Stereotypes of Jews

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Stereotypes of Jews are caricatured and generalized representations of Jews, often of a prejudiced and antisemitic nature. The Jewish diaspora in Europe and the Western hemisphere have been stereotyped for over 2,000 years as scapegoats for a multitude of societal problems.[1] Antisemitism continued throughout the centuries and reached a climax in the Third Reich during World War II. Jews are still stereotyped as greedy, nit-picky, stingy misers and are often depicted in caricatures, comics, and propaganda posters counting money or collecting diamonds. Early films such as Cohen's Advertising Scheme (1904, silent) stereotyped Jews as "scheming merchants".[2]

Common objects, phrases and traditions used to emphasize or ridicule Jewishness include bagels,[citation needed] playing violin, klezmer, undergoing circumcision, haggling and uttering phrases like mazel tov, shalom, and oy vey. Other Jewish stereotypes are the rabbi, the complaining and guilt-inflicting Jewish mother, the spoiled and materialistic Jewish-American princess and the often meek and nerdy nice Jewish boy.

Physical features

An 1873 caricature depicting the stereotypical physical features of a Jewish man

In caricatures and cartoons, it is often assumed that Jews have curly black hair, large hook-noses, thick lips, dark-colored beady eyes[3] and wearing kippahs.

Jews are commonly caricatured as having "Jewish noses": large[4] or aquiline.[5] Jews are also portrayed as swarthy and hirsute. There is a brown, edible woodland fungus, Auricularia cornea, commonly referred to as "Hairy Jew's ear".[6]

In European culture, prior to the 20th century, red hair was commonly identified as the distinguishing negative Jewish trait and identified with Judas Iscariot: during the Spanish Inquisition, all those with red hair were identified as Jewish.[7] In Italy, red hair was associated with Italian Jews, and Judas was traditionally depicted as red-haired in Italian and Spanish art.[8] Writers from Shakespeare to Dickens would identify Jewish characters by giving them red hair.[9] The stereotype remains in parts of Eastern Europe and Russia, but not in the US or Western Europe.[10]


A German cartoon of 1851 implies ingrained dishonesty in Jews. Enlarge for caption.

Jews have often been stereotyped as greedy and miserly. This originates in the Middle Ages, when the Church forbade Christians to lend money while charging interest (a practice called usury, although the word later took on the meaning of charging excessive interest). Jews were legally restricted to occupations as usurers, usually to Christians, and thus many went into money-lending. This led to, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the association of Jews with greedy practices.

Publications like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and literature such as William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist reinforced the stereotype of the crooked Jew. Dickens later expressed regret for his portrayal of Fagin in the novel, and toned down references to his Jewishness.[11] Furthermore, the character of Mr. Riah in his later novel Our Mutual Friend is a kindly Jewish creditor, and may have been created as an apology for Fagin.[citation needed] Lesser references in Arabian Nights, The Three Musketeers, and even Hans Brinker are examples of the prevalence of this negative perception. Some, such as Paul Volcker, suggest that the stereotype has decreased in prevalence in the United States. A telephone poll of 1747 American adults conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in 2009 found that 18% believed that "Jews have too much power in the business world", 13% that "Jews are more willing than others to use shady practices to get what they want", and 12% that "Jews are not just as honest as other businesspeople".[12]

Jewish frugality, thriftiness, and greed are among the typical themes in jokes about Jews, even by Jews themselves.[13]


Martin Marger writes "A set of distinct and consistent negative stereotypes, some of which can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages in Europe, has been applied to Jews."[14] Antisemitic canards such as the blood libel appeared in the 12th century and were associated with attacks and massacres against Jews.[15]

Medieval Europe

The portrayal of Jews as historic enemies of Christianity and Christendom constitutes the most damaging anti-Jewish stereotype reflected in the literature of the late tenth through early twelfth centuries. Jews were often depicted as satanic consorts,[16] or as devils themselves and "incarnation[s] of absolute evil."[17] Physically, Jews were portrayed as menacing, hirsute, with boils, warts and other deformities, and sometimes with horns, cloven hoofs and tails.[18] Such imagery was used centuries later in Nazi propaganda of the 1930s and 1940s.[19] This propaganda leaned on Jewish stereotypes to explain the claim that the Jewish people belong to an "inferior" race.[20][21]

Although Jews had not been particularly associated with moneylending in antiquity, a stereotype of them acting in this capacity was developed beginning in the 11th century. Jonathan Frankel notes that this stereotype, though obviously an exaggeration, had a solid basis in reality. While not all Jews were moneylenders, the Catholic Church's prohibition of usury meant that Jews were the main representatives of the trade.[22]


United States

David Schneder writes "Three large clusters of traits are part of the Jewish stereotype (Wuthnow, 1982). First, Jews are seen as being powerful and manipulative. Second, they are accused of dividing their loyalties between the United States and Israel. A third set of traits concerns Jewish materialistic values, aggressiveness, clannishness."[23]

More recently, benign stereotypes of Jews have been found to be more prevalent than images of an overtly anti-Semitic nature.[24]

Jewish women

Negative stereotypes of Jewish women can appear in popular culture.[25] Stereotypes of Jewish mothers and Jewish-American Princesses are well-known and pervasive stereotypes of Jewish women.[26]

Belle juive

La belle juive (the beautiful Jewess) was a 19-century literary stereotype. A figure that is often associated with having and causing sexual lust, temptation and sin. Her personality traits could be portrayed either positively or negatively. The typical appearance of the belle juive included long, thick, dark hair, large dark eyes, an olive skin tone, and a languid expression. An example of this stereotype is Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. Another example is Miriam in Nathaniel Hawthorne's romance The Marble Faun.[27]

Jewish mother

The Jewish mother or Jewish wife stereotype is a common stereotype and stock character used by Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, television and film writers, actors, and authors in the United States. The stereotype generally involves a nagging, loud, highly-talkative, overprotective, smothering, and overbearing mother or wife, who persists in interfering in her children's lives long after they have become adults and who is excellent at making her children feel guilty for actions which may have caused her to suffer.[28] The Jewish mother stereotype can also involve a loving and overly proud mother who is highly defensive about her children in front of others. Like Italian mother stereotypes, Jewish mother characters are often shown cooking for the family, urging loved ones to eat more, and taking great pride in their food. Feeding a loved one is characterized as an extension of the desire to mother those around her. Lisa Aronson Fontes describes the stereotype as one of "endless caretaking and boundless self-sacrifice" by a mother who demonstrates her love by "constant overfeeding and unremitting solicitude about every aspect of her children's and husband's welfare[s]".[29]

A possible origin of this stereotype is anthropologist Margaret Mead's research into the European shtetl, financed by the American Jewish Committee.[30] Although her interviews at Columbia University, with 128 European-born Jews, disclosed a wide variety of family structures and experiences, the publications resulting from this study and the many citations in the popular media resulted in the Jewish mother stereotype: a woman intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering and attempting to engender enormous guilt in her children via the endless suffering she professes to have experienced on their behalf. The Jewish mother stereotype, then, has origins in the American Jewish community, with predecessors coming from Eastern Europe.1 In Israel, where the geographical background of Jews is more diverse,[citation needed] the same stereotypical mother is known as the Polish mother.[31]

Comedian Jackie Mason describes stereotypical Jewish mothers as parents who have become so expert in the art of needling their children that they have honorary degrees in "Jewish Acupuncture".[32] Rappoport observes that jokes about the stereotype have less basis in anti-Semitism than they have in gender stereotyping.[33] Helmreich agrees, observing that the attributes of a Jewish mother—overprotection, pushiness, aggression, and guilt-inducement—could equally well be ascribed to mothers of other ethnicities, from Italians through Blacks to Puerto Ricans.[34]

The association of this otherwise gender stereotype with Jewish mothers in particular, is, according to Helmreich, because of the importance that is traditionally placed by Judaism on the home and the family, and on the role of the mother within that family. Judaism, as exemplified by the Bible (e.g. the Woman of Valor) and elsewhere, ennobles motherhood, and associates mothers with virtue. This ennoblement was further increased by poverty and hardship of Eastern European Jews immigrating into the United States (during the period 1881–1924, when one of the largest waves of such immigration occurred), where the requirements of hard work by the parents were passed on to children via guilt: "We work so hard so that you can be happy." Other aspects of the stereotype are rooted in those immigrant Jewish parents' drive for their children to succeed, resulting in a push for perfection and a continual dissatisfaction with anything less: "So you got a B? That could have been an A there." Hartman observes that the root of the stereotype is in the self-sacrifice of first-generation immigrants, unable to take full advantage of American education themselves, and the consequent transference of their aspirations, to success and social status, from themselves to their children. A Jewish mother obtains vicarious social status from the achievements of her children, where she is unable to achieve such status herself.[34][35]

One of the earliest Jewish mother figures in American popular culture was Molly Goldberg, portrayed by Gertrude Berg, in the situation comedy The Goldbergs on radio in the 1929–1949 and television from 1949–1955.[36] But the stereotype as it came to be understood in the 20th century was exemplified by other literary figures. These include Rose Morgenstern from Herman Wouk's 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar, Mrs Patimkin from Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth, and Sophie Ginsky Portnoy from Portnoy's Complaint also by Roth.[37][38] Sylvia Barack Fishman's characterization of Marjorie Morningstar and Sophie Portnoy is that they are each "a forceful Jewish woman who tries to control her life and the events around her", who is "intelligent, articulate, and aggressive", who does not passively accept life but tries to shape events, friends, and families, to match their visions of an ideal world.[39]

The Jewish mother became one of two stock female Jewish characters in literature in the 20th century, the other being the Jewish-American princess. The focus of the stereotype was different than its precursors, too. Jewish writers had previously employed a stereotype of an overbearing matron, but its focus had always been not the woman, but the ineffectual man whom she dominated, out of necessity. The focus of the Jewish mother stereotype that arose was based in a shift in economic circumstances of American Jews during the 20th century. American Jews were no longer struggling first generation immigrants, living in impoverished neighborhoods. The "soldier woman" work ethos of Jewish women, and the levels of anxiety and dramatization of their lives, was seen as unduly excessive for lifestyles that had (for middle-class Jews) become far more secure and suburban by the middle of the century. Jewish literature came to focus upon the differences between Jewish women and what Jews saw as being the various idealized views of American women, the "blonde bombshell", the "sex kitten", or the sweet docile "apple-pie" blonde who always supported her man. In contrast, Jewish writers viewed the still articulate and intelligent Jewish woman as being, by comparison, pushy, unrefined, and unattractive.[39][40]

Fishman describes the Jewish mother stereotype used by male Jewish writers as "a grotesque mirror image of the proverbial Woman of Valor". A Jewish mother was a woman who had her own ideas about life, who attempted to conquer her sons and her husband, and who used food, hygiene, and guilt as her weapons. Like Helmreich, Fishman observes that while it began as a universal gender stereotype, exemplified by Erik Erikson's critique of "Momism" in 1950 and Philip Wylie's blast, in his 1942 Generation of Vipers, against "dear old Mom" tying all of male America to her apron strings, it quickly became highly associated with Jewish mothers in particular, in part because the idea became a staple of Jewish American fiction.[39]

This stereotype enjoyed a mixed reception in the mid-20th century. In her 1967 essay "In Defense of the Jewish Mother", Zena Smith Blau defended the stereotype, asserting that the ends, inculcating virtues that resulted in success, justified the means, control through love and guilt. Being tied to mamma kept Jewish boys away from "[g]entile friends, particularly those from poor, immigrant families with rural origins in which parents did not value education".[38][40] One example of the stereotype, as it had developed by the 1970s, was the character of Ida Morgenstern, mother of Rhoda Morgenstern, who first appeared in a recurring role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and later as a regular on its spinoff Rhoda.[41]

According to Alisa Lebow, in the late 20th century and 21st century the stereotype of the Jewish mother has "gone missing" from movies. She observes that there appears to have been no conscious effort on the part of screenwriters or film-makers to rewrite or change the stereotype, in pursuance of some revisionist agenda, but that it has simply fallen back a generation.[42] Despite this, the concept of the Jewish mother while declining in film can still be seen in popular culture. One use of the Jewish mother stereotype-trope can be seen in the popular television program The Big Bang Theory, which premiered in 2007, and was played by the character of Howard Wolowitz's mother who is only heard as a voice character. Mrs. Wolowitz is loud, overbearing, and over-protective of her son. In the T.V. show South Park, Kyle Broflovski, one of the main characters is Jewish and whose mother is an exaggerated caricature of the stereotypes associated with her ethnicity and role. Mrs. Broflovski is also loud, speaks with an east coast accent, is also often overprotective of her son, and has many of the physical attributes. Her husband is portrayed as a greedy and unscrupulous lawyer in the episode Sexual Harassment Panda.

Jewish-American princess

Jewish-American princess is a pejorative stereotype that portrays some Jewish women as spoiled brats,[43][44][45][46] implying materialism and selfishness, attributed to a pampered or wealthy background. This stereotype of American Jewish women has been portrayed frequently in contemporary US media since the mid-20th century. "JAPs" are portrayed as used to privilege, materialistic and neurotic.[4] An example of the humorous use of this stereotype appears in the song "Jewish Princess" on the Frank Zappa album Sheik Yerbouti. Female Jewish comedians such as Sarah Silverman have also satirized the stereotype, as did filmmaker Robert Townsend in his comedy B*A*P*S (see also Black American Princess for more information on this related pejorative stereotype).

According to Machacek and Wilcox, the stereotype of the Jewish-American Princess did not emerge until after World War II and is "peculiar to the U.S. scene".[47] In 1987, the American Jewish Committee held a conference on "Current Stereotypes of Jewish Women" which argued that such jokes "represent a resurgence of sexist and anti-Semitic invective masking a scrim of misogyny.'"[48]

The stereotype was partly a construct of, and popularized by, some post-war Jewish male writers,[49] notably Herman Wouk in his 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar[50] and Philip Roth in his 1959 novel Goodbye, Columbus, featuring protagonists who fit the stereotype.[51]

The term "JAP" and the associated stereotype gained attention beginning in the 1970s with the publication of several non-fiction articles such as Barbara Meyer's Cosmopolitan article "Sex and the Jewish Girl" and the 1971 cover article in New York magazine by Julie Baumgold, "The Persistence of the Jewish Princess".[52] "JAP" jokes became prevalent in the late 1970s and early 1980s.[53][54] According to Riv-Ellen Prell, the JAP stereotype's rise to prominence in the 1970s resulted from pressures on the Jewish middle class to maintain a visibly affluent lifestyle as post-war affluence declined.[49][55] The concept was the butt of jokes and spoofed by many, including Jews.[56]

The stereotypical subject, as described in these sources, is over-indulged by her parents with attention and money, resulting in the princess having both unrealistic expectations and guilt, accompanied by skill in the manipulation of guilt in others, resulting in a deficient love life.[52] The stereotype has been described as "a sexually repressive, self-centered, materialistic and lazy female,"[57] who is "spoiled, overly-concerned with appearance, and indifferent to sex", the last being her most notable trait.[53][54] The stereotype also portrays relationships with weak men that are easily controlled and are willing to spend large amounts of money and energy to recreate the dynamic she had during her upbringing. These men tend to be completely content with catering to her endless needs for food, material possessions, and attention.

The stereotype is often, though not always, the basis for jokes both inside and outside the Jewish community.[58] Frank Zappa was accused of antisemitism for his song "Jewish Princess", a charge which he repeatedly denied on the basis that he did not invent the concept and that women who fit the stereotype existed.[59] In recent years, attempts have been made by some Jewish women to re-appropriate the term "JAP" and incorporate it as part of a cultural identity.[55][60] It has also been criticized for its sexist basis, and for pejoratively branding young adult Jewish-American women as spoiled and materialistic.[61] Concerns about incidents of the JAP stereotype being used pejoratively at colleges and universities have been noted in newspapers, magazines and academic journals.[62][63][64]

Jewish men

Jewish lawyer

The concept of the "Jewish lawyer" is a stereotype of Jews,[65][66][67] which depicts Jews and Jewish lawyers as clever, greedy, exploitative, dishonest, and as engaging in moral turpitude and excessive legalism.[65][68] Ted Merwin writes that in the United States the stereotype became popular in the mid-to-late 20th century when Jews started entering the legal profession.[69] Jews entered the U.S. legal profession decades before the middle of the 20th century – by the time of the Great Depression, many Jews had already established themselves as lawyers.[70]

The stock character of the Jewish lawyer appears frequently in popular culture.[65][71][72] Jay Michaelson writes in The Jewish Daily Forward that the character of Maurice Levy, in the drama series The Wire, played by Michael Kostroff, is stereotypical, with a "New York accent and the quintessential pale skin, brown hair and Ashkenazic nose of the typical American Jew".[68]

This stereotyping is parodied in Breaking Bad and its spinoff series Better Call Saul, where the character Saul Goodman is an Irish-American lawyer who pretends to be Jewish-American for his clients, believing that it makes him appear more competent as a lawyer.

Nice Jewish boy

The nice Jewish boy is a stereotype of Jewish masculinity which circulates within the American Jewish community, as well as in mainstream American culture. In Israel and the parts of the diaspora which have received heavy exposure to the American media that deploy the representation, the stereotype has gained popular recognition to a lesser extent.

The qualities ascribed to the nice Jewish boy are derived from the Ashkenazic ideal of אײדלקײַט (eydlkayt, either "nobility" or "delicateness" in Yiddish). According to Daniel Boyarin's Unheroic Conduct (University of California Press, 1997), eydlkayt embraces the studiousness, gentleness and sensitivity said to distinguish the Talmudic scholar and make him an attractive marriage partner.[73]

The resistance that a Jewish male may launch against this emasculating image in his quest to become a "regular guy" has found its place in Jewish American literature. Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary, made the following comment about Norman Mailer's literary and "extracurricular" activities:

He spent his entire life trying to extirpate what he himself called the 'nice Jewish boy' from his soul, which is one of the reasons he has done so many outrageous things and gotten into trouble, including with the police. It's part of trying to overcome that life-long terror of being a sissy.[74]

For Philip Roth's semi-autobiographical avatar Alex Portnoy, neither the nice Jewish boy nor his more aggressively masculine counterparts (the churlish Jewboy, the "all-American" ice hockey player) prove to be acceptable identities to attain. The ceaseless floundering between the two fuels Portnoy's Complaint.

In literature

Jewish stereotypes in literature have evolved over the centuries. According to Louis Harap, nearly all European writers prior to the twentieth century projected the Jewish stereotype in their works. Harap cites Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise (1779) as the first time that Jews were portrayed in the arts as "human beings, with human possibilities and characteristics."[75] Harap writes that, the persistence of the Jewish stereotype over the centuries suggests to some that "the treatment of the Jew in literature was completely static and was essentially unaffected by the changes in the Jewish situation in society as that society itself changed." He contrasts the opposing views presented in the two most comprehensive studies of the Jew in English literature, one by Montagu Frank Modder and the other by Edgar Rosenberg. Modder asserts that writers invariably "reflect the attitude of contemporary society in their presentation of the Jewish character, and that the portrayal changes with the economic and social changes of each decade." In opposition to Modder's "historical rationale", Rosenberg warns that such a perspective "is apt to slight the massive durability of a stereotype".[76] Harap suggests that the recurrence of the Jewish stereotype in literature is itself one indicator of the continued presence of anti-Semitism amongst the readers of that literature.[77]

English literature

A Jew Broker by Thomas Rowlandson, 1789

Although Jews were expelled from England in 1290, stereotypes were so ingrained and so durable that they persisted in English society as evidenced by presentations in English literature, drama, and the visual arts during the almost four-hundred-year period when there were virtually no Jews present in the British Isles. Some of the most famous stereotypes come from English literature; these include characters such as Barabas Shylock, Fagin and Svengali. Negative stereotypes of Jews were still employed by prominent twentieth-century non-Jewish writers such as Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.[78]

American literature

Until the 20th century, the characterization of Jews in American literature was largely based upon the stereotypes employed in English literature.[79] Although Jewish stereotypes first appeared in works by non-Jewish writers, after World War II it was often Jewish American writers themselves who evoked such fixed images. The prevalence of anti-Semitic stereotypes in the works of such authors has sometimes been interpreted an expression of self-hatred; however, Jewish American authors have also used these negative stereotypes in order to refute them.[80]

See also


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  • William Helmreich, The Things they Say Behind your Back: Stereotypes and the Myths Behind Them (Doubleday)