OyChicago articles

Debunking the JAP myth

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Self-mocking messages are bad for the Jews and for our Jewish children 


The shirt in question

Only once have I been asked if I killed Jesus.

The girl, a ninth-grade peer of mine at the time, with chutzpah enough to ask me this question, hailed from a small, Jew-free Minnesotan town. When I mentioned in passing to her that I was Jewish, the next words out of her mouth were, “Didn’t the Jews kill Christ?”

That’s the only time I’ve encountered blatant anti-Semitism—black-and-white-no-question-this-is-clearly-anti-Semitism anti-Semitism. But what scares me in our culture today is the not-so-blatant anti-Semitism. It’s a much subtler and more insidious form of Jew bashing, so pervasive in American society—particularly in Jewish circles, of all places—it’s considered both acceptable and even comical.

I don’t lack a sense of humor but the stereotype of the Jewish American Princess—the JAP—is offensive to me as both a Jew and as a woman. I once saw this image, defined in urbandictionary.com as a “bitchy, spoiled, gold-digging Jewish female,” emblazoned on an Urban Outfitters T-shirt with the caption “Everyone loves a Jewish girl,” surrounded by dollar signs and purses.

And worse yet, it’s our children, our community who are the market for this image—we’re expected to accept it, buy it and thus perpetuate it.

The JAP image dates back to the 1950s, when Jews themselves, many still feeling like outsiders relatively new to this country, coined the stereotype as a defense mechanism, according to Riv-Ellen Prell, a University of Minnesota anthropologist and professor of American studies, who has lectured on Jewish gender types. The image then became popularized during the 1970s when consumerism took hold of the country, according to Prell, who contends that the JAP, like the other ubiquitous Jewish female stereotype—the Jewish mother—is depicted as uncontrollable, with endless wants.

Today, even though we are no longer outsiders, the JAP stereotype has stuck. A few years ago, the Urban Outfitters’ tee, which became so controversial it was later pulled from the shelves, was part of a larger line of ethnic T-shirts. One, for example, says, “Everyone loves a Catholic girl,” with miniature crucifixes decorating the slogan, while another declares, “Everyone loves an Italian girl,” illustrated with pizza drawings. A silly concept for a clothing line? Perhaps. Harmful to society? No.

But then there’s the Jewish tee, “Everyone loves a Jewish girl,” surrounded by dollar signs and purses! Why, rather than money symbols, couldn’t the T-shirt designers have slapped some Magen Davids onto the shirt? Even bagels would have been better. Either of these would have been more comparable to the imagery on the other shirts.

These days, there are a huge variety of threads that help Members of the Tribe and friends of MOTs literally wear their religious identity on their sleeves, like those offered on Jewcy and Kosher Ham.

To me, any of these images and slogans are far more innocuous than the message that the shirt in question delivers. After being flooded with complaints, Urban Outfitters Inc. redesigned the T-shirt sans dollar signs and purses, an action that the store says it took out of sensitivity to the Jewish community. I applaud the company for taking the offensive shirt off the market, but we as a Jewish community ought to be concerned about what this shirt represents. Shouldn’t we worry that the image of the Jewish people is one synonymous with money and materialism?

Think about the dangerous origins of the rich/greedy Jew image. The stereotype was born many centuries ago when Jews were relegated to occupations dealing with money. Ever since, throughout history, Jews have been targets of this hateful stereotype—an  image that came to a head in Nazi Germany when Hitler employed it as a tool in the initial stages of his hate campaign against the Jewish people. The Holocaust is our most tragic reminder of what happens when a stereotype becomes accepted as a general truth, an accurate way to portray an entire people.

Yet now, we seem to have forgotten this lesson. In today’s society, Jews are no longer just victims of negative Jewish stereotypes—we’re perpetrators of them. Aren’t we the ones projecting and buying into these stereotypes? After all, aren’t our Jewish daughters the ones who were buying these ridiculous T-shirts? Is this message of materialism what we want to convey to the outside world and—more importantly—to our own Jewish children?

Many Jews figure that it’s okay for “members of the tribe” to tell JAP jokes because a Jew can’t be anti-Jewish. I disagree. To me, these jokes aren’t funny; they are mockery, betraying a lack of self-respect, becomes self-destructive. Furthermore, if we ourselves perpetuate these negative Jewish images, then how can we criticize non-Jews for doing the same?

I can recall three instances on first dates when two minutes into our time together, my Jewish date has asked me, “Does Daddy pay for your apartment?” Mind you, these men hardly know me, let alone have they ever seen where I live, yet they assume that because I’m a Jewish girl in the big city, I’m rich and spoiled. (Note to my Jewish sisters: If this ever happens to you, feel free to cut the date short and walk straight out the door.)

To me, JAP humor is particularly repulsive because the stereotype is untrue. That’s not to stay there are no Jewish women out there who fit the princess stereotype, but there are also non-Jewish princesses, Jewish princes and non-Jewish princes too.

My wonderful circle of Jewish girlfriends in no way fits the JAP stereotype. They are kind, independent, bright, and ethical young women—each a mensch. These are the qualities—the qualities of a mensch—that I enjoy sharing with my friends, qualities that I hope the world will recognize.

This is my hope for my 3-year-old and 9-month-old Jewish nephews—and for my future children as well—to grow up in a world without prejudgments and stereotypes. That’s something for us to strive for.

8 Questions for Ethan Michaeli, investigative journalist, supporter of social justice, new daddy

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Ethan Michaeli, fighting injustice in Chicago since 1991

Ethan Michaeli was inspired to work in social justice by his parents, Holocaust survivors who emigrated to Israel in 1949 and came to the U.S. before he was born. Originally from Rochester, NY, Michaeli graduated from the University of Chicago in 1989 and two years later began working for the  Chicago Defender, a 100-year-old, African American-owned daily newspaper where he did investigative reporting on the homeless, environmental racism and police brutality. In 1996, he launched  Residents' Journal , an independent news magazine written for and by tenants of Chicago's low-income public housing developments. In 2000, Michaeli created We The People Media, a not-for-profit organization, to save Residents' Journal after government funding was cut. Ethan's work at Residents' Journal has been the subject of front-page articles in The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine as well as feature segments in the Los Angeles Times and on National Public Radio, among other media.

Michaeli serves as vice president of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs; he and his wife Kimiyo Naka live with their six-month-old son in Chicago. So whether you are passionate about justice, think that cockroaches will eventually take over the planet or you too love to sing and dance to the “Time Warp,” Ethan Michaeli is a Jew You Should Know.

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about 10 years old.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I love it when we publish a story that makes the political establishment in this town blink. Chicago is a great city, but there are great injustices here with respect to how the poor are treated. I live for those all-too-rare occasions when we win one. I’m equally thrilled watching the development of the young people we’ve trained as citizen journalists. We’ve had a youth journalism program for more than a decade, and some of our youth reporters have become working journalists. Others have gone on to be carpenters, actors and medical students. They all know how to speak up for themselves, their neighbors and their communities.

3. What are you reading?
I rarely read fewer than three books at a time, making slow and unsteady progress with each. For my book club, I’m reading Salman Rushdie’s  Midnight’s Children , his novel of the birth of India and Pakistan. I’ve almost finished  Imperium , Ryszard Kapuscinski’s non-fiction narrative of his encounters with the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia over a period of six decades. I’m also in the middle of  Justinian’s Flea , William Rosen’s account of how the Bubonic Plague wrecked the Byzantine Empire.

4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I’ve been going to  El Nandu , an Argentinian restaurant in Logan Square, for so long that its grass-fed steaks and empanadas are comfort food. If I crave sushi, I go to  Ginza , a not-so-elegant looking place on the ground floor of the Tokyo Hotel that nevertheless has fish so fresh that I swear little old ladies on the red-eye from Japan bring it in ice-filled suitcases.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
I’d invent a time machine, so I could visit 9th century Spain, the fabled Andalusia in which Jews, Muslims and Christians all lived in relative harmony. I’d also check out the Mayan Empire at its height and have dinner with Genghis Khan in his palace. I might visit the future also, to see if I’m right that giant cockroaches will take over the planet once we ruin it.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
I would rather be able to fly. I have a six-month-old son who loves it when we pick him up and carry him around. He thinks he’s flying already. I would love to be able to carry him to exotic locales. It also would be grand to zoom up to a high altitude to get some perspective on those frequent occasions that I need it.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure would I find?
I don’t own an iPod, but if you’re asking for music I’m embarrassed for other people to know I listen to, it would be the album from the  Rocky Horror Picture Show . It takes me back to high school, and the first time I made out with a girl. I also listen to Hadag Nachash, an Israeli hip hop group that my friends who are hip hop aficionados think sounds like it was made with a music machine bought at Toys R Us.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago – in other words, how do you Jew?
I am a vice president of the board of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a 44-year-old social justice organization. JCUA, founded by Rabbi Robert Marx, a veteran of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights movement, sends organizers to work at neighborhood groups, stands up for progressive issues, and educates Jews about the realities of racism and poverty in Chicago. I’m not religious but otherwise very serious about my Judaism, so JCUA is my synagogue.

That’s So Cliché

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New Spertus exhibit explores the perception of stereotypes and clichés in society 


A doll featured in the exhibit, from the International Barbie Dolls (Dolls of the World Series © Mattel, Inc), from the collections of Bettina Dorfman and Barbie-Klinik Düsseldorf

As a little girl, Elizabeth Gelman’s daughter would describe everyone by the color of clothes they were wearing. She would say, “That purple lady over there is talking to that green man.”

Like the little girl, children often learn how to classify through this sort of exercise. But somewhere along the way in society, as children grow into adults, differentiating between people sometimes morphs into stereotyping.

“There’s a difference between recognizing the differences and stereotyping people—putting people into categories and thinking that is where they belong,” said Gelman, the manager of education for the Spertus Museum at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago.

A new exhibition at the museum, entitled “Twisted Into Recognition: Clichés of Jews and Others,” explores the ways images and objects that depict stereotypes are seen, perceived, and classified. Organized by the Jewish Museum Berlin and the Jewish Museum Vienna, the exhibit runs in Chicago from Sept. 26-Jan. 18.

The show does not deny ethnic or cultural differences, but rather explores how stereotypes about these differences are conveyed. “Stereotypes and clichés are an integral part of our perception, shaping our image of ourselves and others as well as our sense of belonging to a distinct group or nation apart from others,” said exhibit co-curator Dr. Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek. “At the same time, they can serve as a breeding ground for racist ideologies. The exhibition aims to raise consciousness about how we interpret and evaluate with every glance, and how we need to question our ‘point of view’ over and over again.”

Heimann-Jelinek, senior curator for the Spertus Museum and chief curator of the Jewish Museum Vienna, curated the exhibit with Hannes Sulzenbacher, a curatorial specialist in Austria. After premiering in Berlin earlier this year, the show's September arrival marks the start of its only American stop. Following its run at Spertus, the show will travel to Vienna.

Most of the stereotypes in the multimedia exhibit are presented in a triptych format, a series of three panels: an item that historically illustrates the stereotype, a familiar example of the stereotype from culture and a contemporary artistic response.


A page from a 1938 Nazi schoolbook regarding the stereotype of the Jewish nose

For example, consider the stereotype that Jews have big noses. First, the exhibit displays an image from a 1938 Nazi schoolbook of a child looking at a drawing on a blackboard of an old man with a large nose wearing a Jewish star. The caption of the image translates to “The Jew’s nose is bent at its tip. It looks like a six.” Second, the triptych features Viennese walking sticks from the 1800s with handles made to look like hook-shaped noses. Finally, in the artistic response to the stereotype, the painting “Before and Happily Ever After,” by American artist Deborah Kass, plays with stereotypes and obsessions about beauty by reproducing Andy Warhol’s image of a woman’s profile before and after plastic surgery.


Jen Taylor Friedman's Tefillin Barbie 

The exhibit also features “Tefillin Barbie,” a Barbie doll sporting tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) reading from a Torah. The Barbie is the creation of Jen Taylor Friedman, a Jewish ritual scribe from England, who is the first woman known to have completed a Torah scroll. Her doll has garnered mixed feedback from the public, being called everything from “disgusting” to “incredibly amazing.”

Friedman recognizes the need to classify people, but wishes human beings could do so in a less destructive way. “The world is a great big complicated place and there is only so much space you can hold so it helps to label people,” she said. “It would be nice if we could use less-destructive labels, if a Jewish label could not mean the grasping guy with a gigantic nose, but could be the nice person who goes to shul.”

Multiculturalism has become a feel-good buzzword in recent years, but Gelman says it’s important to wrestle with the more squeamish topics too. “Sometimes we get lulled into this contentment talking in generalities about multiculturalism and diversity and that is the feel-good conversation,” she said. “But discussions of race and ethnicity have to include conversations about discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes too. While those discussions probably are more uncomfortable, they are really important. We hope that one day racism will be a relic of a very distant past, but we need to recognize it in order to move forward.”

“Twisted Into Recognition: Clichés of Jews and Others” runs Friday, Sept. 26-Sunday, Jan. 18, 2009. A free public preview will be held Thursday, Sept. 25 from 5:30-8. Docent-led tours for both students and adults are also available. For more information, visit  www.spertus.edu or call (312) 322-1700. 

After the Rain

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A volunteer shares her emotional trip to Iowa to help flood victims 


Group photo after we completed the job

It took 21 volunteers two full days to “muck out” just one of the 5,000 homes in Cedar Rapids affected by the severe flooding that has decimated parts of Iowa since May 25. The floods forced more than 40,000 Iowans from their homes and 86 counties are still considered disaster areas.

When I was asked to participate in this two-day mission to Cedar Rapids, sponsored by JUF’s TOV Volunteer Network in partnership with Nechama - Jewish Response to Disaster, I gladly said yes. Nechama—which means “comfort” in Hebrew—is the only on the ground disaster relief organization with a Jewish mission. Nechama responds to the floods and tornadoes that cause damage and disrupt lives in the Midwest each year.

While I work at a non-profit, I spend most of my days at a computer and it’s great to get out into the field and actually participate in some of the missions we spend so much time behind the scenes supporting. But I’m not a tough girl. I don’t like camping or being dirty for long periods of time. I gravitate toward volunteering in soup kitchens not cleaning up polluted beaches.

Apprehensive about my skills and having trouble fathoming what this declared disaster area would look like, I thought about my own limited understanding of a flood, which involves my parents’ basement, a sump pump, and some new carpet.

I nervously boarded the bus with the other volunteers. Our group ranged in age from 18 to 60. There was a rabbi, a few students fresh out of school, someone who had just moved to Chicago and several businessmen. A few of the volunteers had experience with disaster clean up and had made trips down south to areas decimated by Katrina, but for most of us this was a first.

To my surprise, the house we worked on was nine long blocks from the river, on a typical middle class street northwest of downtown Cedar Rapids. The whole area was a ghost town--not one person inhabited a home for blocks.


Some of the volunteers receiving training before entering the home

We arrived around noon. Dressed in our worst clothing, facemasks, eye goggles, gloves and hard hats, we entered a house covered in mold. The walls were rotting, all the appliances and tile floors were covered in thick, dark scum and the carpets had turned black. We began by removing the carpets with glorified exacto knives. We had to cut through not only the carpet, but the thick layer of mold that had grown on top of it. The walls came down next. You could mark the water level by the mold that rose nine-feet high on the walls.

We hammered through the drywall and cracked through the next layer of wood. Most of the two days of labor involved pulling out the wood, drywall, and insulation, and sweeping and removing the contents of the home. Even with a large group it was a long, labor intensive job.


One of the volunteers pulling up the carpeting


One of the volunteers ripping out insulation

"These home owners lost everything and they don't know where to begin to repair their homes," says Rachel Friedman, TOV program associate and an Iowa volunteer. "We as volunteers were able to come in with the proper tools supplied by Nechama and remove everything damaged by the flood to give the family back a house that can be rebuilt."


“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Lindsey Bissett, another volunteer. “The whole house is ruined. We kept removing layer after layer of flooring and walls and still the water was there and the damage goes throughout the home. I feel so bad for this family.”


While we never got to meet the homeowners of this particular house, several of us were able to speak to another family that lived a few doors down.

Residents Plan for the Future

Charles and Florence Jacobs, a retired couple with six children, own three of the homes on the street. They live together in one and rent out the other two.


The Jacobs' home

“We were told to leave 20 minutes after 10 a.m. on May 25,” says Florence Jacobs. “We spent days bouncing between our children’s homes wondering what was happening to our homes. My husband ended up in the hospital for a week due to sheer stress.”

In a way, they were lucky; their homes are now safe enough to enter- unlike the home we were working on. But while they are allowed inside, five months after the flood they still don’t know where to begin to fix the damage.

And, they say that the government hasn’t been able to give them much guidance. “The city is looking to the state which in turn is looking to the federal government to tell them what to do,” says Florence Jacobs.

In the meantime, the Jacobses return to their homes each week to mow the lawn and keep the yard raked. Looking toward the future, they plan to plow when winter rolls around and say that the neighbors will do the same.

But Charles and Florence are split on exactly what the future will bring. Florence wants to sell (the street is littered with For Sale and Do Not Trespass signs) while Charles has already applied for a building permit to start rebuilding one of the homes.


One of the many houses for sale on the block

“The last time we flooded was in ’93 and it came up to the third step in the basement. There hasn’t been a situation like this since the 1800’s,” says Charles Jacobs. He estimates that just to rewire the electricity and install a new furnace in one home will cost him $16,000.

Florence worries it will happen again and if they move back they will be one of the few.   She recently attended a neighbors meeting where the consensus was “Don’t go back, don’t rebuild.”

Dan Hoeft, one of the mission’s Nechama volunteers and a trained emergency management worker, explains that he often experiences this “I just give up” mentality from homeowners. “We see so many homeowners who just walk away because they can’t deal with it,” he says. “We clean [the home], we pressure wash it out and we sanitize it and they get a fresh start. They can go in and start from scratch and rebuild.”

But it’s a slow process. “With a group this size, we could complete three to four houses a week,” Hoeft says. “We have three tool trailers and one supply trailer. These trailers have everything to handle floods and tornados. We have everything from chainsaws to sump pumps, everything you could need to get the job done.”

Volunteers Rally but Need Support

For the 5,000 homes just in Cedar Rapids, the cleanup process would take months at a rate of three to four homes per week. And even if that approach was best, FEMA has to assess each house before volunteers can get in and start working—and FEMA assessments can take months.

“After a storm hits, FEMA inspects all the houses before we can touch them,” says Sam Shiffman, the other Nechama volunteer. “It determines which houses are too hard hit and which houses can possibly be salvaged. The process can take several years before a decision is made and, in the meantime, this is some families’ only equity.”

It would be easy to get discouraged by the pace at which people receive the help they need but Shiffman is proud of the work Nechama does and optimistic about the group’s ability to get people back into their homes faster.

“The level of destruction is catastrophic and clean up is a very complicated process. Ideally, in keeping with Jewish values, we’d rather come in anonymously and get the work done and get out. But part of the healing process for the victims is to say thanks. They start crying as they shake your hands. We made a real difference in these people’s lives.”

This rang true for the Jacobses, who repeatedly complimented us all for making the trip from Chicago to help their community out. They said that there had been many people like us and it was wonderful for them to see how much people care.

I know that many of the volunteers enjoyed working on the home and would have readily stayed longer to work on another site. Now, just a few days after the mission, I am aware that Ike is barreling down on Galveston and parts of Houston, Texas. I just checked The Nechama Web site—the group has already begun preparations to travel down to the devastated areas to begin another daunting clean up process.

Despite my not being a tough girl and distaste for getting dirty, the emotional reward was so great that I may sign up and head down to Houston to help out.

To donate to the Jewish Federation’s relief fund,  click here . Fore more information about Nechama, check out the Web site at  http://www.nechama.org/index.html  

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