Tag Archives: feminism

The Slur That Won’t Go Away

by Kayla Green

JAP: The word has lost almost all of its taboo status, becoming something close to a knee-jerk reaction to any Semitic-looking girl wearing designer clothing or showing any other signs of wealth. The word, which connotes a long history of ugly generalizations, is often bandied about without a moment’s hesitation.

The recent YouTube sensation “Pursuit of Jappiness,” a parody of a song by rapper Kid Cudi, has racked up more than 275,000 views and proves that the word JAP still packs a punch; the video mocks the Jewish population at the University of Michigan with lines such as “When I say JAP, I don’t mean the Japanese, I mean the chicks taking pics at the frat parties, and the dudes at the Scarsdale driving range, new Beamer? Pssh, pocket change.” Lines like these create an automatic connection between Jews and money and also seek to prove the “otherness” of Jews in something as diverse as a university setting. Other stereotype-promoting instruments such as “The Official Jewish American Princess Home Page” website and the 2006 documentary Jewish American Princess still run rampant.

Ironically, post-war Jewish male writers first highlighted the concept of the JAP. Early examples can be found in Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar and Philip Roth’s 1959 novel Goodbye, Columbus, which featured overly indulged or  “princess-like” central characters.  The term began gaining popularity in the 1970s with the publication of several non-fiction pieces such as Barbara Meyer’s Cosmopolitan article “Sex and the Jewish Girl” and “The Persistence of the Jewish Princess,” a 1971 cover article in New York magazine by Julie Baumgold. The archetypal JAP has been described as “a sexually repressive, self-centered, materialistic and lazy female,” and as “spoiled, overly-concerned with appearance, and indifferent to sex”.

This is reflected in the Jewish American Princess Home Page, a website that introduces itself by saying, “Welcome to the unofficial open house of The Official Jewish American Princess Home Page! Come!  Sit! Help yourself to a warm bagel with a schmear of cream cheese and a nice glass of tea. Please excuse the dust and schmutz. These renovations are such a chore.” After this introduction, the website states, “You might be a Jewish American Princess if the only thing you know how to make for dinner is reservations.”

Other than the blatantly offensive nature of the term, the overall notion of attributing specific traits, qualities or preferences to a group of people renders JAP a brutal term—especially in light of the historical association between Jewish people and material wealth. From medieval times until recent history, Jews were barred from owning land and from various professions. In many cases, they were forced to be moneylenders, which kicked off the lingering stereotype of Jews with money.

JAP builds off of this legacy, reinforcing prejudices. What is really questionable is why we, individually and collectively, have become so complacent with the term being used on such a large scale. It is quite commonly used among young people in social settings; the term was even featured on a recent episode of Glee, a television show well known for promoting diversity and acceptance, proving that the word has thoroughly infiltrated popular culture.

It is commonly considered acceptable for a Jewish person to use the term—a ludicrous viewpoint, as JAP will always have the same meaning regardless of who says it. The identity of the speaker is immaterial when the word is used in a public forum. If we truly wish to become a progressive, accepting society, in which Jews receive the equal treatment they deserve, it is imperative to increase sensitivity towards the term JAP and other like expressions. It is unthinkable for a people who have suffered so greatly and overcome so much to allow—and often participate in—brutal discrimination in the land of the free.

The Combative Pacifism and Poetry of Grace Paley

by Amanda Walgrove

Grace Paley was a Jewish pacifist accused of having an Irish temper. Armed with a strong Bronx accent and a stronger rhetorical voice, she took progressive matters into her own hands during a time when women weren’t always heard. As she asserted in one of her most well known poems: “It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet. It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman.” Paley wrote with a distinct voice that was shockingly independent, producing stories that were unashamedly lewd and hilarious.

Lily Rivlin’s 2010 documentary, Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, screened last month at the New York Jewish Film Festival, beautifully captures the spirit of Paley’s life and work by incorporating videos of readings, interviews with family and friends, and her own footage which dates all the way up to her final book party in 2007. As a working woman passionately devoted to activism, Paley wore many hats. She was a devoted mother, groundbreaking writer, beloved teacher, and self-described “combative pacifist.”

Thrust into politics from an early age, Paley was the daughter of Russian socialists who immigrated to the U.S. in order to keep their children out of jail and safe from pogroms. Her neighborhood was dotted with women sitting on boxes and lawn chairs speaking Yiddish, English, and any conglomeration of Eastern European tongues. “Gracieh,” she could still hear her grandmother cooing. Paley recalls that the name “Grace” was her sister’s idea, remarking that when said in a Jewish accent, it was as good as any other name. She credited her parentage for a great deal of her boldness in character and authorship, having grown up in a household where argument was expression. She was quoted in a Washington Post article, saying, “I thought being Jewish meant you were a Socialist. Everyone on my block was a Socialist or a Communist…” Before reaching the age of twelve, she joined The Falcons, a group for young socialist children.

Paley once said that you didn’t have to live an interesting life just so you could write about it. But if she wanted to, she definitely had the material. The five-foot one-inch force of a woman had a substantial FBI file resulting from her unrelenting involvement in protests for peace and the women’s movement, which was, in her view, the most important movement in the world. Political activist Donna Gould credited Paley with redefining militarism and war in feminist terms. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum shared her story of the first time she was arrested with Paley. She hadn’t wanted to attend the peace rally but ended up being thrown into the mix. Grace turned to her and said, “See, you just can’t get out of your responsibilities.”

While defending women in a political setting, Paley gave voice to them in her poetry and prose.  She once said, “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” Her books of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Later That Same Day were lauded for their honest, fearless and humorous depiction of urban family life. Her daughter Nora referred to her as a kitchen writer because she never had a desk but was always listening and remembering. For the working mother, life was a series of interruptions, and she found the stories in them.

Paley was tenured at Sarah Lawrence College and quickly became somewhat of a surrogate mother to many of her loyal students. She was said to have conducted her classroom like an orchestra before the music plays. The testimonials of students and colleagues in Rivlin’s film illustrate how much of an impact Paley had on those who knew her. Even after her passing, she lives on through her writing, which is a master class of its own. And now, thanks to Rivlin, longtime friends and those new to her work can enjoy a glimpse into the life of a passionate writer, activist, and mother.  Those who have been inspired by her devotion to politics can carry the message forward: “These are our times. They’re global times. We live through them together. And we are lucky to have literature and art and children.”

Always a “Moment” Ahead of the Curve

One of the great things about Moment is that through its 36-year history, it has documented breaking trends in Jewish life with insight and forward-looking prowess.  Our last cover story, “A Woman Orthodox Rabbi?” made a splash in the Jewish community.  But a peek through our archives unveiled that Moment was ahead of the curve on the evolution of women in Orthodox Judaism.  Exactly 17 years ago, our cover story delved into the same issue, anticipating some of the breakthroughs that took nearly two decades to to come to fruition:

For your reading pleasure, InTheMoment is giving you exclusive access to this fascinating story from our archives, which is all the more enlightening in light of our last issue.  Enjoy!

Bridging the Gender Gap in Prayer – Sort Of

By Lily Hoffman Simon

The patriarchal tradition of Orthodox Judaism is being challenged all over the world. The recent controversy surrounding the ordainment of Sara Hurwitz as the first female Orthodox rabba (see Moment’s cover story) indicates the extent of this gender revolution. One recent development in the struggle is the birth of what are known as partnership minyans, which bring together males and females for synagogue services. Yet despite its progressive nature, its gender-equitable approach reinforces the presence of gender equality in orthodox circles.

A minyan in Jewish tradition refers to the number of Jewish adults necessary to conduct Jewish ritual, such as prayer or service. Traditionally, this quorum is set at 10 Jewish males of Bar-Mitzvah age. While Reform congregations and many Conservative ones tend to include women in this count, Orthodox Judaism has continued to restrict women from being included. As a result, women have been considered secondary in religious services, and are also restricted from performing other ritual tasks, such as reading from the Torah, or leading prayer. In Orthodox synagogues, and still in numerous Conservative communities, women and men sit in segregation from each other, separated by a mechitza. Often the women are seated on a balcony on second floor of a synagogue. The bima, or stage, of the service is usually placed on the male side of the mechitza, or downstairs, and as a result, women lack a clear view of, or ability to participate in, the service.

The inaccessibility facing women in a traditional Orthodox service has prompted a response by Orthodox feminists, especially through the work of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.  A solution proposed is what is called a ‘partnership minyan.’  This minyan necessitates 10 men and 10 women to be present in order to meet quorum, a development that acknowledges the importance of women while conforming with the halachic rule necessitating 10 men. Although services implementing this minyan are still gender segregated by a mechitza, the bima is usually centered before it, enabling clear sight of the service for both men and women. Women are allowed to read from the Torah, receive aliyot, and lead some parts of the prayer service.

By promoting gender equity in services, this development is a breakthrough for gender relations and representation in Orthodox Judaism.  Congregations using this model are springing up all over the US, and even in the old city of Jerusalem (like the Shira Hadasha congregation–see Moment’s interview with its founder, Tova Hartman). Much of the motivation behind these communities comes from the idea that hiding or silencing the voices representing community demographics is equivalent to lying before G-d, which is an abomination–especially during prayer. By extending the accessibility of service participation to women, partnership minyans are acknowledging traditional guidelines, yet adapting them to fit modern feminist and egalitarian principles, which are slowly infiltrating established practice of Judaism.

Although partnership minyans support gender equity both in representation and participation, they are still based on an assumed distinction between men and women. The continued use of a mechitza during services perpetuates the idea that the interaction between men and women during services is impure, leading to distracting sexual thoughts. This conception not only reinforces heterosexuality as the norm, but also tends to objectify the members of the opposite gender as merely sexual images; a concept usually applied more to women.  By reinforcing these ideas, men and women remain distinct from each other, and not necessarily equal. There is also no place for transgendered individuals (who identify as a different gender than their biological sex or do not identify with either side of the gender dichotomy) in this scheme (see Joy Ladin’s account about her transgendered experience at the Western Wall).

The remaining challenges beg the question of whether some streams of Orthodox Judaism are truly moving toward creating gender equality or simply reinforce traditional conceptions of gender. Partnership minyans represent one attempt to fundamentally shift the foundations of Orthodox patriarchy, by adapting Halacha to encourage gender equity. As our society’s conceptions of gender continues to change, patriarchal Orthodox institutions will face new and different challenges on its gender journey.