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‘Hot Jews’ and the Peril of Ethnic Fetishism

‘Tis the season for year-end lists, and the pop culture web site Complex.com has come out with one that places them squarely in skeez territory: the 50 hottest Jewish women, a catalog of actresses, porn stars, and models with Semitic heritage.

“As a flame dancing atop a candle gives off heat, so do many of the Jewish women who’ve made their mark on pop culture over the years,” reads the web site. “No matter your faith or creed, after reading this list you’ll agree that the sexy ladies of the Tribe of Judah play second fiddler on the roof to none.”

Bad puns aside, there’s something very unsavory about the compilation, in that it’s the most recent instance of what seems to be a growing media fixation on Jewish women.

Two years ago, Details magazine called Jewish women the “ethnic fetish du jour,” noting that Jewish women have shed the stereotype of the whiny-big, big-haired Jewish American Princess to reveal a “smoldering” profile on the Hollywood screen. And now, in case anyone was wondering just which Jewish women to lust after, Complex.com has come up with the definitive list, which includes, predictably, Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Silverman, and Natalie Portman, among others.

For some Jewish women, attention of this type is no doubt a welcome relief from the ways in which Jewish women have been portrayed in cinema throughout history — either as the nagging, overbearing mother, or the spoiled, disaffected daughter. Now that Complex.com and Details have “discovered” the Jewish woman as sex object, it would seem that Jewish women have made it, in a sense. No longer relegated to the world of ethnic stereotypes, Jewish women have joined the big leagues, claiming widespread sex appeal for Jewish and non-Jewish men alike.

But that’s what’s so unsettling about the Complex.com list. By discarding old stereotypes and simultaneously setting Jewish women apart, Complex.com is telling men to pay attention to Jewish women just because they’re Jewish. But, as Jezebel noted with the Details article, if Jewish women are as lust-worthy as everyone else in Hollywood, then what merits this special attention at all?

Unsurprisingly, Complex.com doesn’t have an answer to this question. A close inspection of the list shows just how tenuous the whole premise seems to be. The Jewish women on the list represent an incredible swath of Jewish people: converts (actress Isla Fisher at number 48), the children of intermarrieds (Amanda Peet at 34), Iranian Jews (actress Bahar Soomekh at number 46), Israelis (model Esti Ginzburg at number 1) and black Jews (Lenny Kravitz’s daughter, Zoe Kravitz, at number 13), to name a handful. What makes these women appealing to the folks at Complex.com, to venture a guess, is not their Jewish backgrounds, but the way they look. And that’s the peril of ethnic fetishism: the minute you take a closer look at the group at hand, you realize just how difficult it is to categorize people by their faith or their race alone.

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