Some years ago, a friend of mine who is not Jewish jokingly referred to my then-college age daughter as a “princess.” I flipped out.
Not on my friend — she had no idea she’d hit a nerve. But inside me, where the P word resonates in all kinds of ways that have nothing to do with women who live in royal palaces wearing royal jewels and cutting royal ribbons, I was furious. It’s one thing, I thought, for Jewish women to call other Jewish women princesses. But for a goy?
Then I thought about it some more, and realized that I couldn’t actually think of any occasion, ever, when calling someone whose last name isn’t Windsor a princess was okay. And as for going all the way, and indulging in a JAP joke: not cool, dude. And that’s not only because JAP jokes are, by their very nature, antisemitic, but they’re demeaning as hell. Most of them revolve around two punch lines, the one having to do with frigidity, the other with going shopping or one of its corollaries: the nail or beauty salon. The themes running through all the many variations of the form are that American Jewish women are materialistic/ frivolous on the one hand and sexually deficient/lazy on the other.
Around the time I was finishing my formal schooling and launching my tentative adult life, JAP jokes were beginning to come under fire, but it was an academic discussion only, and in the hurly burly of my twenties, I didn’t notice. Especially not when JAP jokes continued to be in circulation, told and just as often received with great hilarity, at least among the people I hung out with in New York circa 1982-1988, at which point I got married and had my first child, after which I didn’t much think about anything beyond projectile vomiting, diaper rash, breast-feeding, and sleep-deprivation. And then two more kids came along. Twenty odd years later I woke up from the trance of motherhood and found out that while we in America actually elected a Black president, JAP jokes were still in circulation — to what degree, I couldn’t say. All I knew was that I still, on occasion, heard them being told. Then comes 2016 when, bizarrely, a book called The Jewish American Princess Joke Book was (self) published. Wow. Talk about awful timing: Trump on tape bragging about how to “grab ’em by the pussy” and the immediate uptick in antisemitic incidents in the US and elsewhere after he took up residency in the White House.
The JAP joke book aside — may its author live and be happy — its undoubtable that there is something roughly known as “Jewish humor,” with it sub-category of “Jewish jokes,” some of which you have to be a Jew to get, and some of which you have to be a Jew to tell. Like Yiddish itself — the language and culture gave birth to what’s broadly understood today to be Jewish humor — it’s barbed, earthy, and adaptive. Also, it isn’t polite.
But JAP jokes aren’t any of that. They’re just plain old awful: mean, sexist, shaming, antisemitic. (Happily, the form never took hold in Israel, perhaps because the stereotype was bound up with being a rich American.) The point is to make Jewish women from across the spectrum — from Peace Corps volunteers to kindergarten teachers to suburban housewives –feel bad about themselves. When I was in college there was a particular suite of rooms in a particular dorm that was known across campus as “Toyko High Command” for its reputation as the lair of the meanest and most spoiled (and best manicured) Jewish girls on campus. Whether there was even a drop of truth in any of this wasn’t anything I ever examined. I was just glad that I myself wasn’t one of them.
Except I was, because it didn’t matter how old my blue jeans, how ragged my fingernails, or how non-existent my time spent at country clubs. Nor that I’d grown up in in a town so non-Judaic that my high school, when cheering for the home team, cheered for The Saxons. All that mattered was that I was Jewish and female. Ergo: I too was a JAP. God forbid I wore a nice dress with matching shoes: then I was a ur-JAP.
According to my daughter-in-law, who is a lot younger than I am and knows these things, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and the subsequent attention to demeaning speech, the JAP joke finally became verboten. But did she hear such jokes in college? She did.
It came as a bit of weird surprise to me when, a few weeks ago, I ran into a Black neighbor of mine and, in the course of our discussion on the subject of what-speech-is-and-is-not-kosher, she told me two things. First, that it’s one thing if a Black person uses the “n word” but never okay for a white person to speak the word, no matter what the context. And second, that because she’s been newly sensitized to the importance of hateful language, she would never call a Jew a Jew, but rather, refer to such a person as “Jewish.” All I could do was laugh, because, nu:
Goldie and Hershel are on a first date. Says Goldie: “So, are you religious?” Says Hershel. “Not so much, I’m merely Jew-ish.”
So go ahead: call me a Jew. But a JAP? I don’t think so.