You know when you’ve met a Jewish woman. We’re loud, confident, opinionated and sometimes a little bit bitchy. We love shopping. We’re bouncy and warm and high maintenance. Our personalities are so in your face that you either love us or hate us.
That is the stereotype, at least as seen on films, television and in books. The Jewish female characters on screen that I had to identify with growing up were Cher from Clueless, widely percived as Jewish, a vacuous and self-obsessed shopaholic, or the unimaginably annoying Janice from Friends. My colleague had to abandon this summer’s bestseller, Queenie by Candice Carty Williams, because she couldn’t stand the heroine’s Jewish friend — spoilt, thoughtless, lends money to her mate the very first time we meet her. Ironic really, as it’s a book about the harm that stereotypes can do.
When people refer to “the classic Jewish woman,” as someone did to me recently, it’s not Simone Veil or Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg they are thinking of. No, it’s someone who “shops all the time,” and “lives in Hampstead.” After I counted to ten to manage my rage, I fell to thinking about the effects of this stereotype.
There are days that I can live with it. I am not ashamed to say I love a bit of shopping and consider Brent Cross a second home. What north Londoner doesn’t? It is true that I am mostly confident but I also have occasional crippling self-doubt and insecurity that is so bad you might confuse me for a Catholic, if you believed stereotypes of course. Yes, my Jewish girl friends are some of the funniest girls I know and yes, my mum sometimes interferes in a way that other people’s parents don’t, mostly with my recycling. Of course I’m opinionated — I’m a columnist after all — but that’s hardly just a Jewish trait.
Shortly after my father died I was confronted with the most hurtful effects of the stereotype. I was on a tube and saw an old friend of my dad’s. Quickly, what I thought might have been a warm exchange turned into a conversation about selling Dad’s house.
As someone who grew up largely outside the Jewish community I’ve felt anxious about how people’s opinion of me might change once I reveal I am Jewish. It is not a significant anxiety but it is the kind that sits dormant waiting to be activated.
I thought my dad’s house to be an odd topic of conversation but I explained how it had been a hard and painful process to sell the house I grew up in and go through a life time of memories, working out what you can bear to part with.
Apparently my humanity and my grief was invisible because the so-called friend remarked: “Well, now you have all that money what have you got to worry about?”
The words hit me like individual bullets. I knew exactly where that sentiment came from. They had delivered it without a second thought. I got off that train and burst into tears.
These portrayals of our personalities are reductive and insulting. They can also be dangerous.
When a group of actors recently complained that not enough Jews were playing Jews on the stage or on screen, I thought — this is not the issue. What matters to me is the way those characters are written. If the writing is based on stereotypes, then it’s hard for actors — of any background — to give a nuanced performance. In other words, the stereotypes mask the fact that we are people, like the rest of them.
Jewish women you see in the media might be gregarious, strong and confident but behind closed doors, just like the rest of humanity, we have moments of doubt, fear, and vulnerability.
And perhaps we rely on the stereotype because it helps masks moment of sadness, trauma, and loss. Why be sad when you can be funny?
In the past month we’ve read news reports about two Jewish women being denied a religious divorce by their despicable husbands. In Manchester, Alan Moher lost his appeal against a court order to pay his wife maintenance until he gave her a get.
And in Israel, Yisrael Meir Kin, whose mother’s burial was delayed by rabbinical authorities until he agreed to grant his wife a get after 14 years, went back on the agreement.
I don’t imagine either of those women thought on their wedding day that the men they were marrying were so ghastly that one day they would be capable of the kind of manipulation and control domestic violence charities now warn and educate against.
Why do we not hear or see their stories told and represented outside of our community bubbles?
Perhaps because it is easier to view Jewish women as one big monolithic group of shopaholic, loud, whining princesses than it is to see us as more complicated and human.