by Rebecca Boroson
TWO MEN WANTED ME, when I was young, for being something I was not.
I was reminded of this recently, when one sent me my portrait, which I never knew he had painted more than fifty years ago. He titled it “Jewess.”
The other man, tall, blond, blue-eyed, of German descent and ashamed of the sins of his fathers (and mothers), also used that word about me.
Now, I am indeed Jewish, by ancestry and love, but I never was that exotic creature a “Jewess.” I am as exotic as a baked potato — with, perhaps, a touch of salt.
It surprises me that while my generation of Jewish men supposedly lusted after that blonde, leggy other, the archetypal shikse, two non-Jews — for all I know, there may have been more — seem to have had the reverse fetish, at least about me. And it feels odd, and unsettling, to have been fetishized.
What is a “Jewess,” exactly, aside from being a woman who is Jewish?
FIRST, SHE HAS dark hair and eyes (check), so a Jewish blonde does not count as one. Dark hair and eyes seem, at least to some, to signify mystery, sultriness.
Second — is there a second?
Well, judging from my own experience of being Jewish and female, a “Jewess” is close to her family, who protect her, as much as possible, against bad decisions and hard times; she’s given the best education that whatever money there may be and intense study can buy; thus she’s a combination of innocence and confidence. That family cocoon, combined with all that education, may allow her to be adventurous, sexually or otherwise, or at least she may give that impression.
But does that make her sexy? What am I missing here?
I think of the two Rebeccas whose name I share, the Bible’s and Sir Walter Scott’s in Ivanhoe — the ur-Jewesses. Nurtured and nurturing, brave and smart. Good marriage prospects, both of them.
But does that make them sexy? Who knows? I’m not a man.
WHILE SOME WOMEN might think it kind of nice to be considered, without even trying, sexy, there is a distinct downside to the word “Jewess.” It has long been associated with a seamy, sleazy sexuality.
I think of Baudelaire’s “Une nuit que j’étais près d’une affreuse Juive,” from his Flowers of Evil, repellently but evocatively translated by Jack Collings Squire as “A hideous Jewess lay with me for hire.”
I first came across this poem in my early teens (a very long time ago) and was disgusted and upset — how could he, a poet, who (I believed, in my unworldliness) should have an exquisite sensitivity, write such things about me? It was the poet who was hideous, not the woman. He was the one who “lay with [her] for hire,” he was the one who debased her.
Then there is the opposite stereotype of the Jewish woman as sexless and self-absorbed, who, while her lawfully wedded husband (who else?) is pumping away at her, doing his “duty” as instructed by Maimonides, looks up and observes, “The ceiling needs painting.”
So when the package arrived and I broke through all the bindings, when I saw the (not very good) painting and its one-word title, I was unnerved: So that was what he thought of me all those years ago. He never saw me at all, but only a “Jewess.”
Rebecca Boroson is editor emerita of The Jewish Standard, a newspaper based in Teaneck, NJ.