Immediately prior to Passover, I posted an article on Anti-Semitic Canards, a phenomenon that is all too common in what is supposed to be an enlightened era. Carey Purcell’s bewildering and poorly-received diatribe on dating, which came out in the Washington Post over the course of Passover, continues that theme quite nicely – at least as “nicely” as that adverb can apply when one finds racially-based invective in a major news source.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Purcell penned an ostensibly tongue-in-cheek essay entitled “I am tired of being a Jewish man’s rebellion.” Unfortunately, her attempts at being edgy were left in the dust by her successes at being offensive as she invoked a variety of stereotypes.
The author begins by identifying herself as “a WASP” (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant). She is identifiable as such because “I’m blond, often wear pearls and can mix an excellent, and very strong, martini. Manners and etiquette are important to me, and when I’m stressed, I often cope by cleaning.” Many readers took her self-description as in contrast to Jewish women, who must be rude, slovenly and dumpy. That may be reading a bit much into it but, later in the piece, Purcell metaphorically positions herself in the role of an exciting, motorcycle-riding bad-girl and Jewish women as boring 9-5 bankers, so there is a basis for readers to draw that conclusion.
Purcell goes on to describe how she seriously dated two men who “considered themselves culturally, but not spiritually, Jewish. At the very least, they were the most lackadaisical Jews I’d ever met.” One of these men had a mother whom Purcell describes as “extremely overbearing, somehow getting my cellphone number and calling me, asking where her son was.” Purcell says that this single phone call made her “incredibly uncomfortable” and she “told him I didn’t want this kind of involvement to be part of our relationship.” Immediately after relating this incident, Purcell laments that “I wasn’t invited to the seders that his family held, despite my saying I had loved attending them with my friends.” Many readers saw in this a sense of entitlement on Purcell’s part. After all, despite being in what she describes as a serious relationship, Purcell vehemently objects to his mother calling once, then she wonders why she doesn’t merit an invitation.
Purcell continues by describing how “both men went on to find serious partners who were, in fact, Jewish,” concluding that “dating me had been their last act of defiance against cultural or familial expectations before finding someone who warranted their parents’ approval.” Accordingly, Purcell is no longer dating Jewish men despite the fact that “(a)t almost every event I go to, they approach me.”
Purcell was criticized for quite a number of things about this essay: the way in which she contrasts her desirable blonde self with the clearly-inferior Jewish women in whose favor she was presumably jilted; her self-proclaimed adherence to manners in one of the rudest articles ever composed; invoking the “overbearing Jewish mother” stereotype; smearing an entire religion based on a sample size of two, and more.
The essay’s very publication was also quite astonishing from an editorial standpoint. As many pointed out, it would never have been run had “Jewish” been replaced by “black,” “Latino” or any other minority group. (In a previous article, I described how criticizing Jews is considered “punching up” and therefore fair game.)
Finally, Purcell blames her breakups on her boyfriends’ religion – even though they are “the most lackadaisical Jews” she’s ever met – but she acknowledges that “almost half … of married Jews in the United States have a spouse who isn’t Jewish.” So maybe it isn’t Jews, Ms. Purcell. Maybe it’s you.
There’s one point that I found largely overlooked in the reactions to this essay, and it’s perhaps the most dangerous of all the stereotypes Purcell invokes: the idea that Jewish men “defile” non-Jewish women. Such a charge is bad enough when we actually marry them but Purcell alleges that Jewish men use non-Jewish women and then discard them in favor of Jewish women. No, nothing bad could come of that claim!
You may not realize it but pop culture is replete with the idea of Jewish men pursuing non-Jewish trophy women. Just a few examples: Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint; the play Abie’s Irish Rose; Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall; the song Shiksa* (Girlfriend) by the band Say Anything. On TV, the examples are endless: Bridget Loves Bernie, Mad Men, The Big Bang Theory, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sex and the City, Downton Abbey, and many others all include the trope. Seinfeld even coined a term for it: shiksappeal (a portmanteau of “shiksa*” and “sex appeal”).
Some may shrug this off as a harmless joke but the Nazis didn’t think it was so funny. Rather, they called it Rassenschande (race disgrace) and Blutschande (blood disgrace). Hitler used this idea to foment anti-Semitism. In 1924, Julius Streicher argued that Jews who had sexual relations with non-Jews should be subjected to capital punishment. Such marriages were officially outlawed by the Nuremberg Laws in 1935; one would assume that extramarital relationships were even more heavily frowned upon. German women who permitted such an offense to be committed would have their heads shaved and be paraded through the streets wearing signs that said, “I have given myself to a Jew.” A pamphlet distributed in German schools warned that “A woman defiled by the Jew can never rid her body of the foreign poison she has absorbed. She is lost to her people.” (It should be noted that this charge is not limited to Jews. The Nazis started with Jews and expanded the idea to other races. The KKK used similar scare tactics to rile mobs against black men accused of relations with white women.)
It’s not been that long since White Supremacists were marching in Charlottesville screaming, “Jews will not replace us!” Do we really need to perpetuate a stereotype that Jewish men lustily pursue the more-desirable non-Jewish women? And if marrying them is bad, how much worse is Purcell’s scenario that Jewish men use non-Jewish women for practice before tossing them away in favor of those inferior Jewesses? I’d really rather not go there.
I don’t know Carey Purcell. She might be a perfectly lovely person who tried to write a lighthearted piece only to find that it hit a sour note. While she certainly should have realized that she was broadly generalizing based on the most anecdotal of evidence, I’m confident that her intention was not to offend (and she did, in fact, issue an apology). But intentional or not, Purcell does invoke a number of stereotypes, some more dangerous than others. I don’t expect her to know all the intricacies of Jewish history – I didn’t even see many Jews make the Rassenschande connection in their critiques of her work – so she may not have realized the full import of her words. Nevertheless, when we see people invoking anti-Semitic canards, even unintentionally, we have an obligation to move quickly and decisively to shut them down.
*I do not approve of the use of this word. I use it grudgingly as necessary to cite these works.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.