“In a coma! I thought she was Jewish!”

Some truths and some speculations about Jewish women and sex

Some Truths and some speculations about Jewish women and sex—by Susan Weidman Schneider

A prince enters a castle, and finds a beautiful woman lying on a bed. He tiptoes into her room and ravishes her. As he leaves, he is approached by the lord of the castle. 

LORD of CASTLE: “Have you seen my poor daughter? She’s been in a coma since her horse threw her last week.”

PRINCE: “In a coma! I thought she was Jewish!”

There are many variations on this joke, usually told by male Jewish comics on late-night T.V. or at Catskill resorts. These nasty sketches about Jewish women are all insulting, saying that Jewish women don’t like sex, are “unresponsive,” “don’t do it.”

In mid-70’s America, suggesting that certain people as a group aren’t interested in sex is like suggesting in another time that they were witches or heretics. It’s not a compliment.

What’s going on? What does the proliferation of negative caricatures of Jewish women signify? Why are Jewish men telling jokes about Jewish women— when there is no comparable oeuvre of jokes about Greek or Italian or Baptist women?

Why are the jokes about sex? Why in public? In other words, why are Jewish men saying these awful things about us, and why are Jewish men—and women— laughing?

The jokes may be a window on the politics of sex between Jewish women and men. What follows are some questions and some speculations about Jewish women and men and sex. The answers aren’t clear or simple.

There are two possibilities: the negative pictures of Jewish women in the jokes are either true, or they’re not true. (Of course, in the great Jewish disputational tradition, there’s always the lurking third possibility—maybe a little true, maybe a little not true.)

What’s going on in the minds of Jewish men, the inventors of the stereotypes, the tellers of the jokes? One possibility, the Big Lie Theory, postulates that Jewish women are no different sexually from other women, but that Jewish men have the need to malign our sexual “performance” in public. Some of the reasons for the jokes, then, may be a general fear of women’s sexuality, fear of and competition with non-Jewish men, and a (self-hating) wish to assimilate and rationalize it.

At the very least, the jokes reflect Jewish men’s uneasiness about their relationships with Jewish women. If we’re unresponsive, it means unresponsive to them. The very use of the word “unresponsive” suggests that the woman isn’t expected to have any role in initiating sex. Mary Jane Sherfey, in The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality speaks of women’s insatiable sexuality as a physiological reality of which men are frightened. It may be that Jewish men portray us negatively because they are afraid that they can’t satisfy this drive, and prefer to try to convince us that we’re sexless rather than face any loss of “masculinity.”

Jewish men are caught between trying to define and defend their manhood before Jewish women (“their” women) and before non-Jewish men. Alexander Portnoy in the Turkish bath: “There are no women here. No women and no goyim. Can it be? There is nothing to worry about!”

If twentieth-century American Jewish men have memories of their strong mothers or foremothers, perhaps this also affects their attitude towards the women who are their contemporaries. They may fear the re-emergence of this strength in Jewish women, sexually and in other ways. They don’t want competition from their women, they want (intelligent) support.

Jewish men, in their attempt to succeed American-style, compete with the handsome non-Jews who are the prototypical male sex objects in a culture where Jews are in a minority—where Robert Redford is sexier than Dustin Hoffman. In this competitive context, the jokes about sex may function as a beacon “warning” non-Jewish men that Jewish women aren’t worth the trouble. The jokes become an attempt to keep the Jewish woman the exclusive property of the Jewish man who has claimed her. Oppressed men typically have no physical protection to offer their women against rape and abuse; historically, this was certainly true of the Jews. The jokes may be a perverse kind of protection, a barrier against the attentions of other men, a picket sign proclaiming “Don’t Patronize These Premises. Lousy merchandise within.”

The jokes about Jewish women may be an attempt by Jewish men to ingratiate themselves with their competitors (“the goyim”). Jokes about women bind men together—but it would be unthinkable for Jews to joke about WASP women, for example, so Jewish men tell “secrets” about a safer subject: their own women.

There’s obviously a strong element of anti-Semitism here, too. The joke-tellers, and perhaps the audience too, want to distance themselves from Jewishness, but may not feel comfortable about doing this overtly. So both Jewish men and non-Jewish men get to denigrate the Jews in the guise of striking out “only” at Jewish women. The jokes may be a way of expressing anti-Jewish feelings under a mask of misogyny.

The alleged female disinterest in sex that provides an “excuse” for Jewish men to attack Jewishness also is used as one rationalization for intermarriage and assimilation. (“I’d like to marry a Jewish woman, but they’re just no good in bed.”) Making it with non-Jewish women is some men’s way of entering mainstream America. To quote Portnoy again: “I don’t seem to be sticking my dick up these girls as much as I stick it up their backgrounds—as though through fucking I will discover America. Conquer America.”

In order to rationalize their choice of non-Jewish sexual partners, Jewish men may be trying to prove to themselves and to other men (and to Jewish women also, of course) that we are inferior sexual partners. The blame and/or the responsibility for their sexual choices rests with us!

Since there are no major studies of Jewish women’s sexuality, we have no statistical data with which to confirm or refute the stereotypes about our sexual behavior. We can, however, examine the phenomena we see.

“What’s the definition of a Jewish nymphomaniac?”
“A woman who makes love once a year.”

Let’s look at the second possibility— that the Jewish woman is, indeed, sexually “unresponsive.” This premise, which we shall call the Kernel-of-Truth Theory, suggests that there may possibly be some reality behind the stereotype that Jewish women are less interested in sex than other women—there may be something in our common backgrounds (our upbringing, experience, shared attitudes) that conditions us to being negative or hostile towards sex. The attitudes towards our own bodies that we Jews have learned and taught for centuries; our past and present family patterns; and, very importantly, the sexual politics of relations between Jewish men and Jewish women are all possible explanations for our alleged present-day sexual passivity.

Obviously, the lives of most Jews in America resemble the lives of other twentieth-century Americans more than they do the lives of our Jewish grandparents. But there are certain attitudes towards our bodies that may be definably “Jewish.”

Jewish life for many centuries (probably at least for the past 2000 years of exile) has harbored a strong general bias against pleasurable physical activity for its own sake, both for men and for women. As the proverbial People of the Book, Jews have always been more at home (or thought they were expected to feel more at home) in their minds than in their bodies. Pleasure was supposed to have a purpose, and physical play was something that other people could afford to indulge in. Study and work meant survival. Play meant distraction from the battle for survival.

A revealing story is told of a boy in Eastern Europe who combed a horse every day for a year to collect in secret the horse’s hairs, out of which he made a ball. One day his father found him bouncing the ball, and took it away from him, saying “Playing with balls is for the goyim.”

Even in contemporary American Jewish families, where tennis or swimming may be encouraged, it is often with the idea that these are good for the child’s physical development, rather than for the sheer fun involved. Even at summer camp, we expect our kids to learn something—Hebrew, folk dancing, soccer. (A New York radio commercial advertising a Jewish summer camp for girls mentions “two modern infirmaries” even before raving about its “Olympic-size pool.”)

As Jews necessarily obsessed with survival, we’ve gotten the message that our bodies aren’t for fun. They can even be a locus of danger, a kind of magnet for disaster. (“Take me to a specialist!”) The Jewish family’s survival-insurance tactics stress, sensibly, “health” and “cleanliness” and “caution.” But this concern for physical safety may place constraints upon sexual expression.

Women’s bodies were seen as especially dangerous in the past because they were thought to be a temptation luring men away from their study of holy books —a specifically Jewish version of woman-as-temptress.

Judaism is mercifully free of much of the real fear and loathing of sex found in Stoic and ascetic Christian dogma, and the notion of Jewish celibacy is condemned. Sexual desire is recognized and isn’t associated with guilt; nevertheless, there is a strong sense in Jewish writings of the necessity for restraint regarding sex.

Traditionally, safety from the evil thoughts a woman’s body might inspire was found only within the boundaries of marriage. And sex within marriage is very well ordered in Jewish law, with suggested minimum daily requirements (or weekly or monthly), depending upon the occupation of the husband. Observant Jews today still follow the proscription against any physical contact between a man and a woman during her menstrual period and for seven days after.

According to Jewish religious law and custom, Jewish men have been charged with fulfilling their wives sexually. Marital sex was the duty of the husband and the privilege of the wife. Even so, “modesty” and restraint are stressed, and some women were penalized for discussing their sexual activity openly. Leonard Swidler, in Women in Judaism, points out that in earlier times a woman could be divorced without recompense if she was “loud-voiced”—which was interpreted to mean either that she “unashamedly demands sexual intercourse with her husband so someone can hear” or that she “disputes intimate sexual matters this way.” The very fact that there was a mechanism for punishing this behavior indicates that some women must have wanted to make their desires known.

“How do you get a Jewish woman to stop screwing?”
“Marry her.”

Sex in marriage is what most of the jokes seem to be about. Our attitudes towards sex are certainly affected by our family relationships.

The nuclear family is a patriarchy in microcosm. In a patriarchy, men decide what’s important, and women enable the men to do these “important” things— whether it’s studying Talmud or Gray’s Anatomy. The baleboste (classic Jewish housewife, off whose floors one could eat with impunity) is the “enabler” par excellence.

The Jewish woman has, in fact, been expected to be Superenabler: Super-wife and Supermother combined. We take on ourselves all responsibility—and blame—for the daily functioning of the lives around us. We make the car pools run on time. Filling other people’s needs, pleasing others, is how many Jewish women are supposed to fulfill themselves, at least once they’re married or involved in adult relationships with men. Selfishness is sometimes expected or condoned in an unmarried Jewish female (“the apple of her father’s eye”), but her own desires are to be subsumed to her husband’s immediately after marriage.

An ideal adult role model, even for many contemporary Jewish women, is one of self-sacrifice. Jewish women have a double conditioning in this regard—as Jews, who are traditionally required to look out for one another, and as women, brought up to serve others.

Part of the self-sacrificing self-image of Jewish women is expressed in the maternal aspects of our lives. It’s hard for any woman to fill mother and lover roles at the same time. Pauline Bart’s breakthrough study of middle-aged Jewish women and depression, “Portnoy’s Mother’s Complaint,” (reprinted in Woman in Sexist Society and elsewhere) shows that Jewish mothers have an unusually strong commitment to their children. When Jewish women in this study ranked their roles according to importance, “helping children” and “being a homemaker” were most often ranked first. No married woman listed “being companion to husband” first. Depressed Jewish women, at least, place more emphasis on their obligations to others than to any “merely self-gratifying activity”—which may be why they’re depressed.

Self-sacrifice as the dominant mode of relating to our families may create the attitude that sex is another obligation, another worthy charity to which Jewish women must contribute.

Sometimes women are so concerned with being sexually desirable to others that we are out of touch with our own desires. In this situation we become more involved with the “other” than with what we are feeling. A satisfying sexual relationship has got to involve recognition of one’s own needs, as well as those of the “other.” A Jewish woman, for a variety of reasons, may feel as if she can have no legitimate “selfish” needs of her own (sexual and otherwise), or may feel guilty if these needs should surface. It may seem too risky to have needs if you’re not sure they’ll be met as devotedly as you meet the needs of others, especially within the family.

MAN TO EX-WIFE: “Let’s make love one more time.”
WOMAN: “Over my dead body.”
MAN: “Isn’t that how we always did it?”

Always giving other people what we think they want, while we seldom express our own desires, creates a lot of anger. But how to express this anger?

The notion that women must always provide sex for men “on demand” lest we otherwise bruise their fragile egos is a device whereby we pretend that we have power over them. In reality, not giving in may incur costs too great to bear, ranging from cold aggression to, at least, a general decline in domestic bliss. Conflict in the nuclear family is very threatening to women who have been told all their lives that having a husband and children are the greatest joys of womanhood. Marriage is woman’s great rite of passage into adulthood. And, as Jews, we’ve been told often that the Jewish family is the atom, the smallest viable unit, of Jewish survival, and must be cherished. Jewish women therefore learn early to be strong and active ameliorators on the home front. Avoiding conflict, we repress or rearrange our own angry feelings for the sake of “shalom bayit“—peace in the home. And anger, especially repressed anger, may really blunt sexual feelings. The coma state, remember?

For women who do make demands or who may risk expressing their needs freely, there is another putdown. The stereotype of the Jewish American Princess is used by Jewish men (the Jewish American Princes) as a powerful warning to Jewish women: “if you assert yourself or show any selfishness, I will call you bad names.” (Men are no fools. They want to control women, even if “only” verbally.) Manhattan psychiatrist Helen Singer Kaplan reminds us that “men fail to see how hard it is for women to learn to be self-assertive.” Especially so in this double-bind situation where women are attacked in the jokes as being passive, and slapped with the JAP tag if they express themselves.

“Why does a Jewish woman make love with her eyes closed?”
“Because she can’t stand to see anyone else having a good time.”

What are the politics of sex between Jewish men and Jewish women? Three historical components differentiate the sexual interactions of Jews from those of other groups.

One is that there is no romantic tradition in Judaism, no madonna figure to supply Jewish men with an appropriate object for “elevated” thoughts and feelings. An oppressed people, after all, can’t afford too much in the way of fantasies about life on earth.

Another component is that there is a strong social tradition in Judaism, deriving from women’s roles as enablers, that we must be primarily caregivers to our men rather than sex kittens. (No madonna, therefore no whore?)

A third factor is an overall emphasis on practicality in relations between the sexes, which diminishes the risk-taking associated with romantic love. While non-Jews, for example, also arranged their children’s marriages and discouraged matches based on “love” alone, love and sex flourished outside of marriage anyway. Not so with Jews, at least as far as we can tell from Jewish writing. There was no tradition of courtly love, no glorification of the unattainable sex object, no praise for adultery. Sex was contained within marriage; love was something that a couple learned to feel. (Remember Tevye’s wife saying, “For 25 years I’ve shared his bed, milked the cow, had his kids—if that’s not love, what is?”)

When Jews came to America and attempted to adopt American values, one of which was marrying for love, perhaps some of this practicality remained. Marriage is for the good of the family, the community. Jewish men and women are taught to see each other as “marriage material.” In the 1950’s, Marjorie Morningstar “outgrows” the passionate affair with the ne’er-do-well writer Noel Airman to settle down “happily” in Mamaroneck as Mrs. Milton Schwartz. Running around with “nobodies” is not good for the Jews.

Dale Bernstein, a New York feminist therapist, suggests that the intensive involvement Jewish mothers feel towards their children, especially the boys (mama knows which gender the culture values more!), is sometimes perceived by their sons as physically intrusive—e.g., Mrs. Portnoy’s concern with Alexander’s eating habits. When these sons seek emotional and sexual ties with women, they may fear the intensity of self-exposure that such a close relationship entails. Hence they may be attracted to “cooler,” less-involving non-Jewish women.

Jewish women are perceived by Jewish men as “suffering more” (in the great Jewish tradition) over career goals, emotional involvements, parental attachments. Jewish women may actually perceive their lives as being more difficult than do other women; we are expected to do everything well: manage family, job, community involvement, kids. Many of us will feel guilty whatever the priorities we set for ourselves, since for many contemporary Jewish women there are real conflicts when traditional women’s roles are at odds with what our good Jewish upbringing has taught us about making the best use of our “potential.” These general conflicts inevitably express themselves in any domestic situation causing, in one man’s words, “lots of hassles.” Many Jewish men have described relationships with Jewish women as being difficult emotionally—partly because of the high expectations of the men, partly because of real conflicts in the women.

Jewish men and women typically have very high expectations of themselves and each other. After all, haven’t we all been told that we should have only the best in life, or at least that we should do better than our parents did (regardless of how high that standard is)? The general culture, certainly in the last decade, has conditioned all Americans to believe that we ought to expect great sex, so this expectation is woven into the pattern of all the other things we American Jews expect from ourselves and from those we relate to.

In addition to all that great sex, Jewish men expect that Jewish women are going to provide what their selfless mothers provided: unconditional love, total approval. No wonder Jewish men may fear Jewish women—they expect more from them, and therefore have more to lose if the expectations are disappointed.

And how do Jewish women see Jewish men? As rule-bound mama’s boys, always worried that there will be bones in the fish? That they’ll conform to the roles of solid citizen and good provider, yet not be strong enough to bear any criticism at home? Are the jokes an attempt to create a Jewish macho to combat this image? (“Stop expecting me to be Mr. Nice Jewish Boy. I can be as mean and cruel and cool as other men.”)

Our expectations of one another are limited and conservative. It’s as if we want an indemnity against risk in our relationships. Can we outgrow this situation, move beyond the expectations and demands? Only if we begin to realize that we’re entitled to all of our feelings, and that Jewish women do not have to be the great providers of nourishment and nurturance at all times and can have “needs” as well as “obligations.”

And while we may recognize that there are certain assumptions about Jewish women’s roles and their effect on sexuality that may hold true, we do not have to assume that they are true only for Jewish women. From the data in The Hite Report, for instance, it’s clear that in the general population (most of which is not Jewish), many women are as unfulfilled in their sex lives as the jokes suggest Jewish women are. (Part of our oppression as a minority is that many kinds of idiosyncratic behavior are taken as characteristic of all Jews.)

Which brings us to the third possibility—that truth and falsehood can co-exist simultaneously in the jokes—suggesting that there may be genuine conflict between Jewish men and Jewish women; but the jokes don’t define the problem, they just exacerbate it.

We’ve speculated on the underlying attitudes we have towards our own sexuality and towards one another, and these speculations lead us to conclude that the jokes are being told about the wrong subject, for the wrong reasons. Sexual problems don’t usually occur because of mechanical failure. The jokes are a cop-out, pretending that the conflict is sexual when it’s political. The jokes may be accurate in announcing: “conflict!” but they provide no understanding of the underlying disturbance.

Regardless, in fact, of their truth or falsehood, the jokes still must be viewed for what they are—anti-Semitic and misogynistic.

Our understanding of why Jewish men “need” to tell these jokes is no reason for us to dismiss our anger at the fact that they’re telling them. We have understood all along how Jewish men are oppressed and how they act on this oppression.
It’s no excuse.

Susan Weidman Schneider is Editor of Lilith.

Special thanks to Aviva Cantor for editorial input well beyond the call of duty.