JWA's Greatest Hits: Fetishizing the Jewess
Jewish women are hot right now. According to an article in the men’s magazine Details, “Jewish women have become the ethnic fetish du jour.” And in true men’s magazine fashion, Christopher Noxon revels in the opportunity to eroticize and exoticize Jewish women; using dehumanizing terms like “cultural mutt” and “JILF,” meaning “Jew I’d like to…”—you get the idea.
This article does little more than call attention to the misogynistic trend it then goes on to abuse for shock value, and Irin Carmon does a great job of breaking it down at Jezebel. Yet the use of the word “Jewess” in the article was particularly troubling for me, as a Jewesses with Attitude blogger. Given the continued derogatory use of the word “Jewess,” can the term ever really be reclaimed? And how do Jewish women feel about being the object of a sexual fetish?
I walked away from “The Rise of the Hot Jewish Girl” infuriated with Noxon’s liberal use of the word “Jewess.” On a second read-through I was surprised to find that he only used the word twice in the whole piece! While Noxon did not actually favor the term “Jewess,” I heard it repeating inside my own head as I read through the objectifying, dehumanizing drivel that categorized women like me as objects of a sexual fetish. Why? Because this type of ethno-exoticism is what the word “Jewess” has represented for centuries, and is exactly what this blog is trying to change.
In our very first post, we explain our reasoning for embracing the word “Jewess,” which had to do with the revolutionary 19th century magazine The American Jewess, edited by Rosa Sonneschein: “the first English-language periodical aimed at American Jewish women, hitting on everything from women's place in the synagogue (we should be able to 'drink directly from the fountain of religion') to whether women should ride bicycles.”
We decided to reclaim “Jewess,” despite the reactions of many who found the term to be weird, old-fashioned, or reminiscent of the unflattering JAP stereotype. We did not address the idea of the Jewess as an ethnically exoticized object of sexual fetish, though some commenters did. This article reminds us that this discussion is far from over.
As Judith candidly put it in our conversation about this article, “Anything that fetishizes or stereotypes a whole category of people is never a good starting point.” In the piece, Noxon attempts to explain the attraction to Jewish women. He notes the “double mitzvah” of sex on Shabbat as evidence that Judaism encourages women to be sexually open and adventurous. That, plus there is the added appeal of defiling a “nice Jewish girl.” But that is not the whole story.
All minority women share the experience of being exoticized. This refers to the over-emphasis of ethnicity to the point where women are no longer human beings, but “creatures” of wild or foreign beauty. The media constantly fetishizes women of color in this way. Perhaps the real attraction to the “sultry Jewess” is that she is ethnic and exotic, but still white.
There was a time in American history when Jews were not considered white, a notion common in Europe as well. Today, American Jews occupy a fuzzy space between power and marginalization, and between whiteness and “the exotic.” Noxon’s piece embodies that bridge of identities.
Not everyone was repulsed by this article. Tamar Fox of Mixed Multitudes was somewhere in between being offended and flattered. This is interesting, because even Noxon recognizes the fact that Jewish women have had to overcome a few unflattering stereotypes, such as “frigidity, whininess, and big hair.” We have discussed this quite a bit at Jewesses with Attitude. Traditional American ideals of beauty (tall, thin and blonde) do not always match up with Jewish genetics, and body issues leading to damaging hair-straightening treatments, rhinoplasty, and eating disorders are not uncommon for Jewish women. To see an article lauding Jewish women as beautiful and sexy could be considered a triumph, in a bizarre, "fun house mirror" sort of way.
Yet, to see “Jewishness” accepted as beautiful is not exactly the same thing as being the object of a fetish. A good friend of mine, who is Chinese-American, once told me that she was nervous to date white men because she could never be sure if they liked her for who she was, or if they just wanted to date “an Asian girl.” Noxon mentions the rise of non-Jewish men (he calls them “goyfriends”) trolling on Jewish dating sites for Jewish women. Why do they want to date Jewish women? Is it because we’re awesome, or because we have become the object of their fetish? Is the cultural obsession with Jewish women a testament to our greatness, or a sign of our marginalization?
Where do you stand?
How to cite this page
Berkenwald, Leah. "JWA's Greatest Hits: Fetishizing the Jewess." 2 December 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/fetishizing-the-jewess>.