I decided to write my Peretz graduation paper on Jewish stereotypes, past and present. This topic interested me, because I’d heard and seen the rumors and images, and I wondered why and where they began. I thought that they were hurtful, but I was confused as to why a lot of people didn’t regard them with much importance. TV shows like Glee showed outright antisemitic characters, and I couldn’t find anyone who was really offended by it. Personally, I believe stereotyping is wrong, and just as bad as outright discrimination. I hope this paper helps to explain the antisemitism some of us may have come across.
While I believe that all types of discrimination are bad, whether it be against religion, skin color, appearance, beliefs, or otherwise, this paper is just going to focus on antisemitism. Antisemitism is the prejudice or hatred of Judaism or Jews. Antisemitism has been around since the Middle Ages, where Jews were believed to use Christian blood in matzoh and have horns. Stereotyping is a form of prejudice - or antisemitism if it is against Jews.
Antisemitism has become so prevalent that even searching the word “Jew” on google can bring up offensive results. Once when using Google for research on this paper, a Google-mandated explanation was one of the results. With the tag line “We're disturbed about these results as well. Please read our note here,” Google went on to say that searching the word “Jew” could bring up offensive results, and it was not their fault. “If you recently used Google to search for the word ‘Jew,’ you may have seen results that were very disturbing. We assure you that the views expressed by the sites in your results are not in any way endorsed by Google.” If searching for a simple, non-offensive term brings up so many offensive websites that Google has to write an apology letter, that’s a problem. Also, the URL for the letter’s web page simply ends in “explanation.html”. Since the URL doesn’t mention Jews, that means this is likely the only explanation Google has had to write. Meaning, the term “Jew” is the only non-offensive term that gives offensive results. While this isn’t a stereotype, I felt that this was a good example of antisemitism, and deserved to be mentioned.
There are many different Jewish stereotypes, but for my topic I chose to focus on two character traits of common portrayals of Jews, and two “characters” many Jewish stereotypes seem to fit into. My paper will be on Jews as portrayed as greedy, and the Jewish mother and Jewish-American Princess.
During the Middle Ages, Christians were not allowed to be money lenders. The Church believed that collecting interest from loaned money was a sin, while at the same time Jews were not allowed to have many jobs that Christians did. Since the Jews were able to collect interest from the Christians, many became money lenders and tax collectors. Because of this, Jews were and are often believed to be greedy. This is seen in one of the earliest well-known Jewish stereotypes, Jewish moneylender Shylock from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who loans 3000 ducats to a Christian merchant named Antonio, on the terms that he pay him back in three months or Shylock can “cut and take off a whole pound of living flesh from any part of Antonio’s body that pleased him.” Antonio invested most of his money on cargo ships that should have returned by the three-month deadline, but two of the three crashed. In court, it is determined that the debt is legal, but the Jewish Shylock cannot spill a drop of Christian blood. Since this is impossible, he loses the 3000 ducats. Then, Shylock is hit again when he is charged with conspiring murder of a Christian and forced to give up the rest of his money - half to Venice, and half to his thieving daughter who eloped with a Christian. Then, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity as well - And this play is a comedy.
This is a great example of antisemitism. In this play, Shylock is portrayed as greedy, and wanting to cause harm to a Christian. His daughter, Jessica, is even somewhat of a “Jewish-American Princess,” because she is spoiled, and steals her dad’s jewels when she elopes. Shylock is borderline sadistic when he asks for the pound of flesh. The fact that this play is a comedy just makes it even worse. As one book quotes, “To Shakespeare’s audience it would be a comedy - they would laugh at the misery of an unpopular [Jewish] moneylender...the way a motorist today might laugh if a meter maid slipped on a banana peel!”
The stereotypes that Jews are greedy can still be seen today, and in modern works. Fagin, from Oliver Twist, is a Jew who persuades the homeless to steal for him. While Oliver Twist, written in 1838, may not be very recent, movie versions of the story have been made, as recent as 2005. Fagin is the antagonist of the story, and obviously so. He is described as ugly and greedy, and he is also Jewish. The antisemitism was so bad that later in his career, author Charles Dickens wrote Our Mutual Friend to include a nice and virtuous Jewish character.
The Jewish-American Princess is another stereotype, but while “greed” is a character trait, the Jewish-American Princess is an entire character. The typical JAP is a spoiled, whiny, inconsiderate girl who doesn’t care for others, only for herself. While Jessica, Shylock’s daughter in The Merchant of Venice may have been a bit of a Jewish-American Princess (despite not being American) when she eloped with a Christian and stole her father’s jewels, but the JAP is more of a modern stereotype. A very good example of the Jewish-American princess is Rachel Berry from the TV show Glee. The fact that she is this stereotype isn’t a secret - she’s even called a Jewish-American princess in a couple of the episodes. Rachel is very pushy and spoiled. She thinks that she’s better than everybody else, and isn’t very subtle about it. Rachel’s Jewishness is also very central to the show - the episode “Born This Way” is almost all about Rachel deciding whether or not to get a nose job because she is insecure about how big it is because she’s Jewish. Rachel finally decides not to, because Barbra Streisand, her idol, never did.
Not many people like Rachel; she is very bossy and doesn’t believe in anyone else. This can be seen when she actually says things like “I’m better than you,” and manipulates people to get her what she wants.
The Jewish-American Princess is very spoiled. This ties in with both of the other stereotypes that are in this paper. The idea that Jews are greedy would result in them also being rich. The next stereotype I’m going to talk about is the Jewish Mother, who spoils her daughter, resulting in the Jewish-American Princess.
The Jewish Mother is almost the exact opposite of the her daughter. She is whiny, pushy, overprotective, and cares only about the status of her children. The richer her daughter marries, the better, and this may also be the reason the other stereotype that Jews only become doctors or lawyers, because their mother is pushing them to do well and also make a lot of money. Modern Jewish Mother’s are often distinguishable by their thick Brooklyn or New Jersey accents, and by the way they are butting into their child’s lives, asking things like “Have you married a nice Jewish girl yet?”
While the matchmaker Yente from Fiddler on the Roof isn’t technically a mother, she fits the bill exactly. Yente treats all the young people in the village, or at least all of Tevye and Golde’s daughters, like her own children. She fusses over them, tries to set them up with rich men, and noses into their business. At one point, Yente brings a letter for Chava that she picked up from the post office for her. She gives the letter to Tzeitel, but she realizes it was opened. Tzeitel asks Yentel, who says, offhand, “And it just happened to be opened.”
You can find Jewish stereotypes everywhere. Jewish comedians talk about being a Jewish-American Princess or having a pushy mom. TV comedies and movies poke fun at everyone, including Jews. I believe that even “harmless” jokes like these can be hurtful. Before writing this paper, I wasn’t very offended at the portrayal of Jews in the media. Delving further into it, however, I realized how severe the epidemic was, and how lighthearted it was taken. I felt the matter of judging a whole population on one preconceived notion was much more serious than people were making of it. It’s up to us to educate the rest of the world that Jews don’t all act or look the way they’re portrayed - I mean, do I have a big nose?