In a 1980 Saturday Night Live skit, the late Gilda Radner, decked out in gold necklaces and wide sunglasses, sashays in front of flashing cameras at a photo shoot. She shows off her fire engine-red fingernails and purple jeans embroidered with a Star of David on each of the back pockets. “She’s got designer nails and a designer nose,” coo background singers. “She’s an American princess and a disco queen, she’s the Jewess in Jewess jeans.”
Radner wasn’t the first to probe how the word “Jewess” embodies Jewish femininity. The term originally appeared as a description for a Jewish woman in John Wycliffe’s 1388 Middle English translation of the Bible in a line from the New Testament Book of Acts: “Timothe, the sone [sic] of a Jewesse christen.” The English writer Samuel Purchas used the term similarly in 1613 in the first volume of his Pilgrimages series, writing: “The Virgin Mary, say they, wore the Ring on her middle finger, and therefore all Iewesses [sic] refuse that, and use the forefinger.”
This neutral usage was largely the norm until 1819, when Sir Walter Scott wrote Ivanhoe, which prominently featured a woman with the biblical name Rebecca—a “Jewess,” as Scott frequently characterizes her. Rebecca is not just any Jewess; she is “beautiful” with “ruby lips” and exotic, dressing “in a rich habit, which partook more of the Eastern taste than that of Europe.” Her home is reminiscent “so much of Oriental costume, that he began to doubt whether he had not, during his sleep, been transported back again to the land of Palestine.”
Though Rebecca is benevolent, nursing Ivanhoe back to health after a severe wound, she also has the air of a seductress, a woman whose Oriental qualities are beguiling. Judith Rosenbaum, director of public history at the Jewish Women’s Archive, says the perception that Jews possessed “Eastern” qualities, distinguishing them from others of European lineage, tapped into widely held views about the Jewish people. “People who weren’t used to Jews might have seen all Jews that way,” she says.
The art world, too, has often used “Jewess” to describe art with Orientalist—and sensual—overtones. According to Daniel Belasco, a curator at The Jewish Museum in New York, some works of art depict “Jewish women who used their wiles and their alluring sexuality.” In 1862, French sculptor Charles-Henri Cordier created a bust called “Jewess from Algiers,” which portrays a striking woman cloaked in Eastern garb; a striped headdress covers her hair, and her shoulders are draped in a voluminous and intricately detailed white cloth.
For Rosa Sonneschein, a Hungarian immigrant to the United States, the term didn’t denote exoticism. In 1895, Sonneschein founded The American Jewess, the first magazine geared toward American Jewish women, which covered topics from the Zionist idea in its infancy to whether or not it was decorous for a woman to straddle a bicycle seat. And the magazine’s name? At a time when gender- and race-specific words such as “Negress” were commonplace, “Jewess” wasn’t a startling choice for the title. “At the time that was just the word one would use to make clear that this was for Jewish women,” says Rosenbaum.
By the 1930s, the term “Jewess” had largely fallen off the map, partly due to Jews’ attempts to downplay their Jewishness. In the decades that followed, language became more gender-neutral; where once nearly all terms had an alternate feminine version—add an “-ess” and women can be doctors, too!—gender-specific terms like “Jewess” became antiquated.
Today, “Jewess”—now perfectly retro—is poised for a comeback. In the same spirit as the gay community’s redefinition of words like “queer,” Jewish women are stripping “Jewess” of its archaic connotations and imbuing it with new intentionality. Blogs with names such as Barefoot Jewess and Cute Jewess Tells All have sprung up. Rosenbaum and her colleagues at the Jewish Women’s Archive operate one called Jewesses With Attitude. Its purpose, she says, is to ask what it means to be a contemporary Jewish woman. Rebecca Honig Friedman, a senior writer at Jewess, says of the blog’s name, “There is a reclaiming aspect to it. There’s an association of strength with it.”
Not everyone has taken to “Jewess” so readily. Several early commenters on Jewesses With Attitude took offense to the term, which evoked in them memories of Gilda Radner’s “Longuyland” version of the word. And in the darker recesses of the Internet lurk those who hold on to yet more sinister meanings. “Hideous Jewess vs. Beautiful European-American” blares the headline of one discussion thread on a white nationalist website. The term “Jewess” has yet to become middle-Jewish-American. But Friedman is pleased. “The power of the word,” she says, “lies in it not being mainstream.”