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Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation

Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation by Riv-Ellen Prell, Beacon Press, $28.50.

Riv-Ellen Prell’s study of Jewish gender stereotypes reveals how American Jews played out their social and cultural anxieties on the bodies of women (and sometimes on male bodies as well.) Drawing on decades of cultural images in the Jewish press, American Jewish fiction, popular music and memoirs, Prell develops a unique theory of Jewish assimilation into the melting pot of America. More importantly, she shows the historical development of the stereotypes that still shadow contemporary American Jews.

Prell uses gender images to highlight two important aspects of American Jewish life. First, American Jews have always been uneasy about their place in a country that paid lip service to pluralism but was itself mainly Christian and ambivalent about “others” in its midst. Second, Americanization and class mobility made different demands on men and women. These demands influenced Jews to create gender identities that reflected their acculturation (or lack of it) into American life.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, class and gender anxieties about a new type of Jewish woman—”Eastern European immigrant, urban, working class, and seemingly unencumbered by family responsibilities”—led to the creation of the Ghetto Girl stereotype. With her made-up face, over-dressed body, loud voice and desire for luxuries, the Ghetto Girl was invoked and criticized by Jews and non-Jews alike in the media, drama, literature and social work. The Ghetto Girl stereotype combined Jews’ concerns about acculturation and their differences from Americans with Americans’ fears of the “huddled masses” of immigrants at their shores. At the same time, the “Young Jewish Woman in Search of Marriage” became a pervasive image in American popular culture, and, at first, a more acceptable vision of Jewish womanhood. Her goals—marriage and domestic life—were strategies that helped Jews move up the class ladder, closer to the “real” America. Yet this image of the Jewish woman also made other Jews nervous. Once she was married she became financially dependent on her husband’s income, a sign of mobility, but she put pressure on him to support her as she focused on buying items that would signal her family’s Americanization.

During the 1930s and 1940s, with anti-Semitism a constant outside threat, American Jews turned inward and struggled over how to deal with their economic success. Economically comfortable parents fought with children who did not want to follow their parents’ lives of endless work and upward mobility. The Jewish family, rather than the individual, became the context for Americanization, in such works as the radio saga “The Rise of the Goldbergs.”

The “Jewish Mother” of lore made her appearance in the 1950s, as American Jews moved to newly developed suburbs. But even as they entered the middle class, Jews did not get the social and cultural acceptance they sought. Jewish men and non-Jews blamed Jewish mothers for this lingering discrimination. As portrayed in comedy routines and magazines of the time, Jewish mothers represented excess: They plied their families with food and manipulative affection, they personified guilt in their demands for unquestioning loyalty, and they were out of touch with the New World in which they and their families lived. From the clubs of the Catskills to the stage of the Ed Sullivan show, the Jewish Mother exemplified the dystopia of American suburban life, even to those who had never met Jews.

By the 1970s, the Jewish Mother had given birth to the JAP, the Jewish American Princess stereotype. The JAP, with her excessive material demands on men and her inability to care for and nurture others, spread through humor, greeting cards, t-shirts, and other media. Despite the JAP’s ubiquity, Jews were divided over how to interpret her message. Although some women proudly appropriated the title, feminist women and men exposed the JAP stereotype as a modern anti-Semitic and sexist slur against Jewish women. Prell acknowledges the work of Lilith Magazine in launching a powerful communal campaign in the 1980s to condemn and combat the image of the JAP in popular culture.

Starting in the late 1970s, Jewish women responded to these stereotypes and were finally heard. Jewish women writers, artists, and performers created unforgettable and often uncomfortable cultural images, such as Gilda Radner’s Rhonda Weiss on Saturday Night Live, and artist Rhonda Lieberman’s “Pushy/Cushy/Tushy,” a triplet of beaded fake Chanel bags emblazoned with pictures of comedienne Sandra Bcrnhard. Prell brings a nuanced analysis of these controversial representations, rather than dismissing them as reflections of the artists’ “Jewish self-hatred.” On a personal note, Prell also realizes how difficult it must have been for her own mother, growing up as the child of immigrants. In order for her to become an “American Woman” her mother had to reject her familial and cultural milieu. “I now understand,” she writes, “that the daily battles with my mother throughout my adolescence—about who I could or could not be, and how to go about growing up—were in large measure a war between her vision of womanhood, which was shaped by the shame of being the daughter of immigrants, and mine, which was shaped by a search for a life unconstrained by those traditions.”

In our struggle to create a society with choices and options for “Jewish womanhood” (and Jewish manhood) it’s important for Jewish feminists to remember the long history of these gender stereotypes, even as we struggle against them.

Susan Sapiro is on the staff of Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project of the JCC in Manhattan, and is a former Lilith intern. She is a co-founder and co-facilitator of the No Small Change Young Women’s Tzedakah Collective.