J.A.P. - Jewish American ... Proletariat?
I am not, by an stretch of the imagination, a princess, dripping in designer merch after swiping my dad’s credit card. My mom grew up in an a working-class home with four sisters and was raised almost solely by her mother. My dad, conversely, grew up in an upper-middle class household. Although my mom is not Jewish, I have always tied her story to the Jewish values I hold, helped along by my Jewish dad’s socialist, anti-corporate belligerence.
Growing up in a distinctly un-Jewish area, I took pride in this obscure part of my identity that meant double the holidays, delicious fried food, and Passover seders that emphasized resisting the injustices and oppressive forces of the world. Being Jewish was so cool!!
As I got older, I began hearing, in passing, phrases like, “Don’t be such a Jew” from classmates making fun of their friends for picking up a quarter off the ground.
What the heck did Jews have to do with money? (And what’s wrong with finding momentary joy in a shiny coin?)
After the economic downturn in 2008, class became an increasingly personal issue for me. My parents had trouble making ends meet; when my mom lost her job in 2011, I remember her telling my sister and me, “We’re going to be eating a lot of soup for a while!” conveying this new financial reality in a way that was honest yet comforting, as only my mother can.
In college, I began independently exploring what being Jewish meant to me. I found shows with Jewish women leads that I absolutely adored. Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Abbi and Ilana of Broad City. Melrose in GLOW. Midge in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. (And of course I revisited Funny Girl, a film I had watched in high school, and was awed all over again by how amazing it is).
As I learned more about identity politics, including the stereotype of the Jewish American Princess, I realized that a lot of my favorite shows about Jewish women have always somewhat played up that stereotype: the protagonists have wealthy parents and they can be sexual, materialistic, and selfish. More importantly, however, these aspects of their personality are somehow intrinsically tied to their Jewishness and their womanness. This irritates me. That experience of wealth and materialism doesn’t match my own and this narrative of what women’s success looks like perpetuates the stereotype that it’s also trying to overturn.
While all of these wonderful examples of Jewish women subvert the JAP trope––Rebecca moves away from the cut-throat but well-paying lifestyle of corporate New York lawyer; Abbi and Ilana do their best not to feel degraded in their crappy jobs; Melrose uses her money to help her friends; Midge makes her own career outside of the influences of her parents or husband––I can’t identify with any of them. Money, and their access to it, is an overt aspect of their characterization; where are my working-class and middle-class Jewesses? Where do I fit in? Seeing these “princesses” after my own negative experiences of non-Jews associating us with greed and wealth left a bad taste in my mouth. Is this all non-Jews saw in Jewish women?
Yes, many Jews in America occupy comfortably upper-middle class or wealthy social positions.
But that’s not all of us. In 2013, a report was released that “forty-five percent of all children in Jewish households in New York now live below or near the poverty line.”
If we take this stat a step further by considering the fact the women are disproportionately affected by poverty (hi, glass ceiling! hello, $8 tampon boxes! wassup, birth control!)––umm––I’m guessing there are a hell of a lot of Jewish women who don’t feel like princesses.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that Jewish women are not always depicted as victims, but it also creates a false public image that can seriously divide communities. Consider the Model Minority Myth.
Asian Americans are used as objects in this model, which arguably applies to Jewish Americans as well, pitting these two groups against Black, Latinx, and Native American peoples, and thereby blaming the latter for their own oppression.
Propagating the idea that Jews and Asian Americans have universally reached “success” in America not only stirs bad feelings, but also endangers policies like affirmative action, women’s rights, and access to health care. How? By cultivating complacency in individuals who believe their minority group is no longer affected by economic or class issues. By using this myth as a wedge, dividing these vulnerable communities and preventing a collective dialogue from taking place. By dividing communities internally and forgetting about the large proportion of their people that have not achieved the so-called “American Dream.”
In short, by empowering the conservative shitheads who have historically kept all of us (women, religious minorities, POC) oppressed in the first place. This pacifying mindset that accepts systematic oppression needs to be questioned by everyone. Let’s face it, these issues need all the attention they can get right now because they do affect us all.
I’ve looked a lot at the issue of representation in media and Hollywood, and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that representation matters. Having only portrayals of the JAP, even if it’s subverted, homogenizes and simplifies the Jewish woman’s experience and honestly preserves the JAP as a stereotype of Jewish women, thereby limiting the possibilities of what success and personal or societal value look like.
I’m not saying portraits of Jewish women with money should stop. I’m not saying these characters are evil or fake. I’m saying let’s not make that representation our only mainstream voice. Give me a middle-class Jewish school girl. Lemme see a working-class Jewish mother. Jewish women have so many diverse stories and experiences. So let’s see them. Let me see … me?
How to cite this page
. "J.A.P. - Jewish American ... Proletariat?." 16 July 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 15, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/lets-talk-about-japs-jewish-americanproletariats>.