Last year, I inadvertently came out of the closet.
No, not that closet. Mine, I suppose, was a closet full of the best clothes and the most gorgeous shoes. I had outed myself as a Jewish American Princess.
It was in an interview given for a book on Jewish journalism. The discussion ranged from the relevance of the Jewish laws to news reporting, to the current state of Jewish fiction, to reconciling ideas of art and Jewish law in the Orthodox community. But, judging from the feedback I received, what sparked the most interest was a series of questions about my personal background. As I explained, I grew up in a modern Orthodox community, attended yeshiva through 12th grade, and at one time or another have exhibited many of the traditional accoutrements of the stereotypical girl from Long Island’s “Five Towns”: great clothes, even better shoes, nose job at 16, dark curls blown straight weekly.
“I grew up in Lawrence,” I was quoted as saying. “To this day, I can do a better French manicure than any French manicurist you can get in Manhattan. I can put lipliner on in a dark cab. . . . I’m a well-honed JAP.”
More than a year later, I’m still not sure why I made this comment on the record (and yes, I wince when I read it now). I certainly didn’t mean it to present the full picture of me; in addition to my sartorial interests, I have avid intellectual, emotional and psychological ones. Perhaps, I wondered soon after the interview was published, I thought it might round me out, make me seem edgier or hipper than just some nerdy girl toiling away in the office of a Jewish newspaper.
Whatever I was angling for, I did not expect the rather fierce criticism I received in response, from both women and men whom I held in great regard. (There weren’t many of them; as someone joked, this book about Jewish journalists would likely have the same number of readers as interviewees.) At 29, I have been for some time, and hope to remain, a proud feminist—not post-feminist or proto-feminist or paleo-feminist or what have you—as well as a very proud Jew, one so insatiably curious about her religion and culture that she devoted her professional life to it. Yet, according to some, I had just identified myself with one of the most misogynist, anti-Semitic slurs in modem history.
So why did it feel so right?
Over the past year, I began hearing the term used more and more. I received galleys for a book titled The JAP Chronicles, a novel by Isabel Rose out in May from Doubleday; Rachel Factor, a Japanese-American actress who converted to Judaism, began touring the country with a one-women show titled “J.A.P.”; I read that the Style Network was casting for a show called “JAP Squad,” for which an executive sent out an e-mail looking for “girls who know where to go in NYC for the best deals, who know the nail salons, the bakeries, the spas, the nice places, too.” Perhaps even more interestingly, a slew of new novels were guided by Jewish female protagonists evincing equally strong strains of intellectualism and material interests; one, in Julius Lester’s excellent The Autobiography of God, is even described as “first-generation American, child of Holocaust survivors; fluency in Yiddish, Polish, Hebrew, Aramaic; ordained rabbi, therapist, and beneath it all, the soul of an editor at Vogue.”
Clearly something was going on—after years of taboo, consumerism was once again being connected with Jewish identity—and, in this trend, I was no mere observer.
As readers of this magazine well know, the term “Jewish American Princess” emerged in post-World War II America ca (though, as Riv-Ellen Prell argues persuasively in Fighting to Become Ammericans: Assimilation and the trouble Between Jewish Women and Jewish Men, the basic stereotype has existed, under different names, for more than a century). Usually portrayed as the daughter of an upwardly mobile, doting immigrant father, the Jewish American Princess—embodied prominently by Herman Wouk’s “Maijorie Momingstar” and Brenda Patimkin in Philip Roth’s “Goodbye Columbus”—was on the receiving end of the best in life. And, like all stereotypes, she embodied a variety of contradictory traits, all negative—shallow yet supremely powerfull, sexually frigid yet knowledgeable enough to use sex as a tool of manipulation, stupid yet cunning enough to always get her way.
Feminists, including those associated with this magazine, waged battles against the JAP stereotype for years, but its Waterloo appears to have come in 1987, with the emergence of a fierce strain of JAP-baiting on college campuses. The examples ranged from offensive—graffiti, “Slap a Jap” T-shirts, anti-JAP rap song lyrics—to the downright frightening including housing ads warning “No JAPS” and one particularly vicious newspaper cartoon that advised readers to exterminate the JAPS by “setting up trucks offering bargains, collecting the .TAPS as they scurried in, and dropping them over a cliff.”
“[Ten years ago,] we optimistically believed that the changing reality of Jewish women’s lives would consign these negative images to the garbage can of history,” read an editorial in this magazine’s famed fall 1987 issue on the topic. “Instead, what has happened is the opposite: they have gotten a new lease on life.” Various theories were proposed for the term’s resurgence; one of the most convincing was offered by Alan Dundes, the late Berkeley folklorist, who concluded that JAP jokes—which he claimed emerged in earnest in the late 1970s—were likely a reaction to the feminist movement.
The stereotype was connected to a panoply of Jewish communal frights, from undermining the solidarity of the Jewish family and causing a rise in intermarriage to connecting the Jews with the Japanese (“Japs”), America’s enemy in World War II and, in the 1980s, a feared economic rival. After a vigorous campaign by activists and communal organizations—which included the formation of an organization to study the portrayal of Jewish women in the media, known as the Morning Star Commission— the teiTn did eventually subside. For a decade or so.
That particular decade—the 1990s—was a I formative one for me. It began with my 14th birthday, and took me through my first lipstick, my first boyfriend, one great camp romance, one gold lame skirt, my first successful piece of writing, my nose job, getting my driver’s license, one visit to Auschwitz, two crises of faith, my first days at Barnard, two years of regular visits to Henri Bendel, the beginning of my politics, my first paycheck, my first career and my first pair of Chanel shoes.
I had come to think of myself as admirably complicated, woman who enjoyed intellectual pursuits as much as material ones, and who had earned the right—and the money—to embrace my materialism. Although I could acknowledge the very good arguments made by Second Wave feminists about the history of the stereotype, they seemed neglectful of a very real sociological phenomenon. I did blow my curls straight week after week, I did have a nose job, I did have a closet full of great shoes, I was from Long Island (and still have the accent to prove it).
“But why aren’t you just a consumerist then?” Riv-Ellen Prell asked me, during a rather spirited discussion. “What does being Jewish have to do with it?”
That’s just it: My hair was blown straight not for weekdays, but on Fridays before Shabbat and the holidays; the most beautiful clothes were bought for shul, not for Saturday night. A very typical Friday afternoon with friends included lunch at Sabra Pizza and an afternoon of window (and actual) shopping, almost always in preparation for Shabbat. Nor was this ritual limited to girls; Wear Else?, a men’s clothing store, was packed with guys trying on one awful-looking Coogi sweater after another, in what now appears to me to have been one of the earliest hot spots of metro sexuality. (In fact, on the issue of clothing, my closest male friend always had me beat—and still does.)
“My identity as a ‘Jewish daughter’ was entangled with shopping,” said artist and critic Rhonda Lieberman, “and infected with the JAP fantasy I’d internalized (and disavowed) about the importance, especially for a woman, of being the kosher-style incarnation of Thorsten Veblen’s conspicuous consumer” In Lieberman, I found a kindred spirit, another woman struggling to make sense of a part of her own history that she found at once unattractive and unshakeable.
“I took it as an unwritten ‘rule’ that my subjectivity as a shopper had to be somehow quarantined from the ‘serious’ and valid, High-Culture, Art and Thought that would ‘redeem’ me,” she once said in a speech on the topic. “Yet I soon discovered that questioning this taboo was the key to integrating parts of my experience and myself that threatened to cancel each other—and me—out. Not to reconcile them, but to let them coexist, honoring and appeasing each one.”
When I asked Lieberman about the process, she referred to it as “a classic structure of integration. You reject certain early parts of your background and then when you’re grounded, you can revisit those things and—through choice—decide whether or not you want to reclaim them,” she explained.
According to Lieberman, it is perfectly normal to examine a part of one’s background and then—as an adult— decide whether to reclaim it or discard it. I agree. But this raises an obvious follow-up question: Why did I choose to reclaim it?
At one point in my discussion with Dundes, he mentioned that among children of immigrants in the postwar period it was popular to tell jokes that required the joke teller to acquire an overwrought Yiddish accent, usually at the punch line. According to some observers, beneath these seemingly harmless jokes ran an unseen rivulet of self-hatred; mimicking the Yiddish accent enabled the joke-teller—whose other sentences were presumably rendered in a normal “American” accent—to differentiate himself from his “foreign” parents. Perhaps this was true of me. Maybe calling myself a JAP, tongue-in-cheek, was a safe way for me to identify with my past while also remaining distant from it.
And maybe that’s not a bad thing. For me, this process was never about embracing the stereotype, but about embracing a part of my past that, like it or not, fell under the rubric known as JAPpiness. It may seem reprehensible intellectually, and the words of a weary Francine Klagsbrun repeatedly run through my head: “You think the fights are won. But things get won and then they get lost again.” That’s just it.
Sometimes, the fights are personal and individual, and there’s just no way for women to win those except one at a time.
Alana Newhouse is the arts & culture editor at the Forward newspaper.