Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The anti-shiksa

In nineteenth-century France, there were Jewish prostitutes. This much I knew. What I didn't know, but learned today in class, is that these 'Jewish' prostitutes were often not actual Jews, but just dark-haired prostitutes assigned the role of 'the Jewess.' Which I guess had some appeal way back when.

While obviously there are still Jewish women considered attractive (Natalie who?) one doesn't hear much these days about an overall preference in that direction. From what I know of popular culture, the Jewish male desire for a non-Jewish woman gets far more attention than the other way 'round; is this because all men want blue-eyed blondes, or is it just that Woody Allen and Philip Roth made more of an impression on America than did their gentile counterparts, whoever those may be?


Withywindle said...

This is fascinating--you're right that Fair Rowena still has her loud admirers, but I think Dark and Sensuous Rebecca has dropped out of the cultural landscape. Going to a Historical Source, my dad says that back in New York in the 1940s there was some thought that "Jewish girls are easy/easier," but I suppose "easy" isn't identical with "attractive." I, of course, only have eyes for Goldberry. But for a modern dark Rebecca, see Rachel Botchan of the Pearl Repertory Company-- photo here.

Petey said...

Well, historically, we have Theda Bara, the first real movie sex symbol. While her characters were portrayed as semitic, as opposed to specifically Jewish, she's worth a mention here.

More recently, we have items like Eliot Spitzer's expensive 5 star Jewish hooker, and items in popular culture like the Jewish hooker in The Sopranos that Steve Buscemi accidently shoots.

And there is a minor subgenre in recent American porn of portraying Jewish women, almost always brunette and very busty. For example, Whitney Stevens, who I assume is not actually Jewish, wore a Star of David necklace in many of her early scenes to hit this demand.

As the wonderful couplet chorus in the Beck love song goes, "Her left eye is lazy. She looks so Israeli."

Petey said...

And massively off-topic, but you ought to check out J Street, Phoebe. It's a new organization to provide a home for Zionist American Jews who don't share the abominable right-wing pro-Likud politics of AIPAC.

Phoebe said...

Withywindle and Petey: It's interesting the examples you pick are from long ago or in period dress. (What makes you think the Spitzer hooker was Jewish? I thought just New Jersey-ish.) Actresses like Juliana Margulies and Rachel Weisz are what I imagine to be the modern-day equivalents of the look French men were once requesting. Or, to give a lowbrow equivalent, Fran from "The Nanny."

FLG said...

I wouldn't base too much on what types of prostitutes people were requesting. People can request pretty strange things. Nevertheless, I don't know how prevalent the demand for a Jewess was in 19th century France.

Also, Withywindle: Goldberry. Ha!

Withywindle said...

Botchan acts in a repertory company. There's a skew toward period costumes.

Monica Lewinsky sorta qualifies as a Rebecca too.

Anonymous said...

Well in US history - what about Adah Menken? The first national theatre actresss/celebrity.

Petey said...

"Monica Lewinsky sorta qualifies as a Rebecca too."

Lewinsky is actually pretty central to this topic.

She defines the 'sexy Jewess' in the mass popular imagination at the moment, in a way that Natalie Portman or Fran Drescher (!) doesn't. And Lewinsky is likely the causal reason for the contours of that particular imagination.

The minor subgenre in recent American porn of portraying Jewish women I mentioned above exclusively features Lewinsky-esque women.


"What makes you think the Spitzer hooker was Jewish?"

I saw it reported that way. I have no idea of the details.

Phoebe said...

Hmm. I feel this thread has gone off-topic, and it's partly my fault. The question is not which Jewish women are now seen as sex symbols (or in Lewinsky's case, symbols of sex) but rather, why there are examples galore of 'shiksas' but few of Jewish women as the exotic love interests of non-Jewish men. I think the obvious answer is that in America today, there are more obvious candidates for the exotic woman from the white male perspective. While I maintain that even Ashkenazi Jews are not exactly white, if you want to depict the white man-exotic woman scenario, and you want to really drive the point home, you're best off with a Latina or an Asian woman. An Israeli woman (and no, not in the sense of Natalie Portman) could work, except that in America it is in fact forbidden to discuss Israel except in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, so an Israeli love interest in an American romantic comedy is out of the question.

Anonymous said...

Phoebe, aren't you talking about the Jew (in this case, Jewess) as Other, so part of the 19th c. fascination with illusionary Orientalism? "Jewish" prostitutes would fit this idea of role-playing, and would have been more within the means of the average Frenchman than travel to Turkey or Egypt.
Were Jewish girls, much later, considered "easy" because they weren't stopped by the idea of, say, eternal damnation? Maybe rationality is sexually freeing.

Withywindle said...

White man--exotic woman scenario: this also plays as the female desire for a male shiksa. See My Big Fat Greek Wedding; Bend it Like Beckham; some Indian movie remaking Pride and Prejudcie a few years ago, with the Yank as the Lord Darcy character.

When you say "there are more obvious candidates for the exotic woman from the white male perspective", perhaps you should give greater weight to the idea that Jewish women are no longer considered exotic. At least by Americans writing books, movie scripts, etc.

For a movie with remarkably anti-Semitic tropes, se Edward Burns' The Brothers McMullen, where our heros first girlfriend is a remarkably nasty Jewish caricature--indeed exotic, but he goes back to the neighborhood (Irish-American) girl in the end.

Phoebe said...

Re: the Jew as Oriental yet familiar: See Maurice Samuels' and Ronald Schechter's work on, yes, 19th century France.

Re: Jews are not so exotic, and thus more white, in contemporary America than in 19th century France, or even contemporary France. Agreed. Not white, but whiter. And re: the Burns movie, it was nasty indeed, and should be shown by all anti-intermarriage Jewish parents to their daughters. I have no feelings either way but after that movie thought I should run off with the nearest Hasid.

Petey said...

"but rather, why there are examples galore of 'shiksas' but few of Jewish women as the exotic love interests of non-Jewish men."

As a partial but important explanation, I wouldn't rule out the Elaine Benes factor.

With Jewish males largely in control of the motion picture business from the get-go, they had multiple motivations for not portraying Jewish female characters in sexualized roles.

The history of American movies and TV is replete with Jewish actresses playing non-Jewish roles, to a larger degree than occurred with Jewish male actors.


Anti-semitic or not, Burns is an incredibly repellent filmmaker.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of 19th cent. France - what about Rachel Felix? Plus her connections to Napoleon. But that's just cultural history -

Gypsies are exotice - What about Arabian Nights? OT.

Anonymous said...

So Fran is lowbrow, eh? She's very funny, methinks - Great sense of humor is sexy - Like laughter-loving Aphrodite.

schMaltzlover said...

Monica from Friends? A non-jewish actor playing a Jewish role (with Matthew Perry as the male shiksa from the screwed up WASP family).

Elaine was a non-Jewish character, despite being played by the worlds richest franco-American Jewish actress.

I think Louis-Dreyfus and Cox-Arquette illustrate the problem -- Jews are now so white that they are played by non-Jews on TV (and vice versa) making it hard for other Americans, white or otherwise, to get a fix on what a Jewish woman is supposed to look like.