origin story / culture

Reconsidering the Jewish American Princess

How the JAP became America’s most complex Jewish stereotype.
The Jewish novelists of the midcentury — men like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and J.D. Salinger — were stewards of a new Jewish American literary canon, replete with its own set of archetypes and tropes. The first was the Jewish mother figure. Consumed by her nagging, overbearing affectations, the Jewish mother was to blame for the persistent woes of the Jewish American male — his anxiety, his neuroticism, his own assimilation failures. Her image was designed to absorb the stigmas of the old world.

Her inverse, the JAP, was entitled and withholding, designed to take blame for the stigmas of the new. If the WASP still saw the Jewish man as nouveau riche — even after so much Americanization — then surely there must have been a third party to blame. The JAP was a woman who had overshot the mark, piling on the trappings of the stable middle class like so many diamond tennis bracelets. And so, as Eve was formed from Adam, yet another negative image of women was born from man’s insecurity about himself.

Early written records of the JAP appear first in Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar, and then, more famously, in Philip Roth’s 1959 novella Goodbye, Columbus. In Goodbye, Columbus, narrator Neil Klugman is a working-class Jew living with his aunt and uncle in Newark, New Jersey. He meets love interest Brenda Patimkin at the pool at Green Lane Country Club.

Patimkin, of tony, suburban Short Hills, is the nose-jobbed, Radcliffe-educated ideal of a Jewish American woman. Emotionally strategic and materially demanding, she leads a life of domesticated excess, indulging in all the “gold dinnerwear, sporting-goods trees, nectarines, garbage disposals, [and] bumpless noses” that daddy’s money can buy.

As she gets to know Klugman, she engages in sex to speed the transition from provided-for daughter to provided-for wife. Klugman, for his part, resents these expectations as much as he resents his inability to meet them.

Though Roth did not coin the phrase JAP, he did set the baseline from which she would evolve. In these early years, the JAP was first known as the Jewish Princess, or JP. Her existence said more about Jewish male insecurity than the actual inner lives of Jewish women.

In the eyes of men, she represented one thing; due to the inequities of cultural production, we don’t know much about what she meant to women. In any case, in this first iteration, the JAP was defined by her sexual manipulation and acquisitiveness. Depending on what you had and what she wanted, she might decide to put out, or not.
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