The Rise and Fall—and Rise—of “Jewess”

Why are twenty-first-century women reclaiming a derogatory term?

by Daniel Krieger
In 1980, Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus, an octogenarian scholar of Jewish history, decided to title his new book about Jewish women in America “The American Jewess.” His publisher, Ktav, told him that was out of the question because the term “Jewess” was, well, offensive. Marcus, more concerned with historical truth than political correctness, didn’t really care. He compromised on the title, calling his study The American Jewish Woman: 1654–1980, but refused to remove the term from his text. “Many Jews today deem it a ‘dirty word’ and avoid it," he writes in the preface. "I believe it is a neutral descriptive noun and I use it constantly. If for some it has become a term of contempt, it is because Judeophobic Gentiles have made it so. I refuse to bow to their prejudice.”

Jewesses - illustration by Samantha Hahn
If Marcus had made it to the twenty-first century, he would’ve appreciated the latest chapter in the long and winding history of the word. In recent years, as demeaning “-ess” feminine nouns like “stewardess” and “actress” have continued to fade from use, their sister-term “Jewess” has been making a comeback. It started in 1998, when Ophira Edut created The Jewess is Loose!, a Web site on which she playfully reported the thoughts and adventures of Ophi, “a chunky, funky, quarter-finding, bagel-eating Jew” who finds herself negotiating the foreign world of Duluth, Minnesota. The following year, a heavily tattooed performance artist, the “Jewess Tattooess,” made her debut on the stages of London with a dark, taboo-breaking solo show that incorporated aspects of Yiddish theater and sideshows. Since then, a handful of blogs have popped up with names like Jewesses with Attitude, Barefoot Jewess, Cute Jewess Tells All, and most recently, plain old Jewess—all created by women who embrace their Jewish identities and use the term proudly.

Though some still find the term derogatory and best left in the linguistic dustbin, until the early twentieth-century, “Jewess” had no negative connotation. Its 1388 print debut in John Wyclif’s Bible translation inaugurates the mundane, descriptive way it would be used for centuries to come (with a touch of Middle English orthography): “Timothe, the sone of a Jewesse cristen.” In 1526, William Tyndale’s Bible gives us another humdrum example: “Felix and his wyfe Drusilla which was a iewes.” It shows up again in 1613 when the English travel writer Samuel Purchas uses it in his Pilgrimage series: “For the Virgin Mary, say they, wore the Ring on her middle finger, and therefore all Iewesses refuse that, and use the forefinger.”

Things took a turn in 1812, with the publication of Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott’s immensely popular novel, which featured the sizzling, raven-haired “Rebecca the Jewess” (played by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1952 movie). Scott used the term “Jewess” seventy-six times, preceding it often with “lovely,” “fair,” and “beautiful.” But Rebecca was ultimately branded a “sorceress” and condemned to burn for “witchery.” Scott also—intentionally or not—evoked then-prevailing stereotypes about Jewish women’s bewitching and exotic sensuality. “The exoticism was part of the way in which Americans in the early nineteenth-century thought about Jews, and it especially applied to Jewish women,” says Karla Goldman, historian in residence at the Jewish Women’s Archive, a nonprofit that explores and records the history of Jewish women in America. Goldman’s 2000 book, Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism, describes the changing roles of Jewish-American women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when American Jews began inviting Gentiles to synagogues to give them a taste of Jewish customs. Those interested in the ways of the curious people who hailed from the homeland of Jesus could stop in and check them out, as did Walt Whitman in 1842. Looking up at the gallery of a Manhattan synagogue, he observed that it "was filled with women, dark-eyed Jewesses...We found ourselves casting our glances thither quite frequently.”

But if the nineteenth century was perhaps not the worst of times for Jews in America—in spite of being seen as exotic outsiders—it was also a fruitful one for the sisterhood of words ending in “-ess.” In 1865, Sarah Josepha Hale, the “editress” of Godey’s Lady’s Book—a popular women’s monthly which ran from 1830-1878—argued for employing “-ess” terms whenever possible. “Language is rendered more direct and definite,” she wrote, and recommended fifty-eight words that would benefit from feminine endings, like “doctoress,” “Americaness,” and, of course, “Jewess.” Hale’s words did not go unheeded. In the decades that followed, the term reach peak usage.

A search of 19th-century journals, such as Vanity Fair, Appleton’s, and Catholic World, shows it was the preferred term for Jewish women, showing up hundreds of times—while the term “Jewish woman” barely appears—a pattern also found in The New York Times in the same period.

In 1895, Rosa Sonneschein, a protofeminist writer, launched The American Jewess, the first magazine geared toward the interests of Jewish American women. It promoted women's religious and social equality, in the assimilating German-Jewish American community. With a circulation of 31,000 at its height in 1897, prominent activists, rabbis and intellectuals (both male and female) wrote stories about “Jewesses” finding their places within American society and Judaism. “The early contributors had the sense that they were describing a new identity,” says Goldman, “one that they wouldn’t have been able to capture saying ‘American Jewish woman.’”

In 1899, Sonneschein’s failing health forced her to sell The American Jewess, and the new management ran the magazine into the ground. But it might not have made it much further, even in better hands. By the late 1930s, the term “Jewess” had fallen out of vogue, shifting to what Robert Burchfield, lexicographer and editor of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, in the 1996 edition called, “The new state of the word,” which was clearly derogatory. This was pointed out in 1937 in The Pittsburgh Courier by George S. Schuyler, an African-American journalist who criticized African-Americans for spurning the word “Negress,” and added, “I understand Jews are similarly unreasonable about the term Jewess.” In The New York Times, use of “Jewess” sharply dropped off in 1936, followed by a steeper decline in the 1940s (as “Negress” was on the same course); use of the term would continue to decline for the rest of the century. In 1945, H.L. Mencken wrote in The American Language that “Jewess” was “vastly disliked by Jews,” having joined the club of full-fledged ethnic slurs.


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