades. Jews and non-Jews constantly fluctuate between religious and ethnic terms to describe Jewish identity – very often, as in this case, in the same publication. Hell, whenever I try to talk about my half-Jewish identity, or describe anti-Semitism in the context of broader systems of oppression, I can’t help but resort to terms like “biracial” and “racism,” even while I maintain that Jewishness isn’t a race. It’s not the fault of individual writers; the blame lies with an astonishingly limited vocabulary to describe our identity. Do I call myself “biethnic?” What elegant variation should this writer have come up with besides “belonging to the Jewish faith?” (The article uses “Jewish persuasion” later on, which is just as bad.) “Jewish culture,” maybe? I have a feeling that readers would have been mildly confused by that – and then gone off pick up a bagel and the latest Philip Roth novel.

(Also, I should note that I think “tiny, artsy” Jews are hot. Just sayin‘.)

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)

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5 Responses

  1. I don’t think the term “Jewish culture” is so much more than the sum of its parts that most readers would be confused. Then again, I live in Boro Park, so, no, I wouldn’t.

  2. wildly hot. no question.

  3. […] Mizvot has a somewhat more serious take. Also, Seinfeld in Yiddish, the way it was meant to […]

  4. Good post. I think there’s some mileage to be gained by talking about Jewishness as an ethnicity, although I’m not sure it helps all that much. I don’t think of ethnicity and race as meaning exactly the same thing, but the definition’s still a bit fuzzy.

    –IP

  5. Ethnicity and race aren’t the same thing, for sociologists anyway. Jews are certainly considered, and consider themselves, to constitute an “ethnic group” or, as it is termed in other vocabularies, a “people” (Hebrew: ” ‘am “).

    Indeed, that it is the basic reasoning behind Israel’s existence under international law — as a people’s exercise of its self-determination, the right set out at Article 1 of the U.N. Charter (and elsewhere) which constitutes the basic building block of international law. If Jews do not or can be shown not to constitute a people (this is the central claim, stated or implied, of an unfortunately large proportion of anti-Zionists — the counterparts to right-wing Jews who deny the existence of a Palestinian people) then the Israel’s right to exist under international law vanishes.

    Which is why anti-Zionists are quick to embrace antisemitic theories from Koestler’s Khazarians to Arafat’s “there was no Temple and, by the way, let’s keep all the archaeology under wraps” gloss. But I digress…

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