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Is it Cool to Say ‘Jewess’?

A roundtable consisting of five women—and one man—debate the merits of using the term ‘Jewess’

Mark Oppenheimer
June 08, 2016

Mark Oppenheimer
I don’t use the word “Jewess” much. I never use it in my serious writing, would never dream of using it in mixed company—by which I mean company that mixes Jews and their allies with people who aren’t Jewish and don’t know Jews very well. But among undzerer, our kind, Jews and those who get us, I think there’s a place for “Jewess.” There’s a time for a dad to say, referring to his daughters, “Nope, no sons—just four little Jewesses.” Or for a fan of Broad City to say, “Those are two hilarious Jewesses.” Or to say, as an old roommate and I used to, when trying to figure out if a woman at a party was undzere, “Is she a ’wess?” The word is having a modest moment, one that I have occasionally, one that I have occasionally helped along in print.

In these cases, a Jewess is obviously a good thing. She is loved. Revered, even. For me, using the word is (if I’m to scrutinize it) a way of signaling that one cannot love being Jewish without loving Jewish women; it’s a rejection of the JAP stereotype, the smothering-mother stereotype, and the self-loathing that leads so many Jews, especially Jewish men, to see the Jewish woman—her hair, her nose, her smarts, her existence—as vaguely embarrassing and definitely less-than. Plus, the word is funny. And it’s so old it’s new again. It feels fun in the mouth. And it sounds cool.

Put another way, one can, indeed should, use “Jewess” for the same reason that Adam Sandler had to write, “Paul Newman’s half-Jewish / Goldie Hawn’s half, too / Put them together / What a fine-lookin’ Jew!” Here, the noun “Jew” functions as a robust amplifier of ethnic pride; in Sandler’s usage, a fine-lookin’ Jew is better, is more desirable, than “a fine-lookin’ person,” which is what a good liberal would want him to say. He makes the Jew somebody attractive, with enviable looks, which is not how people usually think of us. The argument for “Jewess” is, to put it yet another way, the argument for naming a show Broad City. “Broad” is, in such a case, not demeaning. These broads—whatever that means—are awesome.

Notice that I am not saying that “Jewess” needs to be reclaimed, as the queer community has reclaimed “queer.” It wouldn’t be my place to reclaim it. And besides, reclaimed from whom? I have known anti-Semites, or at least reported on scores of them, and not one talks about “Jewesses.” If there’s a stereotype of the “Jewess” out there, it’s in Ivanhoe, or in a painting by Klimt. We should be so lucky that our antiSemites were cultured enough to know those references. As it stands, nobody has any idea what a Jewess is, or isn’t. It’s not a slur, because it’s not anything.

The main objection to “Jewess,” when I’ve polled friends, is that feminine nouns diminish women. It’s true that a “poetess” is somehow, it seems, a hobbyist, an amateur scribbler, while the “poet” is an artist. When Episcopal women were trying to win the right to be ordained as priests, detractors said they were trying to become “priestesses,” which sounded Pagan, and thus unseemly. (On the other hand, Amelia Earhart was one hell of an aviatrix.) But I don’t think anyone is diminished when I say “Jewess.” Those among the Orthodox who think Jewish women are, religiously speaking, not full Jews are not using the word “Jewess” at all.

But surely the final say belongs to other women—the Jewesses themselves—and so I retire, and leave this roundtable to them: Rebecca Boggs, Judith Rosenbaum, Carole Bass, Marjorie Ingall, and Stephanie Butnick.

Mark Oppenheimer is Tablet’s editor at large.


Rebecca Boggs
A one-quarter-Cuban Jew with an Irish last name: since childhood, that’s been my shorthand self-description, accounting for my hybrid family tree to the curious or surprised (though now that I’ve been a full-time yarmulke-wearer in my daily life for a decade, far fewer people are caught off-guard that I’m Jewish). I might refer to myself as a Nice Jewish Girl in jest, but it would never have occurred to me to describe myself as a Jewess. Nor am I particularly eager to take it up now, whether referring to myself or to others. Nu, then, why not?

The intent may not be to diminish, but calling me a “Jewess” serves to distinguish and divide—female from male, Jewish from not Jewish—in ways whose impact may well be to mark me as “other” or “less-than.” For one thing, in English usage, we’re always on safer ground with adjectives than with nouns: being a “Jewish woman” makes my Jewish identity only part of who I am, but being a “Jewess” smacks of some at least religious (and possibly ethnic/“racial”) essentializing that can have mighty dubious implications. Furthermore, marking “Jewesses” off from “Jews” reinforces a default sense that Jew = male. (If there’s more to Jewish holiday celebrations than men in peyos and black hats, many mainstream newspaper photos have yet to discover it.)

I’m not against a well-placed reappropriation of the term by Jewish women who find it meaningful, as in the Jewesses With Attitude blog, run by the Jewish Women’s Archives. And though I wouldn’t endorse all of Mark’s uses of “Jewess,” I find them mostly harmless. But in my mind, the word “Jewess”—particularly when used by anyone who’s not a Jewish woman—comes accompanied by a big red flag, and I would be very careful about who waves it. (Alas, I’m not as convinced as Mark that the cultural moment for negative associations with “Jewess” has definitively passed. Few people may think of Gilda Radner in the SNL parody ad for Jewess Jeans—but the Jewish American Princess/JAP stereotype it plays on has yet to disappear entirely.)

So although I can imagine approving of a “badass Jewess” (or aspiring to be one myself), “Jewess” wouldn’t be my go-to term. It demands the ironic raised eyebrow, a productive tension between old-fashioned semantic associations and unapologetic self-definition—akin to calling myself a tallis-totin’, Torah-leyning yiddishe mama (which I am). But I would never write about “Jews and Jewesses,” implying that “Jews” signals “only men.”

As far as I’m concerned, my daughter and son are both Jews. If she wants to call herself a Jewess someday, that’s her lookout. But in the meantime, what I want for her and for him is the same: zay a mentsh—be a mensch. That’s an identity worth aspiring to, for any and all genders.

Rebecca Boggs is a humanities professional who holds a Ph.D. in English and a graduate diploma in Jewish studies. Living in Washington, D.C., she hopes her various ancestors would kvell that she speaks Yiddish and Spanish to her kids, leads services in Hebrew, and celebrates Kentucky Derby Day with mint juleps and pecan pie.


Judith Rosenbaum
I’ve been playing around with the term “Jewess” for more than a decade, and I love that it sparks strong feedback from promotors and detractors alike. It’s evocative, no matter how you look at it. To some it sounds dated, Orientalist, and diminuitive (think “poetess”). To others, it carries a sense of the glamorous, powerful, or distinctive (think “lioness”).

Cover of the first issue of The American Jewess, April 1895. (Wikimedia)

Cover of the first issue of The American Jewess, April 1895. (Wikimedia)

At the Jewish Women’s Archive, we chose to name our blog “Jewesses with Attitude” not just as a riff on the 1980s rap group N.W.A, but in large part as an homage to The American Jewess, the first English language periodical for American Jewish women (which JWA digitized). Published by Rosa Sonneschein from 1895-1899, The American Jewess was a delightful magazine that took seriously American Jewish women’s task of self-definition at the end of the 19th century, addressing topics as varied as women’s place in the synagogue (we should be able to “drink directly from the fountain of religion”) to whether women should ride bicycles. With that as our context, “Jewess” ceased to be a term of othering and instead represented the act of women asserting their own specific Jewish identity.

I think there’s still space for that exploration, and I like that Jewess offers some language to try on in the process. It doesn’t resonate for me when it’s used by others to describe Jewish women, but I appreciate the opportunities it affords when it’s used by Jewish women to describe themselves. What is the specifically (non-essentialist) feminine aspect of Jewish identity today, anyway? That’s a question that being a mensch (which literally means “man”) doesn’t answer, at least not for me.

Judith Rosenbaum is the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, a national organization that documents Jewish women’s stories, elevates their voices, and inspires them to be agents of change.


Carole Bass
Call me an American Jew or a Jewish American. Call me a stubborn woman from a long line of them. Call me Shira Rut bat Avraham v’Sarah, if you’re calling me for an aliyah. But please don’t call me a “Jewess.”

I have no objection to other Jewish women claiming the name for themselves. But for people who are not Jewish women to apply this label to a group they’re not part of strikes me as condescending, at best.

Used by gentiles, it smacks of exoticism or far, far worse. To see whether the word is commonly associated with anti-Semitism, I Googled images for “Jewess.” Four of the first 12 images I saw were from neo-Nazi websites, accompanied by captions like “Filthy Jewess Bitch MP Luciana Berger Cries About Upcoming Anti-Jew Protest In London.”

Used by Jewish men, “Jewess” feels like a pat on the pretty little head: quaint and cute, constrained by long petticoats, trotted out for male amusement. It perpetuates (or, in egalitarian company, resurrects) the Torah’s millennia-old presumption that Jews—the kahal or congregation, the people whose attention God commands—are men. It suggests that women are just playing at being Jews, the way the 1980s movie Mr. Mom couldn’t fathom that a man who takes care of his kids and the household is called “Dad.”

A gleeful effort by a man to revive “Jewess” feels like a power play: a way of saying, “I get to name you,” the way alpha bosses nickname their employees. (Remember President George W. Bush calling Karl Rove “Turd Blossom”?)

In modern, egalitarian Jewish circles, I see no reason to reinstitute language that artificially divides Jewish men from Jewish women, Jewish boys from Jewish girls. At the synagogue where it’s my privilege to daven alongside Mark Oppenheimer, women do roughly half the leyning and lead roughly half the services. The Men’s Club died out long ago for lack of interest. We have changing tables in both sexes’ bathrooms (as well as one adjacent to the all-gender bathroom). Why would we want to teach those precious little pishers, our next generation, that only half of them are full-fledged, unequivocal Jews?

Carole Bass is a journalist living in New Haven, Connecticut. Her personal blog is The Mary Oliver Challenge.


Marjorie Ingall
Jewess is one of those words I can say, but you can’t. I mean, you can, if you’re a snarky, funny, feminist, Jewishly-clueful Jewish woman. If you are lacking even one of those attributes, Jewess is not your word. (Sorry, Mark.)

Fortunately, we are living in a golden age of Jewess comedy! So many Jewess role models! Not since the call of “Yoo hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!” was heard throughout the land (Hashem help me, Google it if you have no idea what I’m talking about), have so many actual Jewish women been in charge of actual shows about Jewish women’s lives. Broad City, of course, is the quintessential Jewess comedy—Ilana says the word “Jewess” perfectly: Extra-clear enunciation, miniscule pause between syllables, nice little sibilant hiss at the end. The divine (and woefully mismarketed) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, with its epic JAP rap battle and Tovah Feldshuh-belted aria about Jewish motherhood, is Jewess comedic perfection—verbally dexterous, densely crammed with “ha-mavin yavin” references, woman-powered, and familiar to anyone who is like us —as well. Sarah Silverman, with her deadpan delivery and liberal agenda, is another purveyor of Jewess humor. (And she too says “Jew-ess” flawlessly, in her 2012 invitation to Sheldon Adelson to scissor him to fruition if he donates $100 million to Obama.) Jill Soloway of Transparent—the show with the broadest and most catholic perspective on Jewish womanhood out there—is one of us too.

Jewess is the girls-club version of Jon Stewart’s Jewy. It’s self-aware. The unexpectedness of the word (it’s starts off like “Jewish,” then ricochets elsewhere) is inherently funny. And it belongs to people who enjoy living in a diverse, complex, non-insular world. I am picking up what Carole is laying down about egalitarianism as a vital value…but “Jewess” acknowledges that we are not, in actual fact, equal. We still make many fewer shekels than our brethren in the same jobs. We’re body-shamed and mansplained to. Our reproductive rights are under attack. We’re drastically underrepresented in math and science fields and in political office and in director’s chairs. And of course, when we speak up for ourselves we’re loud and bitchy, while dudes are assertive manly men with leadership potential. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. So Jewess joins the long tradition of underdog Jewish humor in saying “You may have the edge on me, but I’ve got the drop on you.” It’s a sisterly word at a time in which we still need sisters. When we’re standing with men on the bima or in the boardroom, we’re Jews. But when we’re giggling over glasses of wine, comforting a friend who’s been harassed, or just plain plottin’ the overthrow of the patriarchy, we’re Jewesses.

P.S. FWIW, I brought up this whole Jewess discussion with Josie, my fierce intersectional teen, who said that as a non-member of the marginalized group, Mark can’t say “Jewess” but can—and should—use “Shebrew.” It’s a neologism and it has no baggage (that he, as a dude, is not entitled to reclaim) and it is also in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and it is funny and excellent and has a “we’re in this together” vibe that can be inclusive of Jewish men. Enjoy, bubbeleh.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine.


Stephanie Butnick
My beef with the word Jewess is personal.

The word makes me cringe. I can’t help it. Everything about being called a Jewess makes me uncomfortable. It sounds like it should be tweeted by a Trump supporter. I like to think of myself, as Marjorie put it, as snarky, feminist, funny, and Jewishly-clueful—I mean, I work at Tablet. But I don’t consider myself a Jewess. Nor do I particularly want to. It’s an identification that’s more in-your-face than I’m comfortable with (you won’t find me wearing one of those This is What a Feminist Looks Like Tshirts, either), a space on the female-Jewish identity spectrum I don’t care to visit. It makes me feel bad, and a little guilty, that I can’t summon the desire to wear my Jewessness (gah) with pride, the way some Jewish women do. It’s the same way I feel about not having a mezuzah on my apartment door: a mix of relief at not drawing too much attention to myself and guilt about feeling that way—a likely remnant of my grandparents’ Holocaust legacy that just can’t seem to budge for my 21st century reality.

The feminist embrace of the term by empowered Jewish women is something I admire and respect, and our evolving understanding of the word is cultural progress I’m not looking to overturn. I love that Abbi and Ilana, co-patron saints of Jewish Millennials, proudly refer to themselves as Jewesses in the very first episode of Broad City. Sure, it’s in the context of an ill-advised Craigslist ad—“We’re just two Jewesses trying to make a buck”—but it’s a part of their characters’ twentysomething identities they’re not afraid to put out there, nor do they think is a particularly big deal. So what if the word makes my skin crawl a little?

After all, isn’t it the surest sign of how far we’ve come as Jewish women—a minority within a minority!—that a generation of Millennial Jewesses (double gah) are free to claim or reject the label without letting down the tribe? I can be completely comfortable with my identity—Jewish, feminist, and otherwise—without wanting to call myself a Jewess. And if you want to call yourself a Jewess, perhaps even one with attitude? Go right ahead, sister. Just don’t call me one too.

Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.

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