Peering Behind the JAP Label

By Jessica Coen

Published June 10, 2005, issue of June 10, 2005.

At first glance, Isabel Rose, the author of a new novel dedicated to skewering the Jewish American Princess, strikes you as exactly what she professes to mock: Tiny, well dressed, 10 minutes late and drinking from my glass of pinot grigio, she seems a perfect (albeit red-haired) JAP stereotype.

I’ve been sitting at the crowded restaurant bar, waiting, and when Rose bustles in, she immediately suggests we go elsewhere. She grabs my unfinished glass of lunchtime wine, takes a swig and bounces out the door. I gather my things and scramble to keep up with her energy, which already has propelled her out to the sidewalk, where she’s waiting for me.

As Rose and I walk to a nearby diner in the Tribeca section of New York City, I try not to be overwhelmed by her lively attempts to take control of the conversation: Where am I from? Where did I go to school? What other jobs have I had? She’s asking a lot of personal questions, and I begin to feel like I did in college, when the JAPpy girls would grill me to see whether or not I was one of them. Rose was sizing me up, checking out my Jewish credentials, seeing whether my JAP card was gold or platinum.

However, I was prepared for this sort of interaction. Rose is the author of “The J.A.P. Chronicles,” a surprisingly emotional first novel that deals with the reunion of seven women who, 17 years prior, were bunkmates at a tony Reform summer camp. As such, I expected Rose to be the sort of woman who would have spent the summers of her youth at a tony Reform summer camp and then, 17 years later, write a fictionalized version of the experience.

On paper, Rose isn’t that different from the JAPs in her book, and she’ll flat out tell you (with a hint of pride) that she’s a JAP herself. The daughter of prominent Manhattanites (a wing of the American Museum of Natural History bears the family name), Rose was raised on New York City’s Upper East Side and spent her summers at the exclusive Tripp Lake Camp. She attended The Dalton School, Yale University and received a Master of Fine Arts from Bennington College. She’s from the right family in the right neighborhood and went to the right school. She is effectively a Jewish mother’s dream come true.

But not so fast. There’s much to Rose that sets her apart from her stereotypical counterparts. At 37, she’s divorced, a single mother (her daughter, Lily, is now 3 years old), a lounge singer and a screenwriter, having penned the script for “Anything But Love,” a movie musical in which she also starred. So while Rose will laughingly admit that she’s spoiled, and even tell you where she bought her 4-inch platform shoes, she isn’t exactly the type you’d expect to be crawling around Bergdorfs or Boca.

Rose says “The J.A.P. Chronicles” is not based on anyone in her life, and the characters are hardly as one-dimensional as any JAP stereotype. The novel’s protagonist, Ali Cohen, is a Lower East Side filmmaker who has a Catholic boyfriend, a baby on the way and a chip on her shoulder after a childhood spent as an outcast. One is immediately inclined to assume that Ali is Rose’s alter ego; in the novel, Ali has come back to the camp to film a documentary, just as Rose documents a fictional return to the world of her youth.

Of all her book’s characters, Rose concedes that she relates to Ali the most. “I always felt like a slight outsider,” she said. “I think, though, that had more to do with the intensity of my imagination than it did with whether I was picked on or not accepted…. I had a writer’s view of things, and that ability to stand outside yourself — it can make you pass judgment, but it makes us [as writers] able to find truths or bring things to light.”

What, then, is Rose trying to bring to light? Frankly, when my copy of “The J.A.P. Chronicles” arrived in my hands, I didn’t quite know what to think. I turned it over and over in my hands as if it were some strange, girlish artifact. The book’s pink cover — featuring a curly-haired woman hidden behind a pile of pastel-colored shoeboxes — does little to alleviate the effects of a title that evokes some very clear-cut images: sweet 16 rhinoplasties,

luxury SUVs and the latest designer bag.

As a half-breed who grew up in a home where we lit the menorah dangerously close to the Christmas tree, I’ve always had a strange relationship with JAPs and, moreover, the culture of Jewish women. The very word JAP recalls my experiences with elitist women who determined that I wasn’t really Jewish enough, culturally or otherwise, and thus treated me with disdain. When I confess this to Rose, she’s sympathetic and laughs about JAP provinciality. Nevertheless, I continue, whether we use JAP affectionately or facetiously, those three letters carry with them quite a stigma — within the tribe and beyond. Why would she want to associate her work with a single-syllable loaded gun?

Over her Cobb salad (which, of course, was served with the wrong dressing — so she assertively initiated a trade with my balsamic), Rose addressed her use of JAP. “I feel very strongly about it. When I first heard that word — this was back when I was a teenager, the age that my characters started camp — I was incensed.” Her eyes are wide as she continues, growing increasingly emphatic and passionate with every word. “It was so offensive, and that was a word that was leveled at us. I think that terms that outrage — I use n**** as an example — that’s what happened with the word JAP. You empower yourself with a word that someone else wants to call you in an effort to disempower you. I think the term has been reappropriated.”

Fair enough — but does a book with a cover that screams “GIRLY BEACH READ!” and “SPOILED JEWS AND THEIR SHOES!” really help to reappropriate much of anything? When confronted with “The J.A.P. Chronicles,” the average bookstore browser might take one look at the novel and pass immediate judgment based on one very stereotyped image and those three little letters. “I think they marketed that [summer book angle] really hard…. Not that I’m ungrateful. But beneath that, I really deal with some tricky issues and I’m hoping that people will get past the first few chapters [and see that] these [characters] are women who are suffering in their lives, desperately.”

And she’s right. The book’s cover and early pages are at odds with what follows; the casual writing style and chick-lit marketing do little to indicate what “The J.A.P. Chronicles” is actually about: seven women searching for their identities, dealing with very real difficulties and trying to live their lives within the framework of their culture. It’s not fluffy material, and it’s not necessarily Jewish, either — it’s really the state of modern women, for better or for worse.



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