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Stereotypes in the United States

by Riv-Ellen Prell

Jews, like all minorities, serve the dominant cultures in which they live as a nearly empty canvas on which others imagine their own fears, longings, power, and anxieties. The process of projecting ideas and fantasies is called stereotyping. Scholars have repeatedly demonstrated that stereotypes, in fact, have more to teach about the “stereotyper” than the “stereotyped.” In relations between minorities and majorities, particularly when a dominant group suppresses and limits another, those stereotypes play a crucial role in rationalizing the rights of the powerful over the powerless and in justifying why a group is despised.

As complex as the psychological and power dimensions of stereotypes are, they are further complicated by the fact that stereotypes often shape the reality of their objects as well. Stereotypes circulated widely enough and repeated frequently enough become confused with accurate information for both their objects and perpetrators.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when Americans and their nation were undergoing dramatic transformations—a massive influx of immigrants, industrialization and the rise of corporations, the integration of women, ethnics, and minorities in the workforce, and urbanization—American culture became obsessed with crude and often cruel racial and ethnic stereotypes in literature, popular arts, and the press. Racism and antisemitism were powerful forces in American culture, affecting all parts of the political spectrum. European Jews who immigrated by the millions from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-1920s, along with many other racial and ethnic minorities, were prominent objects of these stereotypes. Freed from the terrors of pogroms and the inability to make a living, Jews in America were nevertheless greeted by a steady stream of antisemitism, as evident in entertainment as it was in politics. These stereotypes made them believe that their safety was always tenuous and that their rights in America had to be vigilantly guarded. Jewish immigrants bore the task of becoming American Jews in a nation that was undeniably hostile to them, even as it offered them (limited) economic opportunity. The process of becoming American Jews required them and their children to alter their most basic assumptions about their lives and to join a radically different culture.

From the perspective of the dominant culture, there was little acknowledgment of the many differences among Jews. The “Jew” of antisemitic stereotypes—avaricious, unrefined, and menacing—described those who lived in America’s urban tenements as well as those whose elegant homes graced the boulevards of large cities.

In truth, the Jews who lived in the United States, primarily in urban centers, were separated from one another by a wide gulf of class, political, cultural, and religious distinctions. In an American society that was exceptionally hostile to racial and ethnic differences in general, and to Jews in particular, Jewish newcomers reflected on their differences from one another in terms of their own Americanization. American Jews, then, were objects of antisemitic stereotypes at the same time that they generated stereotypes of one another. What united these two processes was Americanization itself. The ideal of a pure and unified American people created the vicious stereotypes of “outsiders” whom many perceived as “invading” the nation. Similarly, the privileged position of even slight acculturation became a powerful tool with which Jewish Americans might chisel fine distinctions about who among them was an American and who was not. For example, young Jews understood themselves to be American in contrast to their parents who were mired in the Old World. German Jews believed that their “refinement” and wealth made them “really” Americans, unlike the “coarser” Jews of the working class from Eastern Europe who didn’t belong. Radical Jews, working men and women from Eastern Europe’s Pale of Settlement, claimed to embody more fully the ideals of American life than upper-class German Jews, who lacked the democratic spirit.

These divisions, along with many others, were in part expressed through Jews’ recourse to highly developed stereotypes that they themselves elaborated. Most of these stereotypes traveled with them from Europe, and others blossomed in the soil of American Jewish life. All of them drew on some of the antisemitic caricatures that literally threatened European Jews’ lives and well-being. The ineffective immigrant father, the vulgar and noisy Eastern European Jewish woman, and the smothering but loving Jewish mother—all, in large measure, stereotypes created by Jews of different generations and genders—are popular examples.

These stereotypes served American Jews as a language, albeit a distorting one, to communicate about their future, their past, and their place in the nation. Young Jews’ anxieties about how to become Americans were quickly summarized, for example, in their attempt to distance themselves from one of the most popular stereotypes of the time—the failed patriarch, a pious Jewish man who did not embrace the values of capitalism. Masculinity, Americanization, aspirations for mobility, extended family obligations, and Jewishness were each understood in relation to this diminished patriarchal image. Many of these stereotypes, such as the patriarch, faded quickly from collective memory, no longer serving the needs of acculturated Jews. Others have proved remarkably persistent, even when their specific content underwent change. Long-lived stereotypes, such as the Jewish American Princess and the Nice Jewish Girl, reflect Jews’ continuing underlying anxieties about American Jewish life.

These stereotypes are frequently linked to gender, and women are far more likely to fill the canvas of others’ imaginations than are men. The prominence of gender and family stereotypes (in contrast with some of the classic antisemitic stereotypes that focus on economic relations) suggests that American Jews most intimately experienced Jewishness in the private domain of family, love, and marriage. That intimacy, however, became a focus for Jews’ self-rejection when those relationships became vehicles for stereotypes of undesirable Jewish behavior.

Throughout the century, these stereotypes have continued to provide each generation of American Jews with highly condensed images of their place in American society as members of families, as participants in the economy, and as sexual and emotional persons. American Jews have left behind the generations of those who had to adjust to an alien physical and cultural terrain, but they continue to negotiate a society that remains uncomfortable for those who stand apart from the majority.

These stereotypes circulate among Jews and are drawn from and appear in jokes and comedy, film, literature, the Jewish press, and daily life. They have no specific origin, belonging instead to a mass culture shared by Jews with the larger society. They do not persist because they embody even a “grain” of truth. To the contrary: The “truth” of these canvases is their ability to reveal that Jews experience their world from the point of view of a majority culture and their place within it.

Stereotypes do not present an agreed-upon reality. Instead, they often express contradictions, such as the belief that a Jewish American Princess is a woman who is both sexually withholding and insatiable. Stereotypes are contradictory because they condense a large number of traits in the person of a single figure, and as expressions of prejudice they draw on irrational processes. They sometimes allow their purveyors to emphasize different features. The same figure, the Jewish Mother or Ghetto Girl, for example, meant different things to different groups of Jews. German and Eastern European Jews, women and men, Jewish professionals and immigrants, literally saw different things as they characterized Jewish experience in terms of their own Americanization.

Immigrant Stereotypes—The Ghetto Girl

During the early decades of the twentieth century, American Jewish stereotypes drew most consistently upon the differences between the foreign and native born, class distinctions, and women and men. In this period, when millions of Jews lived close to one another in a small number of neighborhoods and cities, their intensely intertwined cultures also drew upon differences of birthplace and religious practice. However, by sheer frequency, gender, class, and generation served as the most consistent sources for common stereotypes.

Many of the stereotypes are unfamiliar to Jews today. With upward mobility, new stereotypes rapidly replaced the old. However, from the 1900s to the 1920s, images of the Ghetto Girl appeared in letters, advice columns, and articles in both the Yiddish- and English-language press of American Jews, in novels, and in the descriptions of more acculturated, as well as professional, Jews, who were social workers, probation officers, and experts on immigrant life.

The stereotype of the young, unmarried Jewish immigrant woman as the Ghetto Girl was an image that had a variety of meanings to the many communities of American Jews. At first, it referred to the significant number of young Jewish working women who lived and worked in the ghetto of New York’s Lower East Side. By the 1920s, they may have moved out of the ghetto and worked as clerical workers, retail salespeople, or, for the most ambitious and fortunate, teachers.

The stereotype took on a different meaning for those who wrote about the Ghetto Girl, scolding her and expressing through her their worries about the Americanization of Jews. The Ghetto Girl was consistently associated with desires judged inappropriately excessive. Her clothing was criticized as cheap and exaggerated. Jewish social reformers and commentators described, among her failures, a fondness for bright colors, large paste jewels, and outlandish hairstyles. At the same time, others writing for the mainstream press, not always Jewish, ridiculed these women for wearing the latest fashions that they copied from the garments they sewed for the rich. One New York journalist wrote in 1900 for the New York Tribune, “Does Broadway [upper New York] wear a feather? Grand Street [the Lower East Side] dons two, without loss of time. If my lady wears a velvet gown, put together in an East Side sweat shop, may not the girl whose tired fingers fashion it rejoice her soul by wearing a copy of it on the next Sunday?” (Jacob R. Marcus, “Even Solomon in All His Glory Was Not Arrayed Like One of These,” The American Jewish Woman: A Documentary History, 1981, p. 497).

Some journalists and professionals used the Ghetto Girl’s stylishness to prove that immigrant social welfare needs were exaggerated. At the same time, others explained the dangerous sacrifices young women made in order to own fashionable clothing, even “starving” themselves to save for a garment (Interested Reader letter to “Just Between Ourselves Girls,” Jewish Daily News, vol. 19, January 17, 1904: English page), leading others to worry that working women would abandon their financial responsibility to their families in the process (“Just Between Ourselves Girls,” Jewish Daily News, vol. 18, December 22, 1903: English page). This fear was not borne out. Women provided essential economic support for their households.

The Ghetto Girl’s appearance on the canvas of Jewish anxiety elaborated her role as a woman who transgressed boundaries. The stereotype cast these young Jewish women as working consumers who aspired to own and wear things that imitated the rich. Ghetto girls’ consumption challenged the hierarchy of American life that placed immigrants close to the bottom. Americanization, to immigrants and the native-born, was visible in what a woman owned and wore. The stereotype suggests that working Jewish women crossed and blurred the boundaries between refined and vulgar American womanhood. By labeling someone a Ghetto Girl, those acculturated Jews outside of the ghetto could proclaim that American society was right to keep rigid boundaries between the foreign- and the native-born, and between those who had good taste and those who lacked it.

At the same time, women whom some called Ghetto Girls were also accused of excessive consumption by the Jewish men they would most likely want to marry. The Yiddish press, particularly its English language pages directed at young Americanizing Jews, focused on the young Jewish woman as an excessive consumer. Headlines about young Jewish women in the Jewish Daily Forward screamed, “What’s the Matter with the Modern Girl?” (Nathaniel Zalowitz, vol. 26, May 27, 1923: 3), “Trolly Car Girls with Rolls Royce Tastes?” (Leo Robbins, vol. 26, May 13, 1923: 3), and “Is the Modern Girl a Mercenary?” (Thelma Kaplan, vol. 9, July 17, 1927: E4). These articles asserted that women’s economic dependence on men, and their desire to join the middle-class with its expanded opportunities for consumption, created difficult burdens for Jewish men. Women’s desires had to be contained.

Although the stereotypes about young Jewish women were more varied and developed, young Jewish men were subject to stereotyping by other Jews as well. If excessive consumption was the irreducible core of Jewish women’s caricature, then failing to be productive, a key quality of the successful American man, powered the image of young Jewish men. The Jewish press often referred to them as “Swells,” “Hot Sports,” and “Stiffs.” Like the Ghetto Girls, these men were consistently criticized for wearing clothing that was too colorful and extreme and were condemned for their extravagance.

Stereotypes that Jews themselves created about young Jewish women and men centered on the relationship between those who made money and those who spent it. These issues appeared to be virtually inseparable from Americanization itself and drew upon the oldest antisemitic themes. As Jews aspired to become Americans and enter the middle class, they often foundered on insufficient economic means. Women needed to marry in order to join the middle class. Until well into the 1930s, married women did not work for reasons other than virtual destitution. Immigrant men and their sons who joined the middle class were expected to be the family’s sole breadwinners. These men and women then shared the same goals, but their means put them in conflict and generated stereotypes of dangerous consumption and inadequate productivity.

These twin stereotypes were by no means the only ones of their era elaborated by Jews. Jewish male and female anarchists, with specific styles of clothing, hair, personality, and politics, found their way into the drama, literature, and the press of their day. Their radicalism, sometimes admired but most often feared, created for Jews further barriers to membership in the American nation.

At the other end of the political spectrum was the Alrightnik, the vulgar Jew whose economic success gave him undeserved power and standing in the United States. His wife was often the paradigm of conspicuous consumption. These figures too readily absorbed Americanization, abandoning all values of the Old World. Anarchist and Alrightnik were bookends of immigrant experience, extreme comments on Americanization.

The Vulgar Jewish Woman, the other most common stereotype of the period, bore an uncanny resemblance to the Ghetto Girl despite her apparent difference by such measures as class and age. This stereotype was shared by the sexist and antisemitic dominant culture, as well as by many Jewish men of different classes. The dominant press portrayed the Vulgar Jewish Woman as greedy, miserly, and lacking taste. Jewish male writers of fiction and journalism caricatured her by her excess of jewelry, her fatness, the brightness of her clothing, and her insatiable desire to own as much as possible. For example, in his novel Jews Without Money (1930), the socialist writer Mike Gold described the Vulgar Jewish Woman as betraying her own humble working-class roots through her repulsive consumption. The Anglo-Jewish press also attacked her excess in order to express the fear of how Jews would be seen by America’s “better classes.” Jewish women of the same class and acculturation constantly warned other women of their “natural” inclination for such distasteful behavior, for loud and nasal voices, and for an absence of good manners. Rather than condemning the image, women’s page writers exhorted their readers to monitor these behaviors, which endangered their families’ social standing.

Jewish Mothers and Fathers: The Changing Stereotypes

Even more significant than the stereotypes of young Jewish men and women was the stereotype of the Jewish Mother, which served as the most powerful vehicle for expressing Jews’ relationship to American life. Jewish Fathers served as an important immigrant stereotype only to disappear by mid-century.

These stereotypes were no less complex than those of young American Jews. The specific features of the contradictory meanings attributed to the Jewish Mother stereotype may best be understood by examining those who created them. The children who wrote memoirs, songs, films, and novels usually portrayed the Jewish Mother as emotive and caring. Professionals and philanthropists far more often portrayed her as the root of her children’s problems.

“Mother” for American Jews, as in most immigrant traditions, was the figure who evoked home. The earliest name for the Jewish Mother stereotype was the yidishe mame in Yiddish, the language of home. This Jewish Mother was characterized by devotion, hard work, selflessness, and concern for her family. Her cooking, both because of her skill at making special dishes from “home” and because poverty demanded ingenuity, was definitive. She was also portrayed as pious. The immigrant mother lighting ritual candles was a popular image in American Jewish life through the 1920s.

Paradoxically, many images of the yidishe mame from film, memoirs, and the press portrayed her not only as the anchor to the old world but the bridge to the new one. Elizabeth Stern’s memoir My Mother and I (1917) recounts her mother’s willingness to allow her to go to college and begin a life totally alien to their shared world, to which she will never return. Hollywood’s Jewish Mothers encouraged their sons in their pursuit of Americanization. His People, produced in 1925, and the 1927 Jazz Singer featured mothers who encouraged their sons to pursue boxing and jazz singing, each a symbol of a new American leisure culture that broke with the Old World. Similarly, Sara Smolinksy, Anzia Yezerskia’s alter ego in her novel The Bread Givers: The Struggle Between an Old World Father and His New World Daughter (1975), had a loving, if passive, mother who never forbade Sara to pursue her desire to live on her own as a writer.

These Jewish Mothers are the work of 1920s Americanized Jews. They are variations on the “classic” yidishe mame of the Old World. The immense popularity of these films and fictions suggests that they spoke to Jews, in addition to many other groups of acculturating Americans. The Jewish Mother stereotype revealed that the Old World persisted and was even accessible through New World nostalgia. Contained in her home, and even in her kitchen, the Old World, in the persona of the Jewish Mother, had not disappeared but remained to nurture the next generation. She was not of the New World, but in it. The stereotype could be reassuring only if it promised a different future for her children.

The Jewish Mother often served as a contrast to the Jewish Father, a term that never took on comparable cultural significance. Portrayed as a stern patriarch, a man unable to adapt, a dreamer, or some combination, the father was virtually never portrayed as a bridge to the New World, and was most often frozen in time. That inability to move forward was sometimes shown with dignity, but more often as weakness. This stereotype had a short life. Once the dominant image of the Jewish Father was placed in the world of work, something that often eluded the patriarch, he was shorn of the patriarchal features associated with Judaism. Work Americanized Jewish fathers and men.

Another stereotype of the Jewish Mother that reigned in this period was the cultural opposite, the Acculturated Mother. When the American Hebrew, a popular English-language paper, asked in 1916, “Who is to blame if there is nothing Jewish about a Jewish home?” the answer was “Find the woman” (Anonymous, November 24, 1916: 84). The husbands of these women were so thoroughly associated with the world of work and profit that, in keeping with the sentiments of the day, they were lost as a source of religion and morality. Addie Richman Altman’s 1917 novel The Harmons: A Story of Jewish Home Life was a morality tale of failed Jewish motherhood. The Harmon family sang hymns around their piano on Sabbath evening. The Solomons, however, lacked such a pious home and charitable mother. Their son Richard, who slipped into a life of crime and women, explained to Mr. Harmon:

I don’t want to blame my mother, but I cannot help thinking some of my hatred of the Jew is due to her indifference to her religion and her satisfaction in hearing she does not look like a Jewess. … Can’t you understand I never had a faith to which I could cling? (67–68).

The successfully Americanized mother stereotype posed as sure a threat to her children as did the nonliterate immigrant. Often associated with card playing and a love of leisure that took her out of the kitchen and away from her family, she failed to provide “Jewishness” for her family.

Neither the good nor the bad Jewish Mothers offered more than the width of a balance beam to negotiate Americanization. Attachment to the Old World threatened to block access to Americanization, and a wide embrace of the new nation threatened to create a vulgar and un-American Jew. The Jewish Mother stereotype constantly cautioned Jews that their access to America was under scrutiny and they were found wanting.

The greater complexity of the stereotyped mother is explained, at least in part, by America’s obsession with mothers during this time. Jews’ anxieties, like those of the nation, evoked a reassertion of the importance of the domestic hearth for assuring stability. The more avidly mothers were made to be the answer to social and economic change, the more they could be blamed for those victimized by the new urban life—the poor, out-of-wedlock mothers, and youth, for example. Immigrant mothers throughout the nation were associated with nostalgia for the Old World and castigated when they sought to Americanize themselves.

Acculturated Postwar Jews—The Jewish Mother Is Reborn

Through the dark years of World War II and the incremental steps toward the middle class, American Jews drew upon the stereotypes of the century’s first decades. The yidishe mame persisted, with more poignancy, to express the mounting awareness of the loss of the Old World. Fathers continued to appear as unable to enter the American economy or to join in effectively. The economic anxieties of the Depression and the disruptions of the war years certainly limited much of the expressions of consumerism and other themes of the more optimistic 1920s.

The major shift in stereotypic images of Jews began in the 1950s and flowered fully in the subsequent decades, taking one direction in the 1960s, and then veering quite differently in the 1970s and 1980s. Jewish women so dominated the easel of American Jewish anxiety that, until the last decade, they virtually eclipsed men for certain periods. The birth of television and the expansion of the film industry intensified the circulation of publicly identified Jewish characters who embodied these stereotypes. Even as antisemitism decreased in the United States, ethnic stereotyping persisted. Particularly in the media, the presence of Jewish stereotypes is entirely the work of Jews in the industry.

The years following World War II were the culmination of Jews’ efforts to join the middle class. Their strategies for mobility, in combination with America’s support for its white population through financing suburban development and home ownership, allowed Jews access to a new form of life. Disproportionate to their numbers, Jews lived in new suburban areas outside of the nation’s major urban centers. Their life in the middle class allowed Jewish women to remain at home during their child-rearing years in greater numbers than white women of comparable ages. Jews were participating in higher education in unprecedented numbers, and young Jewish men began to pursue different occupations than in previous generations. They were increasingly bound for professions, whereas their fathers had been self-employed or managers.

Not surprisingly, this rapidly changing world created new images for negotiating American life for the children and grandchildren of immigrants. The Jewish Mother (no longer the yidishe mame) became the central image of that era, characterized by nurturance gone awry. She continued to share the yidishe mame’s key features, but they were understood in dramatically different terms. The Jewish Mother fed her children to excess, forcing on them food they did not want in quantities that were out of proportion. Her nurturance was suffocating, keeping her sons from developing into “normal” American males. Rather than offered out of concern and responsibility, her caretaking served her own needs. She induced guilt. She gave in order to obligate. She loved because she wanted. She suffered in order to be compensated. Rather than sustaining, she destroyed. Jokes as mild as, “How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? None, I’ll sit in the dark,” captured this meaning. At the same time, the novelty humor books, greeting cards, stand-up nightclub routines, comics, and stationery that appeared over a two-decade period offered portraits that were less than mild. Television programs as diverse as Saturday Night Live, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, its spinoff Rhoda, and The Nanny introduced the character to mass audiences. Molly Goldberg, the lovable and wise, but ethnically denuded, Jewish Mother of early television and radio was replaced by meddlesome and oppressive mothers who set about ruining the lives of their children.

Several Jewish male novelists were particularly set on introducing the stereotype in their 1960s fiction. Sophie Portnoy, Philip Roth’s nightmare Jewish Mother, left all competitors in the dust in his 1969 best-seller Portnoy’s Complaint. Alexander, the novel’s protagonist, was made into a morally corrupt, emotionally damaged, but successful lawyer by his Jewish mother. The novel was so popular that, for decades, Jewish women, rabbis, and professionals debated its veracity and defended Jews against its “accusations.”

The Jewish Mother was a relational image. She played against a weakened and incompetent Jewish Father. He provided little more than a background to the foregrounded consuming Mother. The suffocating Mother was also linked negatively to her children, who were acculturated and straining to get away from her to a life of adventure and risk.

Sociologists claim the 1950s and 1960s was a period when antisemitism was at an all-time low, particularly in contrast with the 1930s and 1940s. Yet studies demonstrate that in the suburbs non-Jewish parents did experience concern for the influence of Jewish children on their own. Jewish children were accused of having excessive freedom, resources, attitudes, and values found repugnant by non-Jewish neighbors. They were “lacking in refinement, materialistic, hedonistic, and aggressive” (Benjamin Ringer, The Edge of Friendliness: A Study of Jewish Gentile Relationships, 1967, 71–73; Albert Gordon, Jews in Suburbia, 1959). The concerns that non-Jews had about their relatively new proximity to Jews was translated by Jews into anxiety over what was holding them back from further acceptance in the United States. The Jewish Mother was neither anchor nor bridge. As the Jewish Mother dominated the canvas of American life, her image clarified the anxieties created by the dominant culture’s ambivalence about incorporating Jewish Americans.

As mother and wife, the Jewish Mother literally embodied the continuity of the Jewish people and the inaccessibility of the dominant culture. It was left to Roth’s Alexander Portnoy to make the connection clear. He extolled the shvitz [the sweat bath] as the ideal world of Jewish masculinity, “a place without goyim and women” (Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969, p. 40).

Consumption and Productivity—Young Jews’ Stereotypes Re-Emerge

The Jewish American Princess may well be the first stereotype to compete with the Jewish Mother in postwar American Jewish life. She shares a strong family resemblance to the Jewish Mother by inversion and to the Ghetto Girl by extension.

The Jewish American Princess (JAP), sometimes married and sometimes unmarried, is always portrayed as childless, underscoring her unduly demanding nature. She does not nurture or take domestic responsibility. The JAP is obsessed with her physical attractiveness, but is most often portrayed as unwilling to give sexual pleasure. Instead, her purpose for living is to consume and to adorn her otherwise passive body. She is inseparable from the consumer culture of late twentieth-century United States. The JAP is found in the company of two different generations—her father and her husband/boyfriend. They are portrayed as indulging and enabling her behavior and whims. Their devotion to her needs is essential for her to obtain what she wants. She never produces for herself.

The earliest contemporary Jewish American Princesses appeared in the fictional works Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk (1955) and Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth (1959); the former was one of the best-selling books when it was published. Unlike contemporary JAPs, each of these women was beautiful, sexually active, and desirable. Each was also indulged by parents whose social-class mobility was rapid (in Marjorie’s case, reversed) and recent. These daughters, more than any other feature of family life, symbolized success. If their daughters married well and entered suburban Jewish life, their parents’ work was complete. Each novel’s plot turned on the conflict of a Jewish man who, by resisting the demands of American Jewish respectability, lost the Princess and was liberated.

By the early 1980s, the JAP stereotype was widespread throughout the United States. Without hesitation, any group of Jews, particularly young ones, and any group of Americans who lived in areas with a high population of Jews, could reel off her defining characteristics. This well-mapped identity became the butt of hundreds of jokes. The Official J.A.P. Handbook by Anna Sequoia (1982), based on The Preppy Handbook, designed to identify classically WASP qualities, intensified the “accuracy” of this stereotype. JAP items proliferated—necklaces, bracelets, dolls, and greeting cards—and reinforced the image of the young Jewish woman as a symbiotic consumer, dependent on Jewish men who received nothing from her in return—not love, sex, nurturance, or approval.

Well after Marjorie Morningstar and Goodbye Columbus were made into popular films, the American film industry presented a trickle of films about Jewish women. The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Elaine May’s adaptation of Bruce Jay Friedman’s story of a vacuous Jewish man who left his repulsive Jewish wife to pursue the embodiment of a gentile goddess in Minnesota, provided a low point in the representations of Jewish women. The years that followed slowly introduced the JAP to viewers. Private Benjamin (1980) glorified the ability of a young woman to transcend her Princess role. Dirty Dancing (1987) and Baby It’s You (1983) depicted relationships between Jewish women and working-class non-Jewish men that liberated them from the middle-class world of Jewish “royalty.” White Palace (1989) transformed this strategy by allowing a wealthy young Jewish man to escape the grasp of his Jewish world through his love affair with a considerably older working-class waitress. Hollywood has had few enough Jewish women’s roles, and while they do not all portray Princesses, none allowed a mutual and loving relationship with a Jewish man.

The images of young Jewish womanhood embodied by the JAP suggest a new relationship between Jews and American culture. Because women are the target of JAP stereotypes, these stereotypes must be understood from the point of view of young men. Mothers are no longer their entrappers; now their future wives are. The JAP’s body—her sexuality, adornment, and passivity—serves as a map of American Jewish experience. Placed on the canvas of American Jewish anxiety it demonstrates that Jews are inseparable from their location in the middle class. If the middle class is characterized as a consuming class, then Jews personify consumption.

The 1980s was a period of increased acculturation for Jews. Intermarriage, which began in the 1960s, grew dramatically. Many college quotas limiting Jewish enrollments had been dropped in the 1970s, leading to increased admission of Jews to elite institutions. Jews were entering into professions and work settings once thought unattainable. This openness, rather than reassuring Jews, seemed to intensify the anger and frustrations embodied in the JAP stereotype. The JAP was portrayed as holding the harness that would enslave Jewish men to work, produce, and succeed more—in short, to join the middle-class in the 1980s.

The Jewish men of the baby boom generation, no longer tethered to the more ethnically homogenous world of their youth, now expressed anxiety about being middle class, the quintessentially Jewish identifier, by projecting those desires onto Jewish women. Not unlike the Ghetto Girl, the JAP was portrayed as excessive in wants and desires. But, unlike the working Ghetto Girl, the JAP not only wanted, she withheld and denied, rendering her Jewish partner a slave. The culture’s attack on Jewish masculinity, the generalized middle class anxiety about the accessibility of their class to their children, and a consumer culture that narrowed its definitions of attractiveness and desirability conspired to create the JAP. She was so hateful that separating from her—even destroying her—promised liberation by self-erasure. To reject the JAP freed Jews from family and class, the most important foundations of postwar American Jewish life.

A Jewish American Prince did appear on the scene, though the stereotype was never elaborated in mass culture to the extent of the JAP. On the other hand, the Prince’s characteristics are amazingly consistent with slurs directed at him in the Jewish press as early as the 1920s. He is arrogant, unaware of the needs of others, and unkind to Jewish women. In the persistent, classical antisemitic stereotypes of Jewish men, Princes are feminized, incompetent, dishonest, and neurotic—in all cases incomplete men. JAP humor, so apparently antifemale, is all the more complex because the teller of the joke is also its victim. The Prince and Princess remain, nevertheless, hopelessly entwined in representing Jewishness as unacceptable to one another.

For more than a century, American Jews have negotiated the various stages of acculturation through gendered images that define links to and barriers between themselves and the dominant culture. Nothing, in the end, explains these complex cultural images as fully as a nation fundamentally hostile to cultural heterogeneity. American Jews’ enormous adaptability to that culture determined that their vulnerability as outsiders would be symbolized by intra-Jewish stereotypes that expressed their fears that Jewishness itself was a barrier to the nation.

Bibliography

The works on American Jewish women that provide historical and sociological grounding for this discussion of stereotypes are:

Baum, Charlotte, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel. The Jewish Woman in America (1974).

Fishman, Sylvia Barack. A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community (1993).

Glenn, Susan. Daughters of the Shtetel: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation (1990).

Heinze, Andrew. Adapting to Abundance: Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption, and the Search for American Identity (1990).

Hyman, Paula E. Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representations of Women (1995).

Prell, Riv-Ellen. Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender and the Anxiety of Assimilation (1999).

 

Works on antisemitism, Jewish stereotypes, and the overlap of race and gender stereotypes are:

Dinnerstein, Leonard. Anti-Semitism in America (1994).

Gilman, Sander. The Jew’s Body (1991).

Hooks, Bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992).

Roediger, David. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (1991).

Wallace, Michele. Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1978; reprint 1990).

 

The most significant discussions of Jewish Mothers and Fathers are:

Bellman, Samuel I. “The Jewish Mother’s Syndrome.” Congress Bi-Weekly (December 22, 1965), 3–5.

Bienstock, Beverly Gray. “The Changing Image of the American Jewish Mother.” In Changing Images of the Family, edited by Virginia Tufte and Barbara Myerhoff (1979).

Blau, Zena Smith. “In Defense of the Jewish Mother.” Midstream 13 (1967): 42–49.

Eren, Patricia. The Jew in American Cinema (1984).

Hertzberg Arthur. The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter (1989).

Howe, Irving. The World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made (1976).

Rothbell, Gladys. “The Jewish Mother: Social Construction of a Popular Image.” In The Jewish Family: Images and Reality, edited by Steven Cohen and Paula Hyman (1986).

Slobin, Mark. Tenement Songs: The Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants (1982).

 

The most significant works on stereotypes of Jewish women and men, as well as issues of Jewish masculinity, and Jewish relationships are:

Beck, Evelyn Torton. “From ‘Kike’ to ‘JAP’: How Misogyny, Antisemitism and Racism Construct the “Jewish American Princess.” In Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, edited by Margaret L. Anderson and Patricia Hill Collins (1992).

Berger, Maurice. “The Mouse That Never Roars: Jewish Masculinity on American Television.” In Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities, edited by Norman L. Kleeblatt (1996).

Breines, Paul. Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry (1990).

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How to cite this page

Prell, Riv-Ellen. "Stereotypes in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 27, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/stereotypes-in-united-states>.

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