by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse
*Author’s note: I began working on this piece around Easter, last month in March, hence the quasi-anachronistic opening. Also, to read the comments on the introduction of this piece, please go here. Lastly, please note that the thoughts and opinions expressed in the interviews completed for this piece reflect the sentiments of the interviewees and not necessarily the views or opinions of the author and/or Racialicious as a whole. OK, let’s begin!
Despite all the Easter hype, I found myself thinking a lot about Judaism in America this past week. Eliot Spitzer, New York’s Jewish political golden boy and possible presidential hopeful, had been outed for a prostitution scandal, New York Magazine had run an extensive article on actress, singer, performer extraordinaire Bette Midler, Dick Cheney had traveled to the Middle East, one of his topics of discussion being the state of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the New York City version of Bravo’s reality show Real Housewives featured a Jewish-American family. It seemed as if everywhere I turned, I noticed some element of Judaism, be it people, politics, or general culture.
In the meantime, I also began to contemplate the state of Jews in the media, their portrayals therein, and how Jewish-American identity was being shaped as a result. Despite the frequent, conspiracy theory-steeped accusations of Jews having a media takeover, it’s quite a wonder that the portrayals of Jews, including Jewish-Americans, are not exactly the most flattering.
Take a moment to think to yourself of the Jewish stereotypes to which you have been exposed, or to go further, try to count the positive portrayals of Jews (Right off the top of my head, I can only think of Anne Frank and the cast of Fiddler on the Roof) in comparison to the negative ones. What do you come up with?
For the most part, the stereotypes people come up with are, for lack of a better phrase, “positive stereotypes” they see on television or through other forms of media, and those are the ones they internalize. The financially successful Jew. The hard-working, scholarly Jew. The Jew with entrepreneurial prowess. The Jew who is a survivor. The Jew who is politically active. Of course, turn those on their heads, and they easily become “negative stereotypes.” The Jewish American Princess. The nerdy, socially awkward, neurotic Jew. The money-grubbing, “crafty” Jew. The Jew who plays the Oppression Olympics with the Holocaust as the ultimate social injustice. The Jew who is a Zionist fanatic. Hence the reminder that even so-called “positive stereotypes” can be one’s worst enemy. In fact, they are central to understanding the media-based stereotyping that occurs in relation to Jews.
For one thing, according to the media at least, all Jews are white. They all blindly support the continued recognition of Israeli statehood, despite the limited connection they may have with the Middle East geographically or culturally. Also, all Jews, using media representations alone, are well off. If the caricature-like images of Jews were to fall from our television sets, they’d find themselves out of their element as there would be no dollar bills and diamonds to roll around in to pass the day. Just like any other racial, ethnic, or religious group, Jews are subject to intense criticism at the hands of the media, and in ways many of us lack awareness to notice, mainly because we have so deeply accepted the “positive stereotypes” that we fail to realize the power they have in bolstering “negative” ones.
A “model minority” of sorts, many American Jews, no matter the sect to which they belong, or whether they consider their link to Judaism as one of religion, one of ethnicity, or both, are lauded for their achievements while simultaneously being pressured to perform a stereotype to keep them up. For this piece, I spoke with several Jewish friends, two of whom took the time to respond to a set of questions on Jewish identity. In their responses, which read like a race and culture bildungsroman of sorts, Yael, a former college classmate and up-and-coming actress, and Alex, a co-worker, discussed what it was like to “come of age” as a person of Jewish heritage in America. I have included the full-text interviews at the end of this piece, as I feel their words most poignantly capture their experiences in ways that I would be hard-pressed to replicate in my journalism-meets-prose-meets-term paper blogging style. It simply wouldn’t do their words justice.
Nevertheless, there are several unifying themes that appeared among the interviewees, as well as conclusions that could be drawn from personal observations and prior academic readings (including the highly recommended short essay “‘J.A.P.’-slapping: The Politics of Scapegoating” by Ruth Atkin and Adrienne Rich) that deserve special attention: Read the Post Damned If You Do: Jews in the Spotlight, Stereotypes, and Identity (Full Piece)