My Thoroughly Jewish Gender
OkCupid tells me I’m “more aggressive” than other queer women. Not just a little more aggressive – it’s by far my strongest trait, closely followed by “more competitive,” and far outstripping “adventurous,” “extroverted,” and “political,” among other categories.
While there’s part of me that’s a little embarrassed to be pegged as aggressive and competitive, there’s a part of me that’s a little proud of those labels. Granted: I’m butch, and I swagger and pretend that I’m tough, but it’s more than that. To me, those labels speak more to my self-confidence, to the way that I’m outgoing, opinionated, loud: to my thoroughly Jewish gender.
I grew up with a big Jewish family very much present in my life. Every Thanksgiving and Seder, 25 or more people gather in one of my aunts’ homes. I grew up watching women running the show – managing logistics of the massive meals, leading the rituals, making sure everyone was accounted for and behaving. These were my female role models growing up: my aunts singing the loudest and holding the most Jewish knowledge, my 81-year old grandmother lovingly dominating conversations, my (albeit non-Jewish) mother playing and teasing harder than any of the kids in the room, and my older cousins with their brutally sharp senses of humor. In short —I grew up shaping my gender identity on this group of Jewesses.
“Jewess,” somewhat like “aggressive” or “competitive,” normally isn’t a word I would choose for myself. But it’s a word that I find helpful as I explore my (somewhat confused) identity as a masculine-of-center queer woman.
A Jewess isn’t like other women – the word alone makes her stand apart. There’s a slight sense of both shaming and warning in the label, as if it’s her fault that she’s different and she should feel bad about it, and also, you should probably stay away from her—she’s a little different, that one. “Jewess” has connotations of too much: too loud, too pushy, too big, too different (or, according to OkCupid, “more aggressive). She doesn’t perform her femininity as well as non-Jewish women for these reasons—while she’s still recognizable as a women, she’s a different kind of woman. Because of this, “Jewess,” to me, feels more than a little queer.
Then there’s the sense of resourcefulness that I associate with Jewesses. Maybe this is just based on the women in my family, but they’re crafty, creative, able to make a lot out a little. Part of this is that sense of Jewesses as not-quite-women: they’re not afraid to get dirty, speak their minds, steal the show—generally regarded as more masculine behavior. Jewesses cobble together a sense of home and family and gender regardless of whether they’re in the shtetl, working-class Queens, or the leafy middle-class neighborhoods of Sacramento. For me, with my patched-together, ever-evolving gender identity, this resonates. You make do with what you have, and you make it better than it was before.
What I’m getting at is this: a Jewess is something separate from just an ordinary woman. There’s an edge to her, a little extra, that genders her differently than non-Jewish women. She’s a little feisty, and has had to make something out of nothing more than once in her life. And me, I’m a queer woman with a little extra, gendered a little (okay, a lot) differently than other women. I present so masculine I often get “sir” from strangers, present in a way that makes other queer people read me as trans. Maybe it’s my men’s clothing, my short hair, my heavy walk. But I look at my masculinity, and, in some lights, it looks a lot like the not-quite femininity I learned from strong Jewish women. My bigness, my too-much-ness: to me, that looks like Jewess. So what OkCupid calls “more aggressive,” I’ll call “more Jewish.”