Sometimes a T-shirt is just a T-shirt. Sometimes it isn’t.
Amy Sohn, who writes the Naked City column for New York magazine, e-mailed me about a new Web site. Since Amy is an arbiter of all that is hot, heavy and Hebraic, I checked it out.
The site is called “Jew.Lo” (www.jewlo.com). As you probably know, “J.Lo” is the nickname of curvy Latina powerhouse Jennifer Lopez. Jew.Lo is, at the moment, a place to buy tight T-shirts imprinted with the word “Jew.Lo.” Which means what, exactly? According to the Web site, “Jew.Lo recognizes that the Jewish female has been underrepresented in the world of pop culture…. Jew.Lo believes that sexuality and religion are not incompatible…. Jew.Lo gives props to zaftig Jewish figures, recognizing that a girl need not be a stick figure to be hot, and that a true dish loves her knish.”
Wow. That’s a lot of semiotics for one poor little shirt. But actually, to cop a phrase from that curvy Jewish powerhouse Gertrude Stein, I think there’s there there.
Sexy Jewishness is in. The hipster rapper Princess Superstar trades on the JAP stereotype but infuses it with humor, raunch, phat beats and smart-girl self-awareness. On NBC’s “Will and Grace,” Debra Messing is beautiful, desirable and extremely Jewish. Starlets Alicia Silverstone, Natasha Lyonne and Sarah Silverman are all women who are hot, funny and openly Ashkenazi.
Of course, it’s not just a chick thing. What with magazines like Heeb hitting newsstands, with Jon Stewart becoming Comedy Central’s breakout star, with smarty-pants musicians like DJ So-Called and Charming Hostess rocking the house, with Adam Sandler making movies (okay, so that’s not necessarily such a good thing), young people are starting to feel all farklempt about being Jews. There’s a movement, inflected by hip-hop and queer liberation, of young Jews getting in touch with and celebrating their roots, rather than trying to “pass.”
But the babe element does seem particularly novel. There have always been attractive, “out” Jewish men in popular culture, but Jewish women have rarely been portrayed as sexy. Funny, sure. Nurturing (when they weren’t being smothering), yes. Beautiful (thanks to their expensive clothes, jewelry and plastic surgery), even that. But randy? No. Today, that’s changing.
Jew.Lo’s founder, Julia Lowenstein, 27, is glad. No dimwitted fashionista, she’s a Brown University-educated filmmaker (her first indie short is called “If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother,” and she’s currently working on a biopic about World War I-era German socialist Rosa Luxembourg) whose cats are named Bruno and Franz (after, yes, Schulz and Kafka). She pays her Brooklyn rent by working at a nonprofit arts organization.
Her sideline project began when a friend noted Lowenstein’s curvaceous, “Eastern-European-hipped” tight- denim-clad form and called her Jew.Lo. And thereby hangs a tale. “I want Jewish women to embrace their sexuality the way J.Lo does,” Lowenstein told the Forward. “It’s empowering for both Jewish women and men.” Lowenstein thinks we can all learn a little something from J.Lo. “She’s outspoken about being a Latina, she doesn’t look like a stick but she flaunts her body, she didn’t change her name, and she parlayed her fame into becoming a business mogul.” In short, said Lowenstein, “She’s a female ethnic powerhouse.”
J.Lo both trades on and downplays her otherness. She’s as ethnic as she wants to be, sometimes playing “Jenny From the Block,” sometimes playing a hard-bitten business woman. Fewer Jewish celebrities seem as comfortable in dual roles. Most would rather tamp down their Jewishness while pumping up their white-bread sex appeal. Why this reluctance to embrace the inner shtetl sista?
I’m talking to you, Winona Horowitz! And you, self-hating, Courtney-Cox-casting producers of “Friends”! (Compare Debra Messing’s Yiddish-inflected Catskills-y shtick with Courtney’s whole Episcopal vibe — could there be a less Jew-y Jew?) And I’m definitely talking to you, Sarah Michelle Gellar! TV’s newly retired Buffy the Vampire Slayer resolutely refuses to admit that she’s a Jew. Snipes Jewhoo.com, “Sarah gets quite annoyed when an interviewer asks her about her ‘background’ and pretty much acts like she is being beaten.”)
But a number of clothiers would love to help Sarah et al come out as hottie Hebrews. On the Web site Jewcy.com, you can buy pink logo-adorned thong underpants. (“When you model them for that nice Jewish boy, he’ll know exactly where to worship!”) On Jewishjeans.com, you can buy a tight tee with “Nice Jewish Girl” or “Naughty Jewish Girl” written on it in small, elegant type.
Compare these items to the “Jewess Jeans” worn by Gilda Radner in a 1980 parody ad on “Saturday Night Live” now immortalized in the National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting. The woman who wore “Jewess Jeans,” with big Jewish stars stitched on each butt pocket, was a vapid, gum-chewing princess with “designer nails and a designer nose.” For a subset of downtown Jewish girls today, those pants would be an ironic commentary, a source of in-your-face pride, not a butt-of-the-joke symbol of mockery.
Having embraced their foremothers’ idea that the personal is political, women like Lowenstein believe that a woman getting in touch with her body can help her get in touch with her power. “I don’t mistake a T-shirt for something that’s going to change the world,” she said. “But for years young Jewish people associated Jewishness with dorkiness and nerdiness. Reclaiming sexual pride can be one step on the way to reclaiming cultural pride.”
I find Lowenstein’s sassy, funky take on babe feminism appealing. As a young mom with a weakness for fashion, I straddle the Scylla and Charybdis of two pernicious Jewish stereotypes — the Jewish mother and the Jewish American Princess. Both terrify me. I’m delighted that young women want to ditch these twin portraits of selfless, guilt-provoking need and sexless, hostility-provoking greed in favor of a new image: identified yidishe hottie. Of course it’s still a cartoon, and as Lowenstein said, of course it’s not truly revolutionary. But it’s self-affirming, body-positive and fun. And all the mameles I know can get behind that.
E-mail Marjorie at mamele@ forward.com.