When I was 12 years old, my parents sent me off to Camp Ramah in the Poconos. That June, I was a dull kid in an undershirt from Trenton, New Jersey, outfitted in limegreen mix-and-match irregulars from E. J. Korvette’s. By the end of August, though—exposed as I was, for two months, to suburban Philadelphia’s finest pre-adolescent fashion cognoscenti—I had contracted that dread disease: “JAPitis.”
Symptoms included not only the perfection of an elaborate, all-day, triple-sink procedure for dyeing white-wool bobby socks to the requisite shade of dirty white (we called it oyster), but also my sudden, ignominious realization that the discount “Beatlemania” record my mother had bought for me the previous spring was not, after all, sung by the real group.
I’m not even sure that the term JAP existed yet back then (I don’t think it did), but, in any case, by October I was—more or less—cured. I put the general themes of entitlement, of materialism, of canonized motifs (in those days. Lord and Taylor was the label of choice rather than Bloomingdale’s) at the back of my mental medicine chest for the next two decades.
It wasn’t until six months ago, actually—while teaching a course at Colgate University called “Contemporary Issues of Jewish Existence”— that I again gave the subject of JAPs a moment’s pause.
A unit on JAPs, was decidedly not on my course syllabus (I taught the standards: Holocaust—Faith— Immigration—Assimilation—Varieties of Religious Experience—Humor— Israel—Women). But my students, as it turned out, were obsessed with JAPs.
Week after week, in personal journals that they were keeping for me, they talked JAPs: the stereotypes, dating them, hating them, not being them, JAP graffiti, JAP competitiveness, JAPs who gave them the willies back home in Scarsdale over spring break.
I had been raised on moron jokes; they had been raised on JAP jokes. (‘What does a JAP do with her asshole in the morning? Dresses him up and sends him to work.”)
Little by little, I came to realize that the JAP theme was by no means a one-note samba. It was kaleidoscopic and self-revealing; the students plugged it into a whole range of Jewish issues. I began to encourage them to look at their throwaway JAP comments with a measure of scrutiny.
The first, and most striking, ostinato in the students’ journals was the dissociative one. As one Jewish student framed it, “There are so many JAPs in this class, it makes me sick.” (An astonishing number of students were desperate to let me know this.)
Since over one-third of the class was not Jewish (the enrollment was 30), and since there was no one in the class that I would have identified sartorially as a JAP, this was an interesting fillip.
“That’s funny,” I started commenting back in these students’ journals. “The other students think you’re a JAP.”
Eventually, one Jewish student wrote, “Maybe when I talk about JAPs and that whole negative thing, it’s a way for me to get ‘permission’ to assimilate.”
Another wondered why he feels “like every JAP on campus somehow implicates me. That’s a very ‘minority culture’ reflex, isn’t it? Why am I so hung up on how everyone else perceives Jews?”
Some students perceived the JAP phenomenon, interestingly, as a developmental phase in American Judaism—a phase in which one parades both one’s success and one’s entitlement. “When my best girlfriend from childhood was bat mitzvahed,” wrote one student after reading A Bintel Brief and World of Our Fathers, “her grandmother gave her a ‘JAP-in-training’ diamond-chip necklace. It’s like the grandmother was saying, “When I was your age, I had to sew plackets in a Lower East Side sweatshop. So you girls be JAPs. Take whatever you can and be proud of it.”
A Black student mentioned— during a talk about the socialization of Jewish women—that Jewish women, like their Black counterparts, are encouraged to be extremely competent, but then are double-bound with the message that their competence must only be used for frivolous purposes. (Like Goldie Hawn, in Private Benjamin, scolding her upholsterer with impressive assertiveness: “I specifically said—the ottoman in mushroom!”, or informing her superior officer that she refused to go to Guam because “my hair will frizz.”) “Minority women are warned not to be a real threat to anyone,” the student explained, “That’s how JAPs evolve.”
Another theme of the students touched on their perception that Jews are sometimes discriminated against not because they are less endowed than others, but because they are more endowed (smarter, richer, more “connected”). JAPs, then, become, in the words of an Irish Catholic student who was doing readings on theology and the theme of chosenness, “the ‘chosen of the chosen’. “Unlike Irish Catholics who have been discriminated against because we seem ‘un-chosen’,” she mused, “people hate JAPs because they seem to have everything: money, confidence, style.”
Of course, it’s probably unnecessary for me to point out that the most prolific JAP references had to do with that venerable old feud — the Jewish War-Between-The-Sexes.
One pre-law Jewish male in the class (who was under a lot of pressure and had developed colitis during that semester) stated point-blank that he did not date Jewish women. I was shocked by the number of 20- year-old, seemingly fully-assimilated Jewish males who were right up there with Alexander Portnoy on this subject.
Several students responded to his comment in their journals. “He’s angry at JAPs,” one woman wrote, “because they get to be needy and dependent, whereas the expectations on him are really high.”
Another student related the experience of two friends of hers at SUNY Binghamton: “Someone spray-painted the word JAP on their dormitory door,” she recounted. “But now I wonder—which one of the girls was being called a JAP? The one with the dozen Benetton sweaters, or the one who’d gotten 750 on her L-SATs?” The question being, of course, which is ultimately more threatening … the demanding woman or the self sufficient one?
An Hispanic woman in the class talked about what she called “the dialectic of prejudice”—that is, the contradictory nature of racist or sexist slurs as being, in itself, a diagnostic of irrational bias. “A JAP is portrayed as both frigid and nymphomaniacal,” she wrote. “She’s put down both because of her haughty strut that says, I’m independent’, and because of her kvetching that says, ‘I’m dependent’.”
A twist on this theme was provided by a Jewish woman who commented, “Whatever Jewish men call us—cold, hot, leech, bitch—it’s all the same thing: They’re afraid they can’t live up to our standards.”
A psych major in the class took a different tack. “It’s not that the Jewish male really believes Jewish women are terrible, rather that he simply wants majority culture males to believe it. It’s like when territorial animals urinate on a tree,” she explained. “It’s a minority male’s possessive instinct. Like a sign that says, ‘Robert Redford’s—stay away.”
Finally, several Jewish students framed their relations with one another in the context of Jewish family systems. “Lashing out at Jewish women—calling them all JAP‘s or refusing to many them—is a way to get back at the entire high-expectation, high-pressure Jewish family,” stated one student in response to a film I showed in class called “Parenting and Ethnicity.” “You can lash out by becoming an academic failure,” he went on, “or you can become a doctor—which is less self destructive— and then simply refuse to marry a Jewish woman.”
Towards the end of the term, a feminist friend pointed out to me something I had not considered: that the characterizations of JAPs and Yuppies are often identical—the difference being, of course, that a Yuppie designation is still generally taken as neutral or even positive, whereas there is hardly one of us left—I don’t think—who would compete for the label of JAP.
All in all, I trust that the larger lessons in all of these JAP ruminations have not been lost on my students. For example: Why has it become socially sanctioned to use a Jewish designation (JAP) for a description that fits as many Christians as Jews? Or why—along the same lines—is it okay to use a female designation (again, JAP) for a description that fits as many men as women? Or, sensing what we now sense, shouldn’t we refuse any truck altogether with the term JAP?
Susan Schnur is a rabbi and a writer and has been a Visiting Professor in the Philosophy of Religion Department at Colgate University.
JAP: THE NEW ANTISEMITIC CODE WORD
Isn’t it odd that the term JAP, referring to a spoiled, self-indulgent woman, should be so widely used at a time when women are working outside their homes in unprecedented numbers, struggling to balance their home lives and their work lives to give as much of themselves as they can to everybody—their husbands, their kids, their bosses?
Jewish women, like women throughout society, are trying to find their own paths, their own voices. And, along with other changes that have taken place, they have been finding themselves Jewishly. And yet we hear the term JAP being used, perhaps almost more now than ever before. Why?
The new-found, or rather newly accepted, drive of women for achievement in many arenas threatens many men. What better put-down of the strong woman than to label her a “Princess”? She is not being attacked as a competitor—that would be too close to home. No—she’s called a princess, and that label diminishes her, negating her ambition and her success.
One may note, and rightly so, that there are materialistic Jewish women —and men too. But are Jews the only people guilty of excesses in spending? Why should the word “Jewish” be used pejoratively to describe behavior we don’t approve of?
I think the answer is that there is an underlying anti-semitic message in that label. Loudness is somehow “Jewish.” Vulgarity is somehow “Jewish.” All the old stereotypes of Jews come into play in the use of the term JAP. In this day, polite Christian society would not openly make anti-Jewish slurs. But JAP is O.K. JAP is a kind of code word. It’s a way of symbolically winking, poking with an elbow, and saying, “well you know how Jews are—so materialistic and pushy.”
What is interesting is that this code word can be used in connection with women—the Jewish American Princess—and nobody protests its intrinsic anti-semitism.
Francine Klagsbrun is the author of Married People: Staying Together in the Age of Divorce (New York: Bantum, 1985) and of Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980). These excerpts are from a speech delivered by Klagsburn recently at Temple Israel of Greatneck NY.