Stereotyping Jews, Female and Otherwise

Over the OWU holiday break, I’ve had a number of occasions to think about being and appearing Jewish in the midwest.  As I’ve written in recent posts, the Chanukah/Christmas season routinely prompts me towards identity reflection.  Events on campus during finals week had me playing the role of BIG Jew on campus more fiercely than I have before.  And, most recently, I’ve been examining our cultural condition in relation to two Internet videos that have kept Jewish bloggers’ fingers flying through the Christmas holiday.

The first, “Coasties” was conceived by two male students at The University of Wisconsin.  The title makes reference to a term used by college students in the midwest to denote students from one of the coasts (or suburban Chicago).  The term originated as a geographic marker, but through its use a subtext emerged which suggests coasties come from economically privileged families, sometimes, as the song suggests, Jewish families.

A line from the song declares: “She a coastie, always blowin‘ daddy’s money, you a coastie, my east coast Jewish honey.”  Any Jewish coastie will quickly recognize this as code for JAP, or Jewish American Princess.  When I was growing up, being called a JAP was an insult, a sign that people thought you were spoiled and obnoxious.  Today, the term has been appropriated by some Jewish girls, like nigger in African-American circles, as a badge of honor.  (See: Zazzle)  Are there any risks of such behavior?

Heeb Magazine suggests “…the majority of the [University of Wisconsin] student body, hailing from the rural Midwest, have little or no direct exposure to Jews in their upbringing and sadly, their bite-sized understanding of our culture gets boiled down to a pair of fuzzy boots and a Lawng Aylind accent.”  In other words, when people’s first and most frequent exposure to Jews comes in the form of cultural stereotypes and jokes, often voiced by Jews themselves, that is all people think of when they think of our people.

LandlineTV’s video “The Making of Rachel and the Dragon,” which also came out last week, pokes fun at Jewish American Princesses directly.  The video depicts Jewish women as bored and judgmental.  It refers to actors and actresses whose careers have been built on comical and self-mocking brands of Jewishness, including Sarah Silverman, Larry David, and Fran Drescher.

The song and video seem innocuous jokes to some, anti-semitic slurs to others.  I wonder, where is the line and who draws it?  Have you ever made a joke about Jews with your Jewish or non-Jewish friends?  How did it play?  How did you feel after?  What damage do we, as Jews, do to ourselves by recylcing stereotypical jokes about Jewish cultural and behaviors?  If our audience isn’t familiar enough with the culture to get the joke from the inside out, are we contributing to our own condemnation?

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5 Responses to “Stereotyping Jews, Female and Otherwise”

  1. Burton Cantrell Says:

    This might surprise you, but when I think of you it is first as a young woman. Your youth and female identity come across to me as much stronger than your ethnic or religious background. And although I am a quintessential WASP, I’ll bet your first impression of me is as a male in his 70s. You know a little bit about my background as a leader in certain progressive causes, and that is how I have come to know you. I know many white Protestant women, neighbors and associates, with whom I have nothing much in common. On the other hand, it would be interesting to follow you around for a day — because we share values.
    Let me give you an example. I could discuss or joke with you about your ethnic background, but you would be very offended if I ran my fingers through your hair. You are a young woman and I am an old man, and that is a much stronger identity than any other.
    By the way, I spent a lot of my career trying to share life with strong black clergymen. Try talking to them about homosexuality, for example. Talking with you or other Jews I know would be relatively easy.
    As you know, I have been a Midwestern student at a major university on the East Coast — and there’s an identity shift there too. And I’ve been in China and Europe just enough to experience minority status. My advice — just be yourself.

    • owujew Says:

      Thanks Burt. You know that I value your thoughts and I’m happy that others at OWU will get to hear them too. You are an alum, afterall! I really appreciate what you say about being a midwesterner at an East coast school. Folks on the east coast certainly have a fair share of judgment about folks from the middle states. I’m always reminded of this New Yorker cover and the comments my friends and family back home made to me when I first moved to Columbus.

  2. Caroline Miller Says:

    First off, I think it’s awesome Jodi, that you have this blog; everything you say has such depth and inquiry. I completely identify with all that you write about having a jewish identity away from our “coastie” neighborhoods. On one hand, I think it’s important to represent jews at OWU and in the midwest in general where they’re not so prevalent, but on the other hand, sometimes I feel really uncomfortable when people continue to ignore the fact it is the christmas AND chanukah season and when you have corrected them a few times and they still neglect to acknowledge the Chanukah part. It’s not that it matters SO much, but at some point you feel like the “annoying jew” who is constantly bringing up how different your background is from the others around you. I think it’s hard to find a median point on bringing up the jewish faith enough to give it a fair chance and between bringing it up TOO much, to the point of irritation. (we’ve all been around those type of people).

    • owujew Says:

      Gracias Caroline! I know I’m looking forward to having you bace in the midwest for awhile… I appreciate the point you raise. I think it’s important for Jews from the big coastal cities to understand, if not experience, what Jewish life is like in other parts of the country and around the world.
      I realize that many OWUJews will return, or move, to NYC, Boston, DC, LA, and Chicago. I know, however, that your time in Delaware will have changed you in some fundamental way. Some of you will abandon Judaism altogether. Others of you will join synagogues and chavuarot with which you celebrate the holidays and raise children in the fold. You will feel a sense of comfort and joy in being in a community where there are other people like you.
      Of course, some of you are from Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, and the like. You all have something to teach us coastal Jews. You can share your experiences, good and bad, with us. You can invite a friend to experience your local congregation – for Shabbat or a holiday – so they can learn more about Jewish Life in the midwest, which DOES exist! In the Columbus area alone you can find Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Lubavitch congregations. Cleveland and Cincinnati are also ripe with opportunity. (I wonder if there are terms to denote students from Ohio’s 3 C cities and those from the rural parts in between?)
      I wonder what the balance is between being the “annoying” Jew and just being the Jew. I have many friends in Columbus who ask me questions about Judaism that they’ve been contemplating for years, or that emerge throughout the year as they hear about Rosh haShanah, Chanukah, and Passover on NPR or in the Columbus Dispatch. While I have, at times, felt pressured to answer for “my people” I think it comes down to how the questions are asked.

      • owujew Says:

        Last night, someone told me a joke prefaced by “Someone Jewish told me this joke.” The joke wasn’t that funny and definitely played on Jewish stereotypes. I found it interesting that this person felt it necessary to tell me whom she heard the joke from, like that would vindicate her from saying something that she knew was not politically correct. I’m not sure it worked…

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