The Joke of Jewish Women

BY KATHERINE KARLIN

There was a brief uproar last spring when, after South African comic Trevor Noah was named as the late-night successor to Jon Stewart, someone unearthed a three-year-old Tweet about the unwillingness of Jewish women to commit enthusiastically to fellatio. Charges of anti-semitism and misogyny were lobbed, and defensive missiles shot back. For my part, the joke plucked a strange nostalgia, as if an exploratory ping launched by Nixon-era astronauts had bounced around the heliosphere for a few decades before drifting home on a solar wind.


You get the picture: the stereotype of a Jewish woman could be flipped to what the speaker wanted her to be. But whatever she was, it wasn’t good, by nature of her very Jewishness.


"Jewish girls don’t go down" (I always heard it this way) was something I heard from boys both gentile and Jewish, often as they were applying pressure to my top vertebrae with a finger or two. A lot of Jewish women my age heard the maxim this way. The notion was, whatever Jewish girls were, it was something we didn’t want to be. These jokes were in the books we read, particularly Philip Roth. They were told by the borscht belt comics we saw on TV, on sit-coms, from comedy duos that paired a long-suffering ethnic type with a daffy gentile woman (Stiller and Meara, Bologna and Taylor)—the very absence of the Jewish woman, here, being the joke. Everyone knows that Jewish men want shiksas. And we repeated them, internalizing the tropes, proving that we were different: generous, non-judgmental, sexually game.

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There were jokes about Jewish mothers, who were grasping and overbearing, or, conversely, self-absorbed and negligent. Or they were about girls, Jewish American Princesses, otherwise known as JAPs: take a minute to let your brain wrap itself around the layers of racism in that epithet.  JAPs were either greedy (“How do you make a JAP wine? Take away her Bloomingdale’s card!”) or not (“How’s your cousin Ida?” “She’s a freedom rider,” as satirist Allan Sherman sang). They were either sexually inhibited or sexually ravenous. They were often portrayed as clueless, like Myrna Minkoff in A Confederacy of Dunces, but they could be smart, like Roth’s uber-JAP, Brenda Patimkin. You get the picture: the stereotype of a Jewish woman could be flipped to what the speaker wanted her to be. But whatever she was, it wasn’t good, by nature of her very Jewishness. And it was just my lot in life to meet a lot of boys who craved fellatio, and who assured me, “You’re not like other Jewish girls; they don’t go down.”


I look at the girls I grew up with and I never fail to be impressed by the women they have become. A doctor, a marine biologist, a fashion designer, an attorney who represents interned immigrants, a book editor, a founder of a society for Israel-Palestinian friendship.


The real joke was this: I grew up on Long Island, surrounded by Jewish girls and women, but I didn’t seem to know any. I mean, I didn’t know any like the ones in the jokes. The Jewish mothers we had were smart, independent, and socially engaged, leading marches for school busing and holding living-room meetings for the ERA. Nothing like the clinging, vaguely obscene Jewish mothers we kept hearing about. The girls I knew were serious, idea-driven, and adventurous. We rarely discussed boys. Mostly we discussed the music we loved, the politics to which we were awakening, the women we hoped to become. We let our hair grow as frizzy as our thoughts.

Why did we accept this so dumbly, the Jewish Princess joke, when no one knew better than we the ugly little fallacy at its core? We were privileged girls, well-educated and in the surplus side of the middle class, New Yorkers with easy access to the arts. Ultimately the joke was proscriptive: Jewish girls didn’t go down so we should; Jewish girls were wanted things so we shouldn’t. Above all, Jewish girls were noisy, so we should shut up. If we had any shot at all at the genteel dream of assimilation, we had to learn how to keep our rampant ideas to ourselves. You need to cork yourself—let me help you with that.

Except, we didn’t. Something happened in the 70s. The Jewish joke bubbled up and subsided like the foam of melting butter. Maybe because of feminism. Maybe because of the evolution of famous Jewish women who were, suddenly, everywhere: Barbra Streisand, nasal and self-deprecating as Fanny Brice in the 1960s, grew into an offbeat auteur in the 70s with frizzy hair of her own. Carole King dropped her shtick as the funny-little-sister-tunesmith of the Brill Building and came into her own as a deeply reflective singer-songwriter. Rhoda, the indelible Jewish TV character played by Valerie Harper, quit being the chubby, wise-cracking sidekick to Mary and anchored an eponymous show, very much the center of her life as a confident working woman. I remember when the film version of Fiddler on the Roof opened, one of my 12-year-old friends declared, “I will never get a nose job. Tzeitel in Fiddler has a Jewish nose and she looks gorgeous.” This was a revelation—that a Jewish nose could be anything but homely. Slowly, without our realizing it, being a Jewish woman was no longer a joke. It was something to be proud of.


Probably these girls are busy doing other things, and, in any case, whatever their sexual proclivities are, I hope they come by them freely, without the burden of having to represent their ethnicity.


For many years, I didn’t think much about being Jewish, and inasmuch as I did, I considered it something I was from, not something I was. That has changed as I’ve grown older, partly because of the ruminations that fester in middle age, and partly because I live in Kansas, where many young people have never met a Jew. It’s important to rattle their preconceptions, including the preconception that one’s ethics develop in direct proportion to one’s Christianity. Partly I have been thinking about my own Jewishness because in academia, which employs me, there’s been a creeping conflation lately between Jewishness and an espousal of right-wing Likud politics, a tulip-leaf overlay that’s become so casually accepted a young UCLA student last month asked a Jewish candidate for student senate how, “given that you’re a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community . . . do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” (I don’t blame the student who asked this question; she was just artlessly repeating the canard she’s heard.)

I look at the girls I grew up with and I never fail to be impressed by the women they have become. A doctor, a marine biologist, a fashion designer, an attorney who represents interned immigrants, a book editor, a founder of a society for Israel-Palestinian friendship. Some are married, some divorced, some are in long-term same-sex unions. And some, to my surprise, are practicing, something we never did as girls. Yet in middle age, the ritual of lighting the shabbat candles and fasting on Yom Kippur centers them.

I do not believe in God, Old Testament or otherwise. But I believe in them, these big-hearted women scattered around the country. I’m convinced of the rightness of a world that has the courage to imagine them. What would I have become, had it not been for our discussions over pizza and Tabs, the debates that lasted well into the night, the exchange of favorite books and records. Here I am in Kansas, a bright spring day, Passover in fact, tinted by forsythia and some early daffodils, and as I write about them I’m overcome by something like love. They have daughters, too, dark-eyed girls who will not have to grow up with the deprecating jokes, girls beginning to attend to serious things of their own. I have no idea how many of them give blow jobs to guys who, like Trevor Noah, feel entitled to them. I have no interest in running a poll. Probably these girls are busy doing other things, and, in any case, whatever their sexual proclivities are, I hope they come by them freely, without the burden of having to represent their ethnicity.

To them, I say, mazel tov.