Were Jap Jokes a Justification for Intermarriage?

By Lenore Skenazy

Published February 23, 2011, issue of March 04, 2011.
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Not that I miss them, but whatever happened to JAP jokes?

In the 1970s and ’80s, my high school and college days, the JAP — that is, the idea of the Jewish American Princess — was just a part of the pop culture landscape. There were jokes about her accent, her nose, her materialism, her hair, her licentiousness (before marriage) and her frigidity (after). A typical one-liner? “How can you tell when a JAP is having an orgasm? She drops her nail file.”

Ick. But while I don’t recall telling these jokes myself, I don’t think they bothered me very much, either, because I figured they were about someone else. Someone gross. I had no idea the jokes were actually worming their way into the psyche and making all us Jewish girls seem like terrible matches.

“I think it was a justification, after the fact, of… intermarriage,” said Joseph Telushkin, author of “Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews” (HarperCollins, 1998). (Not that he thinks JAP jokes are any good!)

In other words, by making Jewish women the epitome of everything a guy would not want in a wife — basically, a harpy with a Gucci handbag — JAP jokes allowed men to feel less guilty about marrying a non-Jew. And so, that’s what a lot of them did.

Which is not to say JAP jokes are solely responsible for intermarriage. Just that jokes have power, and that’s why it is such a relief that this particular strain rarely comes up anymore. I asked my teenage sons, New York City public school kids, and they hadn’t even heard the term JAP. That’s great. But how did the jokes get started — and how did they go away?

It started with us, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and author of “Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

“We tell jokes about ourselves to make ourselves comfortable. But then it gets away from us and it becomes a ‘thing.’ JAP jokes started within, and then they took on a life of their own,” he said.

Like the often parodied preppies in the ’80s, the idea of Jewish girls as a particular “type” took hold. Then it ricocheted from the comedy clubs to TV (think “The Nanny”), to movies (“Private Benjamin”) to the campus and back. “I actually went to school in one of the epicenters of JAP-dom,” New York City writer Shira Dicker said. But while she knew some young women who might qualify as JAPS — they were from Long Island, they had the accent, they liked to shop — the stereotype was missing all their good qualities, like “the humor, self-awareness, warmth, a sense of family,” Dicker said.

Leave those out, and what’s left is extremely unattractive, which is why Dicker always hated the term. But the reason it fell out of favor, she believes, was not its tastelessness, but rather the fact that the rest of America “caught up” with the JAPs. “They’ve been outdone by “Bridezillas,” “Real Housewives,” Paris Hilton, Snooki and practically every celebrity. The ‘J’ is out of the JAP, so we’re left with an AP.” (We always are.)

Comedian Shaun Eli believes it was all just a matter of timing. “Styles in comedy change, and people get tired of the same sort of joke,” he said. “Like the blonde joke, and the light bulb joke, the JAP joke just went out of fashion.”

But it turns out that there is someone we can actually thank for the JAP’s fadeout: Texan Sherry Merfish.

When her daughters were young in the ’80s, Merfish says, she was surprised to find JAP jokes popping up not just in conversations, but also in synagogue gift shops! “There were all sorts of things, like ‘JAP in Training’ diaper sets and ‘The JAP Handbook.’ So a friend and I went before the Houston Rabbinical Association, and we got a resolution passed,” she said. Resolved: No more JAP crap in synagogues.

Their crusade grew, with Merfish eventually making more than 100 speeches across the country. When she spoke at synagogues, she would visit the gift shop first, and inevitably find some JAP merchandise to use as a case in point.

To make people understand that she was talking about more than just a punch line, she would start by having her audiences shout out all the “characteristics” of a JAP: “Loud!” “Materialistic!” “Untrustworthy!” they hooted. She’d scribble these on a blackboard. “Then,” Merfish said, “I’d erase ‘JAP’ and substitute ‘Jew.’”

Oh. Suddenly, the ancient anti-Semitism became clear. But it was harder, she says, for folks to see the sexism in JAP jokes. This she did by asking, “What if a Jewish man was characterized that way?”

It worked.

“I said to people that you need to respond to a JAP joke as if it were racist,” Merfish said. “It took a good five years,” but eventually most synagogues had rid themselves of JAP goods, and gradually the rest of the culture followed suit.

Okay, so now: How many Jewish American Activists does it take to change the culture?

I’m not sure, but I thank them all. I’m very glad my sons aren’t growing up thinking: “Jewish girls. Gross.”

Lenore Skenazy is the founder of www.freerangekids.com and the author of “Free-Range Kids: How To Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry)” (Jossey-Bass, 2009).


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