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From the Editor

Susan Weidman Schneider on old biases in new media: the noise around Jewish women’s bodies now.

Just as we were concluding this issue of Lilith, I was stunned to see end-of-decade media items bursting upon us with bizarre and constricting images of women, and women’s bodies — some focusing explicitly on Jewish women. What’s driving this? Is it the recession? Does economic anxiety cause people to unleash such thoughts?

In its December issue, Details magazine, that laddie mag for men in a state of arrested development, ran a feature entitled “The Rise of the Hot Jewish Girl.” It touted the joys of Jewish women’s bodies — as if there were one single body type for everyone who identifies as a Jew. “Big, natural boobs” were among the lusted-after characteristics all Jewish women are thought to possess, and the Details website (not to drive any traffic there, dear reader) shows Queen Esther, Theda Bara, Betty Boop and La Streisand as part of our sexual (and embodied) inheritance. In fact, it’s an old trope. In literature, Jewish women for centuries have been viewed as the “other” — seen by non-Jews as exotic, desirable, or dangerous, and sometimes as all three at once. You can imagine where this is all going, without even reading the article, which fetishizes Jewish women’s bodies, demonstrating old bias in new clothing. Or no clothing.

And did I mention that the illustration for the magazine piece featured a woman’s headless, limbless torso seen from the rear, its bare back and scantily-pantied bum revealing a Star of David tattooed just above the panty line?

I’m not making this stuff up, I swear. And there’s more.

Though the Details article claimed to be admiring Jewish women while actually objectifying them (us), the past few months have seen nastier characterizations I thought we’d washed out of the culture 20 years ago. Now seems an appropriate time, what with the new decade and all, to take a look at the parallels between then and now.

Then: Jewish women (I’m talking 1980s here) were characterized as JAPs (no insult intended towards Asians; as you’re well aware, reader, the sobriquet Jewish American Princess is the root of this acronym). The JAP was in those days reviled in cartoons, books, greeting cards and everyday teen talk and adult slang. A Jewish female too young to be a Jewish Mother (though she might indeed be a mother) and immature enough to be completely preoccupied with herself, she was characterized as demanding. Bad in bed. Materialistic. Spoiled. This stereotypical Jewish woman is blamed for wanting to marry a doctor, blamed if she wants to become a doctor. Too passive, and also too aggressive. Not much room to maneuver there.

Now: the stereotype has been reborn, but in different clothing. Literally. You’ll discover in the Voices section of this issue that “Coasties” are Jewish women from New York or L.A., reviled on YouTube and on their Midwestern campus for dressing similarly in popular brands and spending too much of “Daddy’s money.” (Please, please make sure to note the assumption that all spending money comes from fathers, not mothers. And that linking Jews to money is a very ancient variety of anti-Semitism masquerading here as misogyny.)

Also now: the New York Observer, an otherwise respected, often reliably hip weekly newspaper, published in December a straightfaced report about “cheetahs” — sexually assertive and desperately marriage-deprived New York women over 25 (i.e., well past their prime) who are described as routinely taking advantage of drunken men, having sex with them and then not even having the decency to leave before morning. Women — Jewish women at least — have in the past been reviled by comedians and disgruntled lovers for being frigid or uninterested in sex. Now, women are reviled for acting too boldly on their desires. Not much room to maneuver here either. The cheetah is posited as the “younger niece” of the cougar, that predatory woman who pursues men younger that she is. (Please pause again and note that the animal imagery for women has shifted. Women used to suffer poultrification — we were called chicks, mother hens, old birds. But no one is afraid of poultry. These big cats, however, at least in real life and not just as metaphors, are fearsome: cheetahs, cougars, jaguars. What’s coming next?)

Lilith offers you now an antidote to these deracinated and actually rather scary projections about Jewish women’s bodies, motives and desires. The writers in this issue aren’t afraid to examine their own experiences, speaking in their own voices about their bodies and their relationships. These reports from the field are not upbeat, but they are truthful. From breast cancer, gender dysmorphia and cutting to the holiness of how we feed ourselves, and how we care for the body when life has departed.

Honoring the stories of real women in this issue, let us offer a toast to a decade of continued development, to good thinking and good writing. L’Chaim. Happy 2010.