Authors aim to defang JAP, shiksa labels


LOS ANGELES (JTA) — “So are you a JAP?”

I’m sitting at Abigail’s in midtown Manhattan and next to us, an older couple visiting from Ireland is delighted they have unwittingly happened upon a kosher restaurant and some real, live Jewish women.

“Excuse me?” I say, almost choking on my gazpacho.

“Are you a JAP? I’ve always wanted to meet a real JAP,” he says ever so politely.

“I am not sure you really want to be using that word,” I say, explaining that Jewish American Princess is a rather pejorative stereotype of Jewish women.

Turns out, maybe I was wrong. Maybe offense at the implications of JAP (spoiled, materialistic, carping, demanding and frigid) and the requisite JAP jokes ("What’s a JAP’s favorite wine? I want to go to Florida!") is a thing of the past.

Two new and very different books bring the subject of Jewish women stereotypes back into modern conversation.

“The Jewish Princess Cookbook: having your cake & eating it” (McBooks Press, 2008) by Georgie Tarn and Tracey Fine is a best-selling cheeky British cookbook hoping to reclaim the Jewish princess stereotype. “The Shiksa Syndrome,” by Laurie Graff (Broadway Books, 2008), is a chic-lit novel hoping to expose the elephant in the room — the shiksa, or non-Jewish WASPy woman, who captivates Jewish men.

Both terms — some say flip sides of the same stereotype — are ones that many Jewish feminists had hoped to leave in the last millennium.

(Contrary to popular belief, writer Herman Wouk did not coin the term JAP, as the Wikipedia entry on the acronym claims. “Wikipedia is mistaken. You won’t find the acronym in any of my writings,” Wouk wrote in an e-mail. “I guess it’s sometimes used to derogate Marjorie,” he wrote, referring to one of his most famous characters, Marjorie Morningstar, a spoiled Jewish 19-year-old from the Upper West Side who seeks to escape her JAPpy past but in the end succumbs to the sheltered life of the married, careerless wife in the suburbs.)

“So what is a Jewish Princess, I hear you ask?” Tarn writes in the introduction to the cookbook. “Well, the usual stereotype seems to be ‘spoiled little rich girl who spends all her days shopping and beautifying herself’ — let me tell you that is simply untrue and quite unfair. After all, I never spend all day shopping and beautifying myself! I just like to enjoy life, and part of the enjoyment of life is food and feeding your family."

The 200-plus-page cookbook is colored in pastels and illustrated with a green-eyed, black-haired woman and pictures of lipstick, sunglasses, purses and champagne (“Pink Princess Champagne, naturally”), peppered with JAP jokes (“What does a Jewish Princess make for dinner? Reservations.") and Princess Pledges (“I pledge to have a clean and tidy home [but I never said I would do the cleaning and tidying]). Amid the kitsch is also a genuine cookbook, with traditional explanations of Jewish dietary rules, traditional (British) soups, salads, appetizers, entrees and desserts — not too shabby for women who say they don’t “particularly” love cooking. (“I mean, we all have to eat, and even Jewish Princesses can’t go out to eat every night,” they write.)

“Positive, Productive … Princess!” the duo shouts in unison from a stage to an audience of some 50 women during a recent appearance at the JCC in Irvine, Calif. Wearing fuchsia aprons that say “Designer Dirt” and scary-high stiletto heels, Tarn and Fine are close to what you might expect of self-described princesses. Their British accents are crisp, their hair blown out and nails unchipped by dishwashing liquid.

“Why is it only Jewish women who have the hair done? It’s derogatory. Everybody does it,” says Fine, 44, as the two women eat post-lecture lunch using their cookbook’s recipes — prepared by a caterer, of course. “It’s not just Jews in the nails salon — it’s everyone.”

“Anyone can be a princess, you don’t have to be Jewish,” says Tarn, 43, referring to the princess movement where girls and teenagers revel in princess dolls, games and fashions. “As a little girl you’re told, ‘you look like such a princess,’ and as you get older who’s going to say to you ‘Princess?’ "

Not surprisingly, others see no reason to warm up to the stereotype.

“Why does it have to be princess?” asks Ophira Edut, the editor of “The Jewess is Loose,” a Web site that offers cultural critique and funny stories about being a Jewish woman today.

“Why couldn’t it just be the modern Jewish girl’s guide to cooking? Even though it may be oh so harmless, it creates negative sterotypes of Jewish women."

Edut adds that "to me it just seems like capitalizing irresponsibly on a stereotype.”

But the British princesses say they haven’t come across criticism of this sort — not even after they hit  No. 1 at the British department store Selfridges, or from their weekly column in The Jewish Chronicle of London, or on an eight-city tour in the United States.

If there is negativity around the term, “we want it turn it around,” Tarn says. She says people come up to them and say, “We’re Jewish princesses and we’re proud of it.”

“Everyone gets the joke is tongue in cheek,” she says.

Indeed, no one in the audience at the Irvine JCC — women ranging in age from their 30s to 60s — seemed to be offended.

“I think it’s totally fun,” says Audra Martin, 38. “I don’t mind it., I’ve been called it all the time: ‘What do you want, little princess?’ It’s just princess — not Jewish. That’s all the children. What do you expect? We’re in Orange County — the home of the princess.”

It may be true that everyone’s a princess, but not everyone is a shiksa. In fact, a shiksa — from the Yiddish "sheketz," to loathe — is actually defined by what one is not: Jewish.

In “The Shiksa Syndrome,” Graff’s novel about Aimee Albert, a Jewish woman who pretends to be a gentile in order to get a Jewish guy, the definition of shiksa includes: 1. A non-Jewish woman. 2. A quintessential blonde beauty. 3. The polar opposite of the quintessential Jewish mother. 4. A type of woman who instills deep longing in dark, swarthy Jewish men. 5. A Jewish boy’s dream. 6. A Jewish girl’s nightmare.

Graff, a 40-something New York actress and writer (“You Have to Kiss A Lot of Frogs" and “Looking for Mr. Goodfrog”), is certainly not the first writer to use the term. Phillip Roth’s Portnoy was obsessed with shiksas, playwright and essayist Wendy Wasserstein coined “Shiksa Goddess” with the title of her 2002 collection of essays (subtitled "Or, How I Spent My Forties"), and TV shows like "Seinfeld" had their own coinage (Elaine’s “shiksappeal”).

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism classes at the Ziegler School of Rabbinics in Los Angeles, which teaches some 500 students a year, says he believes it was a term used by older Eastern European Jews.

“If it’s used today, it’s done in a comic way,” says the rabbi, who uses the term non-Jew.

Some Jews, however, don’t find the term humorous. In fact, when Graff made her presentation at the Jewish Book Council, where JCCs and other institutions around the country decide on which authors to invite to speak, a few people told Graff they liked her presentation but would not be extending an invitation.

“They felt the word is pejorative — the word upset people in their community,” Graff says, declining to name the cities in question. “They didn’t want to bring attention to the fact that Jewish women are seen as ‘less than’ in the community. I think it’s seen as an insult.”

An insult to Jewish women or to non-Jewish women?

Both, says Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. The word shiksa, says the editor of the anthology “On Being a Jewish Feminist” (Schocken, 1983), is inappropriate and vulgar.

“It has been used as a term of contempt for non-Jewish women, and also as a term of adoration — ‘shiksa goddess’ — implying a derogatory judgment of Jewish women,” Heschel says.

Graff, who is single, was inspired to write “The Shiksa Syndrome” because of these types of stereotypes.

“Stop being so Jewish,” some men have said to her when she was only trying to be nice — offering them cake or a place to sit. A similar offer from a perceived non-Jew would make them say, “Oh, how sweet!”

On the other hand, Graff has been mistaken for a shiksa, “and I’ve always taken it as a compliment."

"They’re not saying anything against Jews or gentiles," she says. "I think to some extent all American girls have this look — we’re here with nose jobs and perfect teeth, everyone looks youngish and assimilated — it’s American.”

But, she says, “If there is any pejorative around the word shiksa, then I hope this book removes it.”

Graff also hopes to address the stereotypes of Jewish women.

“I love Judaism," she says, "and I don’t want to see it assimilate and vanish. And talking about it is better than not talking about it. This stuff exists and it’s not going to go away.”

Recommended from JTA