Two women clad in their best business casual wear, alike in dignity and each flanked by her respective entourage, slowly circle one another. All signs point to an epic catfight, full of hair pulling and slapping, but instead the two perfectly coiffed women begin to spit bars at one another—a rap fueled beef to rival that of Drake and Meek Mill.
Although it was meant to be about the “beef of two hard-as-nails Shebrews from Scarsdale,” the epic “JAP Battle”—short for Jewish American Princess, a stereotype of a bitchy, spoiled, gold-digging Jewish woman—that aired during the first season of CW’s musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was much more than just a throwdown between lead character Rebecca (played by series co-creator Rachel Bloom) and her long-time rival Audra (Rachel Grate). For me, a naturally curly-haired woman of Ashkenazi descent with a strong dislike for being told “no,” it represented a turning tide in the way the Jewish woman is depicted onscreen. With lines like “I’m a member of the ACLU” and “I put the OG in five-point-O GPA,” the number, which was written by rapper and comedian (and son of a female rabbi) Zach Sherwin, was refreshing because it showed well-educated, competitive 20-something “Jewish American Princesses” focused on total world domination instead of bitchily, slowly nagging one man to death while they scoured for the best deals at Neiman’s.
“We knew we wanted some sort of big showdown between Audra and Rebecca and we’d been listening to a lot of Hamilton and we thought some sort of rap battle … Then it became, what do Jewish American girls value?,” says Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Bloom.
As an increasing secular vision of Judaism appears on TV in shows as varied as ABC’s Modern Family and Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, so too does this TV trope of the Jewish woman evolve. Gone are characters like Gilda Radner’s pushy Jewish American Princess or jokes like Allan Sherman’s jibes at our supposed love of shopping and hatred of cleaning (What’s so wrong with that?). The superficial, meddling prima donna stereotype has given birth to, raised and ensured a proper education for a determined career woman with a mind of her own. Sure, the new Jewish character could have a Louboutin collection and may not be the most woke person on the block. But she paid for those shoes with her own damn money.
“Now, I think of the Jewish Princesses thing as a completely different thing,” says Bloom. “I don’t associate being Jappy with not having a job and wanting your husband to do everything. It’s the entire package. The princess aspect of it to me is kind of white privilege... that’s true of anyone upper middle class in this country, especially if they’re not of color.”
Sarah Silverman was once described in New York Magazine as “a vaguely homophobic, vaguely racist Jewish-American princess,” by Mark Harris, but thanks to Bloom and others, TV has seen more forward-thinking Jewish-American women in the past few years. Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna on Girls was a character once thought to have negative connotations when she was dubbed the “all new JAP” by Forward, but who, by the end of the HBO show’s fifth season, had graduated college, tried living abroad and actually, somewhat, had begun to figure out her job situation. Meanwhile, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer spent the season three finale of their Comedy Central series Broad City sending up Birthright, the cultural trip to Israel for Jewish young people that can unofficially serve as a matchmaking tool. (Reality TV hasn’t been as kind: Bravo’s Princesses: Long Island was, thankfully, short-lived; the channel’s Shahs of Sunset, which has featured Jewish personalities and has had plenty of backlash from Iranian-Americans, is in its fifth season.)
On Lifetime’s UnREAL, Shiri Appleby’s character, Rachel Goldberg, comes with enough determination and self-destructiveness to cause a room full of white male writers to salivate. The Vassar-educated, left-leaning reality TV producer is first seen in the series wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “this is what a feminist looks like” as she lies dead-eyed on the floor of a stretch limo that is otherwise full of perfectly coiffed women who have entered a fictitious dating show in the hopes of having a fairy tale romance on national TV. This season, she feels she’s making a societal commentary by casting her series’ first African-American suitor. What little personal life Rachel is allowed to have is spent making questionable romantic choices.
“I think the show aims to ask a lot of questions about the cultural legacy of feminism,” says UnREAL’s creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who relied on her experience working on ABC’s The Bachelor when she co-created the series. “Now we are educated. Now we are independent. Now we get to work really, really hard. Is that making us happy? Do we like what we've become?”
And with this transition comes another foil for the modern-day Jewish feminist: Instead of her husband, she, like many of her goyim peers, has an intense relationship with her mother. Susie Essman and Tovah Feldshuh—two women who could corner the comedy TV market on all middle-class Jewish mom roles—play endearing, if overbearing, parents on Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend respectively. Judith Light plays a sexually active Jewish mother who doesn’t seem to understand her daughters on Amazon’s Transparent. On UnREAL, the relationship is just as close, but more strained, as Rachel Goldberg’s mother (played by Mimi Kuzyk) also serves as her therapist.
"Jewish kids and Jewish parents: it's beautiful, it's a lot of love, but it's intense,” says Shapiro, who stresses that that part of UnREAL is not autobiographical. “I think, for me, you are raised by these great, successful, smart people and spend a lot of your life trying not to let them down, but still figure out who you are. I think my dad would have been thrilled if I married a nice Jewish accountant when I was 26. But I think he also knows that would have killed me. They want safety and security for you, but also want you to be yourself. It's the strange combination we all know a lot about."
Bloom says the parenting storylines relate to all children of overbearing immigrant parents and grandparents, who smother as a survival instinct. Coincidentally, both Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and UnREAL also make use of Asian-American character actress Amy Hill. On the first show, she plays a protective Filipino mother; on the second, a therapist named Dr. Wagerstein.
"When you come from a people who, for most of history, have [had] to constantly fear death and fear everything you love [being] taken away from you, there is an anxiety and paranoia embedded in the culture," she says.
And this could be why Jewish culture has assimilated so well into the gentile mainstream. Last winter, Hello Mazel—a subscription delivery service of modern Judaica that claims to be “reinventing Judaism...one box at a time”—became the most-funded Jewish-themed project ever on Kickstarter (less-successful projects include a hotplate to use during the Sabbath, when deeply religious Jews do not cook, and many documentaries about Jewish history and culture). This September, food experts Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern will release their first cookbook, The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods.
But despite all this appreciation for Jewish culture in the media, I personally wasn’t sure if this was translating to the real world. So I did what anyone who doesn’t feel hip to the lingo does; I asked a teenager.
"It's more of a basic white girl, which I think may or may not be a Jewish American Princess,” says my cousin Lilly Zoller, 17, when I asked her if she knew what “JAP” meant.