The fears behind a joke that never grows old
Snapshots from my dating past: The litigator who knew the Metropolitan Museum of Art by heart; the writer whose dad was a blacklisted actor; the sports marketer who moonlighted as a drummer in a salsa band; the stockbroker who retired young and toured the barbeque and banjo joints of the Smokies in a rusty Cadillac.
In short, these guys had pretty much nothing in common except that they were ultimately not right for me—and they were all Jewish. I always knew, just knew, that I wanted a Jewish family: to knock myself out preparing the Seder; to see my kids’ faces glowing in the Hanukkah candles. But I never liked a guy just because he was Jewish. Even when I reached my 30s, the all-the-good-ones-are-gay-or-taken decade, there were always enough to choose from that I continued to see Jewish as a given, not a plus.
Likewise, the handful of non-Jewish fellows I dated—the hockey player, the Scrabble champion, the Mainer I nicknamed “L.L. Bean”—I dated not because there was something I liked about dating non-Jews (The rebellion! The forbidden! The hockey!), but because there was something I liked about those guys. The religion part, I figured, we’d deal with later. Or, as it turned out, not.
Then there’s my Christian friend Karla, who loved Jewish men, particularly Dustin Hoffman, way back in junior high. But considering that the heartthrobs of the day were Scott Baio and the guy from The Blue Lagoon, I took this as an indicator of sophisticated taste. (Outsiders, Schmoutsiders; Karla and I preferred The Chosen, starring our boyfriend, Robby Benson. And why not?)
Here’s where I’m going with this: I don’t mean to sound open-minded to the point of cluelessness, but I’ve never quite understood the fetishization of Jewish men. I’m not saying I don’t see that Jewish men are lovable; I get why Woody Allen could be considered hot. I’m talking about the stereotypes: on the one hand, Jewish men are rarely presented in the media as particularly “normal,” likable guys; on the other, some women—yes, especially non-Jewish women—have a particular thing for Jewish men.
In 1978, for example, The Jewish Man was proclaimed “the new sexual hero.” This pronouncement was made in a now out-of-print book called The Shikse’s Guide to Jewish Men, but stay with me. “Throughout recent history, the sexual heroes have been the Clark Gables, Humphrey Bogarts, Gregory Pecks, Robert Redfords,” reads the foreword of the book, which I have on loan from a friend’s personal irony library. “Now, today, the Elliot Goulds, George Segals, Dustin Hoffmans herald the beginning of a new super sex star: the Jewish man.” It’s basically a humor book (we’ll get to that), but the core premise—we heart Jewish men, warts and all—is not winking or sarcastic; it’s entirely serious.
So on the one hand, you could say this book represents a step forward: not “all” Jewish men are nebbishy. (Or better yet: nebbishes can be sexy!) On the other—well, read the book. Oh, sorry, you can’t! It’s divided into subsections (“The Jewish Man and Things,” “When He Takes You Home for Dinner”), each of which contains a list of observations on the topic, usually starting with “he” (“He folds, never crumples, the paper”). Some are straightforward (“He uses hand lotion”); some have embellishments that make them less unfunny than they could be (“He has never washed his own clothes [even in the Army]“); some achieve the spare, abstruse genius of a Zen koan (“He is aged 30 to 55 whether he is or he isn’t”).
Lest you think, in the book’s defense, “Hey, but every Jewish guy I know folds, never crumples, the paper!” let me add this: I can guarantee you that my father has folded, never crumpled, the paper since the day he was born. Which, ahem, was about 30 years before he converted to Judaism. (My husband, while we’re on the topic, can be counted on to make a complete mess even of the sections he skips.)
But I know better than to spend my time picking apart the stereotypes in The Shikse’s Guide. After all, it’s a dated relic. Hello—it came out in 1978, and may have had about as long a shelf life as that which some of us secretly wish upon the engagement of Zach Braff to Mandy Moore.
Instead, I’d rather spend my time picking apart the stereotypes in last year’s Boy Vey: The Shiksa’s Guide to Dating Jewish Men, which is not a book to be cast aside lightly. Rather, to continue with the Dorothy Parker paraphrase, it should be hurled aside with great force.
“To find a Shiksa with a hilariously high-maintenance mixture of strength and prowess is an utter utopia for the libidinous Jew,” observes author Kristina Grish. I realize it’s a challenge to write a book about Jewish men without repeating the phrase “Jewish man.” Tip: give up. Repeat the phrase “Jewish man” instead of replacing it with “Hebrew honey,” “love mensch,” or, God help us, “Mr. Tall, Dark, and Circumcised.”
Even the flattering stereotypes in this book are annoying. “Jewish men feed mind and appetite, and they are the ultimate caretakers without a hint of machismo,” writes Grish. “They’re also generous and thoughtful, thanks to a matriarchal culture that’s taught them to appreciate women’s strength, candor, humor, and intelligence.” Oh, except the one who’s dating you in order to “explore your hidden temptress or piss off his family,” in which case you should “dump the loser and hide his yarmulke.”
To be fair, Grish doesn’t claim that her book is anything more than a “fun dating guide.” She tells you up front that it won’t teach you about “basic Jewish principles” or “extreme holiday traditions like Purim or Simchas Torah.” But experts like Dr. Sandor Gardos, who are willing to put their full names next to statements like, “Jewish men are always more attentive,” give the book the veneer of actual self-help, and several Amazon reviewers indicate that they bought it for advice when dating someone Jewish.
So. Harmless silliness? I don’t think so. On the upside, the book could pique a non-Jew’s interest in finding out what the hell goes on at Purim and Simchas Torah. But beyond that, it only reinforces stereotypes—glib at best, anti-Semitic at worst—that, ironically, anyone could dispel themselves by, um, dating an actual Jew.
Sadder still, Boy Vey suggests that not a whole lot has changed since 1978. The Shikse’s Guide makes a decidedly more rigorous attempt at wit, but the stereotypes are still the same: Jewish men as metrosexual mama’s boys who are neurotic yet giving in the sack. The books also share an exhausted yet apparently unshakable meta-premise: “the Jews, they’re funny!” They use funny words like yarmulke and meshuggeneh, and they’re funny because their over-the-top bar mitzvahs invariably end in slapstick. Also, a bris? Always funny.
What makes Boy Vey all the more grating is the publishing environment that spawned it. Today, dating books (some of which, to be fair, offer smart, realistic advice) replicate like, well, diet books. All you need’s a gimmick: Date Like A Man, French Women Don’t Get Fat. Likewise, I’m convinced that Boy Vey was sold on the basis of a punny title someone came up with at brunch; all the author had to do was crank out 162 pages of Hebrew-honeys-are-hot filler.
The larger irony is this: Jews, for better or for worse, don’t find the whole inter-dating/intermarriage thing all that hilarious. Admittedly, I can’t walk a foot in the Friars Club without hearing the one about the Jew and the Native American who named their kid Whitefish—but arguably, that joke’s less about making light of intermarriage than it is about stereotyping another worse-off group. Jews have a long and not-so-flattering history of discomfort with interreligious romance, especially when it’s the woman who’s the “outsider.” (Perhaps needless to say, both dating books treat this often fraught matter as an “aw, his mom will learn to love you” joke.)
For one thing, I’ve let the word “shiksa” sit around in this article like a big offensive rhino in the room. “Though shiksa—meaning simply ‘gentile woman,’ but trailing a stream of complex connotations—is often tossed off casually and with humor, it’s about as noxious an insult as any racial epithet could hope to be,” writes Christine Benvenuto in her cultural history Shiksa: The Gentile Woman in the Jewish World (2004).
Benvenuto explains that shiksa, in sum, is a Yiddish word coined in Eastern Europe (derivation: the Hebrew shakaytz, which means “to loathe or abominate an unclean thing”) that came to bear the weight of Biblical admonitions and cautionary tales (“don’t you dare date a Canaanite”) that posited consorting with a non-Jewish woman as a threat to Jewish identity and homogeneity. Take, for instance, Proverbs 5:3-10: “The lips of a strange woman drip honey…. [But] her feet go down to Death…. Keep yourself far away from her.” This is a “dire warning,” writes Benvenuto, with “the ring of a 1950s anti-venereal disease campaign.”
Thousands of years later, we still fear the shiksa succubus, though the evidence often comes in the form of rueful jokes about the “loss” of Jon Stewart to a woman whose maiden name starts with “Mc.” “In the guise of spiritual seductress, enticing Jewish men away from their heritage, the gentile woman is a scapegoat for the fear that, by their own neglect, American Jews will bring about the destruction of Judaism,” writes Benvenuto. “Contradictorily, when she actively pursues conversion, she is equally effective at touching off Jews’ ambivalence about their own religious identity.”
Shiksaphobia: that’s our problem. Worrisome as the specter of “losing” Jews may be, the Reform movement—and, to some degree, the Conservative—has come to realize that welcoming mixed-faith couples is precisely what can help the Jewish community to grow. My husband’s synagogue would not be nearly as vibrant—or, bottom line, as big—without its welcoming stance toward non-Jewish and Jewish-by-choice partners, or their enthusiastic participation.
The Union for Reform Judaism, concerned about sending the message that the movement “does not care” whether or not non-Jews convert, recently called upon synagogues to increase their efforts to encourage conversion of non-Jewish spouses. To some, this smacks of proselytizing. To others, it’s telling the truth: we are a Jewish organization; we love you no matter what, but we’d love, lurve, luff you if you were Jewish.
In short, the matter is more complicated than it is “kooky”—and fortunately for those mixed couples who are serious about the longer run, there are plenty of “serious” guides to negotiating interreligious relationships, with or without conversion. Still, it would be nice if the cheekier books would at least nod toward the notion that being involved with a Jew is more than a matter of learning to tell salmon from sable. Because what real life reminds us is this: often, people who fall in love with Jews also fall in love with Judaism.