The Conspiracy

Bagel-Chasers: On the Problem of Jewish Fetish

Don’t go chasin’ bagels. | via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t generally date non-Jews. I’m not snotty about genealogy, I think the treatment of those who intermarry is barbaric and exclusionary, and I would not be upset if I ended up marrying a non-Jewish man. That said, I do usually end up falling head over heels for young Jewish men who can understand things like “hakn mir a tshaynik” and spend more time in the sanctuary than on the soccer field. Some of this tendency comes from the circles I run in – I spend a lot of time in Jewish spaces. Another aspect is my religiosity: it is not usually the case that a non-Jewish man understands why I won’t eat brownies with marshmallows or why emailing me on Friday evening does not correlate to fast responses.

And then there’s the bit with Jew-fetish.

We’ve all heard of it: bagel-chasing (codified in Urban Dictionary), JILFs (the lo matim term, figure it out), and kosher queens. In short, it is the desire for, creation and idealization of, and pursuit for the sexualized Jews of fantasies held by many a non-Jewish man or woman.

It’s irksome, and not particularly pretty.

For reasons of tzniut (if this article can ever be called “modest”), respect for those involved, and article length, I will not go into detail about my own romantic history. Instead, I shall say that I have been essentialized one time too many to the image of a Jew. It is quite caddish, I shall remind those who are prone to say such things, to tell someone that they “look so classically Jewish, bent over like that over the stove” – and it is definitely very unsettling to hear that. I have been propositioned with the salutation “Hey there Mr. Rabbi Man,” followed by some, well, fairly graphic ideas. These were disgusting, but temporary.

More disgusting was the feeling that I was some sort of conquest by some. “Oh look, I’m dating a Jew.” “Aren’t I so progressive, a Catholic asking a Jew out?” There was, in these men, significant pride in being attracted to and interested in a Jew – not in me, just in my Jewishness. For a while, I was one of the few out, observant Jews on my campus, and it felt like I had been asked out by many for my novelty factor than out of general interest.

I felt like a zoo attraction. And it was not a happy feeling. I felt alone; yet I also suspected I was far from isolated.

Spelunking on Google and awkward conversations with friends revealed that I wasn’t alone in this experience. Firstly, many of my close Jewish friends – women particularly – had run into similar problems. Sometimes, it was by the type who is looking to “add” to his collection – a sexualized, rather disturbing “Pokémon, gotta catch ‘em all” mentality. Sometimes, the idea of submission was romanticized – the “oppressed” Jewish woman being liberated by the goyishe savior. Sometimes, it was simply curly hair. All had run into problems with certain Jewish practices being not palatable to their partners because of “ew factor,” Hebrew content, or general “un-sexiness.” Google revealed one narrative of a woman whose non-Jewish fetishizer had Nazi-on-Jew fantasies. It was comforting to know that I was not the only person who had been objectified for my faith, heritage, and cultural attachments. But it also reminded me that I can’t escape.

Jew-fetish, after all, is quite easily found in the wider world. Remember when, a few years ago, Jewish girls were all the craze? Natalie Portman and Nigella Lawson were the pop culture crushes du jour, and the fantasized, hyped-up, objectified image of the supposedly buxom and curvy yiddishe mama graced [straight] men’s magazines, Hollywood billboards, and adverts across the country. “Old World” was all the rage in dating profiles. Nor were men spared: with the meteoric rise in popularity of actors such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, you also now have the idealization and objectification of the Jewish man.

It’s all well and good for Jewishness to be considered beautiful. But there’s another side.

One of the proposals for the origin of fetishization is the idea that Jewishness represents an “exotic” attraction: the idea of sexualizing and engaging physically with an “other” group. I find such exoticization problematic for three reasons. Firstly, as other writers have also noted, it contributes to the idea of Jewishness as a “problematic” other. If we are always “exotic,” we are never “normal”; if we are “exotic,” we are always there to be “normalized.” “Conquered.” “Liberated.”

Secondly, we never get to really own our Judaism for ourselves in this context. As volumes of academic literature note, our Jewishness is constantly owned, defined, and re-determined by others, not just ourselves. We don’t need to be redefined again as “not Jewish enough” just because we don’t meet someone’s harebrained sexual fantasies of the “good Jewish hottie.” I myself was told that I wasn’t really Jewish by a (non-Jewish) ex because I didn’t meet his definition of a “real Jew.”

Finally, most exoticized Jews are Ashkenazi Jews – and thus “white.” If we’re being made “exotic,” we are the “exotic but still white” – and thus inserted into another perpetuation of racist structures.

Yet in the personal realm the irritation of this fetishization transforms into a very material reality. It is quite unsettling and very degrading to be essentialized as such. If we understand, however, what happens when we’re treated as a “token” Jew for a “collection,” we can push back. Date us, love us, want us, but do so for who we are as individuals, not to meet some fantasy’s idiotic terms.

I am still unsure how I feel about non-Jews; but examining such a fetish – within my own experience and within that of other Jews – has made me feel more confident. Perhaps, perhaps, I would feel safer if I knew that the other gentleman was attracted to me – and not to a construct. (Well, we’ll see what happens.)

Jonathan Paul Katz is a student at the University of Chicago.

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