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Jewesses: Jappy, Bizarre, or Cool?

Why have we, a group of Jewish young women respectful of pop culture and history, opted to call ourselves "Jewesses with Attitude"? After all, when we tested "Jewesses" with friends and colleagues, we were told it sounds "Jappy," "old-fashioned," and "weird." But we decided we love it, in large part because it immediately sparked heated discussion.

We also decided to reclaim this term for ourselves because of its cool revolutionary roots. Flash to 1895: Rosa Sonneschein (1847-1932) founded and edited The American Jewess (1895-1899), "the only magazine in the world devoted to the interests of Jewish women." It was 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.

So, more than a century later, we follow in Rosa's footsteps by kicking off another space for Jewish women to sound off. While still perhaps pondering our place in the synagogue, we will also discuss our place in the oval office; rather than exploring whether we ride bikes, we may debate whether we should donate Jewish eggs. And though we hope for plenty of heated debates, the real goal as Rosa put it, is "to connect the sisters dwelling throughout ... this blessed country."

So, sisters, how do you feel about being called a "Jewess?"

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51 Comments

"Jewess" is not a term I would ever use to describe myself or my daughter, or any Jewish woman, for that matter. To me it sounds offensive, and strikes me as a negative moniker given by non-Jews to Jewish women at a time when being defined or described by the "other" was to have been demeaned. No thank you--not cool.

Found something on Feministing.com that sums up my attitude perfectly:
"“feminine” word endings suffixes like -ess, -ette, and
-trix (1) specify a person’s sex when gender is irrelevant;
(2) carry a demeaning sense of littleness or triviality (Rush
Limbaugh derides women who succeed in traditionally
male-dominated professions as “professorettes” and
“lawyerettes”); (3) perpetuate the notion that the male
is the norm and the female is a subset, a deviation, a
secondary classification. A poet is defined as “one who
writes poetry” while a poetess is defined as “a female
poet”; men are thus “the real thing” and women are
sort of like them. The recommended procedure is to use
the base word for both sexes (thus, “waiter” instead of
“waitress,” “executor” instead of “executrix”)."

I just came across this discussion and find it absolutely fascinating. Only English speakers would engage in such a debate. In no other language I know of is there this kind of gender ambiguity. It would unthinkable, not to say ridiculous, to refer to a Jewish woman in French as "juif" rather than "juive" -- the title of Modigliani's painting in the original is "La Juive." The same goes for German where a Jewish woman is "eine Jüdin" and feminine forms not only exist but are de rigueur in Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, etc. You get the picture. Gender specificity in all these langugages goes for other designations as well. One never has to wonder whether the doctor being referred to is a man or a woman. The tendency of neutralizing impoverishes the otherwise rich English language. Hail to those proud Jewesses who dare call themselves what they are in a world where eradicating distinctions is deemed a virtue.

Yes, "Jewess" is totally something I think of as being used by non Jews 50 or more years ago and by a random Indian man that I met in New York City like 6 or more years ago.

It appears to be originating from the point of view of a Christian and Christian dominated society. What does it mean to feminize the word "Jew"? Why do so? Why feminize a word at all?

In looking Jewess up on-line, I found an interesting page that spoke about the origins of the word "Jew". It states that it is often used in the pejorative. Also, to me, there is something sly in the sound "-ess" and something accusatory in the whole word. Maybe I'm projecting, but maybe not.

Why not say Christianess? It's weird, that's why. I don't know why, but I'd sort of be offended if I were a Christian and someone called me a Christianess- I might smack them. It's like merging two concepts- your femaleness and your religion. In some sense, it is not giving enough respect to these parts alone. I am a woman and I am Jewish. If I were not Jewish, I would still be a woman- something which unites me with all other women. If I were not a woman, I would still be Jewish.

A person's faith is on a higher plane than description of gender. I think feminity and masculinity can be a part of essence, but someone declaring them self something else by declaring you other-a Jew (ie. not a Christian) is being simple and should not merge gender with this description.

However, I am just recalling watching the story of Ruth and of her being referred to as the Moabitess.

I dig it as a beacon for Jewish women in recognizing themselves, but others calling us Jewess seems obnoxious and/or creepy or pervy even.

the link I referred to above:

http://www.zionism-israel.com/...

'Jewess" has alway irritated me. In my experience it was usually used by non-Jews as unflattering. I also don't like "Latina" or"Chicana". I don't like ascribing gender to inanimate objects such as tables, houses or mountains.

While we're discussing linguistics, I am also anxious to see the word spelled "antisemitism" instead of "Anti-Semitism" which refers to being against a language. As a student and teacher,  I  have learned to appreciate and love English as it grows and reflects our thinking. I have even learned to write "Judea" instead of "Judaea."

"Jappy" or "JAP" is a nasty ethnic slur. It was used during WWII and is always offensive. I know what you mean by it in this context, but it's a word I would love to see disappear permanently. My Jewish-Japanese children will thank you.

"Jewess" does not feel good to me. It not only exoticizes Jewish women, it suggests that "Jew," while a gender-neutral term, really means a Jewish man. In a time when Jewish women are still struggling for equality in Jewish communal life, I don't think adopting "Jewess" is helpful.

An online dictionary explains the issue:

"Like many other English nouns in which the suffix -ess is added to a gender-neutral word to indicate femaleness, the terms Jewess and Negress are now widely regarded as offensive. It is interesting to note that the objection to words formed with the -ess suffix does not apply to words such as Latina and Chicana, whose contrasting forms Latino and Chicano are not gender-neutral but rather refer even in English primarily to males."
(Source: http://www.thefreedictionary.c...

For me, the word "Jewess" instantly conjures up that old Saturday Night Live spoof commercial in which Gilda Radner pranced about in faux designer jeans with big Magen Davids plastered on her tush pockets; its tagline was "She's the Jewess in Jewess Jeans!" It was a send up of the "JAP" sterotype that was so pervasive at the time. A real "Is it good for the Jews?" moment for me, watching it. But Gilda Radner was such a fabulous, strong, spunky, funny woman. Whatever she did was automatically imbued with what I can only think to describe as hilarious gravitas. My memory is that she exuded power and confidence in this skit, even as she skewered the overly materialistic and shallow image that girls and women were being sold at the time.

Proud to be called a Jewess! I am not ashamed to call myself a Jewess! That's where my roots are from and that's where I belong - Israel!

We should all be reminded of what happens when a group tries to "re-claim" words. A less harsh example is American women trying to re-claim the word "bitch". I am not trying to be crude, but only illustrating a point. Re-claiming words is always a bad idea. Best to leave them, let them die, and move on to better things.

I love Wendy's comment and completely! We are Jewesses and quite proud of it....

Jew is a masculine word. It refers to men. Jewish women are Jewesses. Calling a Jewish woman a Jew is like calling a woman who is a city councilperson a councilman. Jew is inaccurate when referring to Jewish women, but we live in a patriarchal Christian society and so we are used to being called by the masculine. Masculine language negates our femininity when it fails to acknowledge that we are Jewesses and replaces it with a masculine word. I'm proud to be part of this Jewess movement, flying in the face of - and at the brink of the end of patriarchal dominance. It's our job as women... to take back our rightful place in power is our contribution to ushering in the age of peace.

I also love the word 'jewess'.......I've used this term since I was a little girl and feel pleased that it is no longer a 'negative' word.....

I like Jewess. I like the historic connotations of it. I like the fact that it singles me out as a woman. I don't like being in a homogeonous blob of people-hood. I think it is precisely a feminist stance to say, "I am woman, designate me as such!!" (Ditto for "poetess," "actress," etc.).

For an interesting resource, see "The Jewess Pallas Athena: This Too a Theory of Modernity," by Barbara Hahn (2005)

I loved this discussion, and I am using the name, "The Story of a Hidden Jewess" as part of the title in my new book on reclaiming my Jewish roots after 500 years of Spanish Inquisition lost Jewish identity from Spanish crypto Jews from Andalucia Spain! I am a b'nai anusim, woman, whose father kept this secret until his 87th year!(blessed be his memory) Jewess is a beautiful name, now that I have returned to my lost Jewish traditions at a Conservative shul! It all finally makes sense!

I like the idea of reclaiming the word "Jewess", because often in our search for equality, we have surrended our women's culture for the "privledge" of sharing in men's culture. We should celebrate our differentness from our men as well as from other women.

I love the word jewess! Cannot wait to discover more about this web page !

I just found this page and read through all the comments. I am ambivalent about the word "Jewess" and don't refer to myself as such. I do appreciate, however, the reference to NWA, Niggaz With Attitude, the breakthrough hip-hop group from Compton, CA. Their name alone created confrontation and insisted that attention must be paid. I vote yes on reclaiming the word Jewess within the context of an archive of the important mischief Jewish women have always created.

I'm not convinced. I really want to get behind the idea, especially because so many groups have been re-claiming formerly offensive terms. For me though, Jewess is just too outdated to make a comeback. It's a term that has not really been used since the Victorian/Edwardian eras and I just don't see the value in reclaiming it. This may also have something to do with the fact that I really don't like the word "Jew." I know that it's technically a PC term, but once you've been called a "dirty Jew," you kind of lose your ability to see it as such. Personally, when it comes to self-deprecating terms, I'm fond of calling my self a "Red Sea Pedestrian" (courtesy of "The Life of Brian") or simply a "Jewish" (courtesy of "Saved").

Jew means a member of the Tribe of Judah. It's no more an insult to call someone a Jew than to call someone a Navajo. But that's exactly what anti-Semitism is all about. It makes us hate ourselves. Why is it an insult to call someone a Jew and not an insult to call someone a Christian? On the other hand, if you want to descend to the level of the attacker, next time someone calls you a dirty Jew call him a farshtunken goy. On the gender issue, take the word back to the Hebrew: Yehudi means Jew in the masculine. Yehudit means Jew in the feminine (and there's nothing diminutive about it). Care to translate?

I grew up Orthodox in the 1960's-70's, speaking Hebrew, German, Yiddish & French. I davened in Hebrew and am still a bit surprised at how oblivious I was to the gender specific language in that context. However, I knew God had no form or gender and it truly never concerned me! The discomfort only set in when I encountered English siddurim and learned to pray in a language in which "gender neutral" was an option. I am now a rabbi (when asked what that makes my husband, I reply, "Lucky!") serving a Reform congregation. I have to admit, the language changes still sometimes distract me, but I understand the logic. As for JEWESS, I absolutely love, love the word. I agree with those who said it feels regal and elegant. I believe we should reclaim and revel in it. I do apologize for being ignorant to the fact that it is considered offensive by so many!

Mazel Tov on your blog, but as for the word "Jewess," FEH!!

The word is abhorrent. JB is absolutely right about the problem of reclaiming words, but on top of that, this is one word that should NOT be reclaimed. Maybe it was where and when I grew up, but I never heard it used as anything other than a dual-purpose slur against both Jews and women by gentiles, and a know-your-place putdown by Jewish men. Rather than being reclaimed, it should be buried at a crossroads at midnight with a stake through its antisemitic/misogynist heart.

I don't feel I need modifiers, I'm a Jew pure and simple. It reminds me linguistically of the Spanish modification of -ita, a diminutive version of a word. I think it reduces our voices as women and the power of our identities. I wouldn't want to be referred to that way, and I think as a consultant and trainer, if it came down to me, "the Jewess" and another trainer who was a man, a Jew, the reduction of my credibility would be inherent. I suppose that is the very challenge of reclaiming words - until they are reclaimed, they require the bearer to put up with the negative connotation until the positive connotation takes hold. That's a big sacrifice for women competing in the world that I'm not prepared to make for a word that I don't really love.

I think it's a very beautiful word, with gracious and regal connotations. It sounds to me like a term of respect, not a pejorative.

It's an archaic term, and usually used as a form of orientalism i.e. racism, toward Jewish women. But then again, I am happy to reclaim it. I believe among my lady-Jew friends in Berkeley, CA, we already have. When I stop by my lady-Jew friend's house after work, she greets me, "Here's the Jewess!!!" It's about context. Let it be a source of pride inside the tribe.

I had a boyfriend -- VERY non-Jewish -- who loved the fact that I was Jewish. He loved my family, our urban-ness and my exotic background. He lovingly called me a Jewess. Yes, it felt very odd then, and it's still odd, but I have an affection for the anachronistic feel of it, and I like the embracing-our-roots aspect of why we should keep it alive.

You don't choose that label--it chooses you. I'm all for it.

I'm reminded of a line spoken by Jill Clayburgh in a movie she made with Walter Matthau (1981, First Monday in October). The story had to do with the first female Supreme Court Justice (played by Jill Clayburgh). Walter Mattau's character (also a Supreme Court Justice, possibly the Chief Justice) speaks to her, calling her, "Madame Just-ess" a few times. The first time, she gives him a strange look, but after he uses the term two or three times, she looks him straight in the eye and tells him there's no such thing, that the word is "Justice" and so on. It stuck with me. I am a Jew. I have no problem being called a Jewish woman or a female Jew. I strongly object to being called a JewESS. I'm not "smaller" than other Jews; why label me as "less than"? No. While I'm all in favor of reclaiming words to give an oppressed group its power, this is one word I have no interest in reclaiming, or even resurrecting. Let it die.

When I was ordained a rabbi in 1980, people were still uncomfortable using the term "rabbi" for a woman. Some joked about calling women rabbis "rabbits"! But we stuck to the name, and now it seems perfectly normal. I too love the "Jewesses" in 19th century literature, but I don't want to live there.

Happy to be a Jew and a rabbi!

When I first converted I said that I was "Proud to be a Jewess." My Rabbi's wife said,Ì¢‰âÒhat is awful to say.Ì¢‰âÂå I asked her and other Jewish sources why. For them it is degrading. Her earliest memories of the use of the word were to diminish the humanity of the Jewish woman. It was a way to parallel her to an Animal. For example: Lion and Lioness.

Her argument was also that Xians donÌ¢‰â‰ã¢t say Ì¢‰âÒXianessÌ¢‰âÂå for female Xians. They are all Xians. All Jews are Jews.

To be honest I personally have no problem with the word. I think word meanings can change over time...Look at the cigarette!

I guess I do not have a problem with it because I am an "actress" and the awards are separated by sexes. I do not find it offensive. True, I don't like labels, but I do admit to being Jewish and a woman and an actress.

I agree with the above: with the description of "attitude" as a positive moniker...and with those uncomfortable with "Jewess". We should be using a word without negative history. Similarly, we rarely refer to other females (formally at least) as "girls". "Jewish Women with Attitude" resonates much better with me!

I began calling myself a Jewess at 6, in 1956, as a result of the introduction of antisemitism into my daily routine of abuse at the hands of my mother and stepfather. I figured I must be since the statement "Well, that's what the Jews went through" always followed whatever abuse was chosen for any given moment of any day. As a survivor and, after years of research, having learned more of my great-grandmother's family members whom I was forbidden to mention -- as was the case with Shoah history in Oklahoma up until 1970 - I began to use the title with proud, akin to being called "Mom'.

I posted an essay yesterday on FireDogLake entitled "An American Jewess In Israel: Reflections on War, Peace and Justice in the Middle East". In the title I termed myself a Jewess without giving the word much thought. Had I been asked, prior to publishing the essay, to reflect on my choice of that word I would have said that I was probably unconsciously echoing my parents' usage, trying in my own way to *be* the good Jewess they often urged and encouraged me to be. I'm certain the term never held pejorative weight for them. My father said "good Jewess" to connote any lovely and upstanding woman in our community. A good Jewess, Mom and Dad gave me to understand, comported herself at all times like a lady, was ever a dutiful daughter and a diligent scholar, was socially conscious and active in taking a stand against social injustices, she would be the source of much nachas and joy for her family and community. She would naturally in time become a good wife, a loving and protective mother... and boy, could she cook! A lot to live up to, but I strove for it all. My use of the word Jewess on FDL immediately sparked controversy. The debate about whether the term is derogatory or not may rage on, but I myself am not a bit ashamed of it. I love being female, Jewish, and I'm glad I used this somewhat literary, archaic, and spark-igniting word and made it my own. Kudos to all Jewesses With Attitude! I'm glad to know you're out here.

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With its heavy loadings of exoticism, sensuality, seduction, and subversion, "Jewess" is perfect shorthand for female Jew. Run with it, girls.

Jewish men are not (all) exotic, sensual, seductive and subversive, so what makes you, Seadragonconquerer, think all female Jews are? I can see your point - who doesn't like being called sensual? But the very words delineate something atypical, something not the norm, whereas I feel - and I hope you do too - that Jewish women and girls are the norm every bit as much as Jewish men and boys.

Yes, darling Bri, as I said above, I know that here it is an acronym for Jewish-American Princess and am not confused in the least. Despite how it was intended, especially to those of us above a certain age and from the western parts of the country, "Jap" is ugly. It DOES refer to Japanese, and is a hideous slur. My family flinches when someone says that. Can we just say Jewish Princess? Princessy?

Jappy isn't a term against Japanese people, hun. I understand the confusion though. I think they mean "J.A.P"-pyness, and the JAP stands for Jewish American Princess.

Hope that helps, I don't think they meant harm! :) xx

-Bri, from GET KOSHER

I am a Jewish woman and proud of it, but I have no use for "Jewess" any more than I have for "authoress" or "poetess". I cannot explain my lack of irritation with "actress", but I am not bothered by hearing "actor" used androgenously. (sp?) Is the term "murderess" still in use?

I agree totally in that JEWISS is NOT an attractive way to be described.Why even have this discussion? isn't being considered a Jewish woman enough? It certainly is FOR ME and my GIRLS!!!! KOL TOV..y'ALL!!we have enough to get done in this meshuga world......get busy!

I think Jewess sounds cool - like a synthesis of "jewel" and "priestess". It's always good to reclaim things.

I am proud to be a great-granddaughter of that great American Jewess, Rosa Fassel Sonneschein. Though I knew almost nothing about her from my father, he (who was remarkably taciturn about his early life) did mention a few things about her. The bulk of what I know are from sources to which we all are privy. She was truly intellectual, beautiful, wily and feisty. What I knew from the man who was her grandson was that she smoked cigars, drank tea from a saucer, and told him that "It is just as easy to fall in love with a million dollars, as it is to fall in love with nothing." She was an early proponent of a woman's right to choose, as we say today. Though not a fit mother in many ways, which I shall keep private, I presume she was well loved by my father, for she was one of the few relatives he mentioned. He traveled with his first fiancee to introduce them toward the end of Rosa's life and she kept them waiting for over an hour, but was perfectly put together when brought out to visit (red nails and all)! She was such an admirable woman and her attributes lend themselves justifiably to idealization. But she was complex, complicated, and conflicted -- which is to say that she was human -- with a richness and texture so compelling. Yes, her great-granddaughter is very happy to be a Jewess. And SO thankful to be learning more about her and in her own words, through the efforts of the Jewish Women's Archive.

I'm all for reclaiming words, including this one. I also want to add that we're not all as comfortable with the word "Jew" as we might think we are....when I was in college (which was not all that long ago) a Jewish organization (I wish I could remember which one but I can't) sent a folded mailing to every Jewish student on my campus. The front of it said "Jew" in big letters inside a Jewish star. When we opened the mailing, it asked the question, what did you do when you received this? [I assume our college was not the only one that received these mailings.] Well, it got us talking, because standing in the small mailroom at our small college, even people like myself who were actively involved at Hillel....were pretty shaken, and immediately tried to hide the piece of paper and didn't even open it until later. Point taken, Jewish Organization Whose Name I Can't Remember. I am Jew and Jewess!!!!

I have always loved the word Jewess and had decided years ago to ignore the fact that it gave many a bad taste because of the Nazis having used it in their categorizations. My father always used this as a descriptor for Jewish women he found beautiful so I also have a sentimental affection for the word.

I think there was a time when Ashkenazi Jewish women were considered exotic, altho it may be a bit before your time. If you remember a movie called "The Way We Were", 1973, Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, his whole attraction to her was based on her exoticness, of mind and body. I think that was not an uncommon experience for non Jewish men of a certain time, and may even be true for non Jewish men today. The Jewish power brokers in Hollywood, however, found others exotic and so we were vanished in that way. Let's emerge out of that cycle of shadows. If we own our own exoticness we cannot be banished

Yeah, reminds me of 'lioness'. How about 'princess' or 'seamstress'?? Jewish women are many things, all rolled into one. Cheers!

Since I was a young girl, I wanted to be a Jewess. In reading reading Sir Walter Scott's description of 'Rebecca' in his "Ivanhoe," I was struck by this raven beauty. As an impressionable youngster, I found this Jewess to be beautiful, loyal, faithful, and modest. She and I seemed to share a name only. I desired to live up to her model of being a Jewess. If only I could bring such honour to my people...

Now these many years later, I have found my own way of being a Jewess and bringing honour to the community. I am not a raven beauty. Nor has my loyalty or fidelity ever been tested. But as a wife, mother, rabbi, daughter, sister, and friend, I embody my own definition of Jewess-ness.

R-o-a-r!

I love that Modigliani painting, too (see comment below), and I think it's one of the more positive images of the Jewess as exotic other. Today -- in America, at least -- it's hard to imagine a time when Ashkenazi Jewish women were considered exotic (Sephardi and Mizrahi women are still definitely exoticized, by both Jews and non-Jews). That's part of what makes the reclaiming of Jewess interesting to me -- what does it mean when it's used by Jewish women to describe themselves, not to describe an "other"? What's the specifically feminine aspect of Jewish identity today?

I went to a Modigliani exhibit at New York City's Jewish Museum a few years ago, and the only painting I can remember is one called "The Jewess." It featured a close-up portrait of one intense-looking chick. She was seductive yet dignified--young, but confident in her stare. Check it out: http://www.zeek.net/art_04082..... Maybe there's some insight when you see what a "Jewess" looked like through a man's eyes...

I agree that the word Jewess takes getting used to. It's not a word I ever used before to describe myself, but I think it's a cool idea to reclaim it.

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How to cite this page

Jewesses With Attitude. "Jewesses: Jappy, Bizarre, or Cool?." 28 March 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 27, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/jewesses>.

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