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The Shame of the Jap

When a Jewish woman comes to the table as a community activist in America—whether she wants to get involved with a campus environmental group or her local P.T.A.— certain assumptions precede her. She is white, so she can’t possibly understand the struggle of non-white minorities. She is Jewish, so she is probably wealthy and therefore distant from the “people’s” struggle. If she wants to be taken seriously, she has to prove that she belongs, or no one will believe her. Trouble is, she probably doesn’t believe it herself

For many twenty something Jews, growing up like me in more comfortable circumstances than our parents or grandparents, fitting in as activists often translates into hiding our backgrounds. And since Judaism today is associated with wealth, this often means distancing ourselves from Judaism as well. I went to college with a pot-smoking environmental science major who tried to pretend that he grew up in the ghettos of Oakland (rather than the wealthy hills) and would not admit that he was Jewish unless pressed. For him, being Jewish meant being bourgeois, a status he tried to conceal with his dreadlocks and ripped khakis. It was once uncool to be Jewish in America because Jews were poor and struggling. Now it’s uncool because they aren’t. The relationship between Jews and money is always shifting, and always uncomfortable.

Nowhere is this tenuous relationship more clear than in the popularization of the term JAP, or Jewish American Princess. I myself am guilty of throwing this term around, of substituting it for “sorority chick” or “spoiled brat.” However, when I heard myself recently, and stopped to break it down, I realized that the term signifies much more than its common use, it is in its very essence about being Jewish. Although calling someone a WASP—a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant—has come to connote something similarly negative, the actual words are simply descriptive; they contain no inherent bias. Yet JAP is an entirely different beast, and it all hinges on that last word: Princess. Princess—a daddy’s girl, a member of the nouveau riche, an extravagant spender who doesn’t deserve it, a member of the upper class who doesn’t belong. Thin and well-dressed with pin-straight hair, a JAP carries the look of assimilation. But she can’t be completely assimilated—who’s ever heard of a Jewish princess?

In every way, the word JAP is about Jews trying to fit into a world in which they have historically never belonged. Yet the term has become so internalized that Jews are just about the only ones who use it. At an Upper West Side dinner party I attended with members of my parents’ generation, the entire table launched into a diatribe against them—JAPs who live on the Upper East Side, those self-absorbed, shopaholic social climbers who are defined by their sense of entitlement. Beneath this sharp hatred lurks the real meaning: “those women” are undeserving. Of course rich and powerful men, self-made or not, don’t face the same ridicule and derision when their backs are turned.

But a JAP is only a JAP if she behaves a certain way. A friend of mine who grew up in the suburbs and attended an elite private school in Washington looks the part of a JAP. She wears designer clothes and makeup, her hair perfectly highlighted and blow-dried. When people first meet her, they often write her off as typical sorority chick. But their attitudes change when they learn that she’s a graduate student in social work and wants to work with HIV-infected children. Aside from the physical stereotype, the term JAP carries with it a value judgment, a criticism of those who prioritize (or even who appear to prioritize) money, self-presentation and social status over making a difference in the world.

But what about Jewish women who grew up poor and choose to become power players, lifting their families and themselves from the struggles they faced as children? Though they might be seen as more “deserving” of their wealth and status, they’ll likely never be fully accepted or comfortable in the upper echelons of society, given their economic roots, their religion, and the fact that they are women. Jews, like women, aren’t supposed to take up a lot of room. We shouldn’t be loud or ostentatious, and we shouldn’t be in power. As Jews in the U.S. have grown in economic status in this country, so have the evergreen conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the government or the media. And as Jewish women—mothers, daughters, and self-made businesswomen—have settled into wealth, the word JAP has come to life again in our everyday vocabulary, illuminating not only the discomfort of broader society with Jews’ new-found status, but also our own.

I never thought it harmful to refer to someone as a JAP, yet I spent many of my college years ashamed to admit that I came from a wealthy suburb, or that I was related to a successful Cleveland family. It is this shame and division that keeps us from coming to the table as equals, as full members of society comfortable with our own positions and ready to take action to lift the bar for everyone.

Miriam Stone is the author of At the End of Words: A Daughter’s Memoir (Candlewick 2003). She lives in Brooklyn.