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‘Jewess’ in a Bind

I recently blogged the Details article on “the rise of the hot Jewish girl” — an article about which Leah writes here. That article aside, there are a couple of inherent difficulties in the vocabularies we use to discuss vacuous, fetishized celebrity nonsense, often the bread and butter of glossy magazine spreads.

First, we are to some extent caught up in the words that are in circulation in the world we are discussing. We can use JILF as it is funny because of its newness, artificialness and irony. But it still rankles at least a little and it’s hard to argue that the word from which it’s derived, MILF — used however ironically — does not radically objectify women (specifically mothers qua mothers).

Second, if we want to distinguish between Jewish men and Jewish women, our range is limited. You often see “Jewish girls” or “girls” in general used to infantilize women as eye-candy or go straight to the other extreme of balabustas and tedious stereotypes of the Jewish mother. One can easily imagine the image of Rebekah Kohut — seen here on the cover of The American Jewess, a short-lived, late 19th century magazine — being misused in that second way.

So in the end, I think the term “Jewess” is caught in two battles. Should it be a general term that’s accessible for people to misuse? That’s the price of circulation in a sexist world at the moment. But is it a price worth paying, and is it even a choice that Jewish women are still able to make?

And, on the other hand, might “Jewess” be an acceptable alternative for a female Jew that then leaves “Jew” as a marker for maleness?: Jews and Jewesses, lads and lasses, actors and actresses.

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