FIGHTING TO BECOME AMERICANS by Riv-Ellen Prell

FIGHTING TO BECOME AMERICANS

Jews, Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Where do Jewish gender stereotypes, such as the JAP and the Jewish mother, come from, and why are they so persistent? Prell explains in this astute study. These and similar stereotypes, Prell theorizes, are a projection onto Jewish women by Jewish men, expressing their anxiety about assimilating into American culture, an anxiety that she claims is renewed in every generation despite Jews” apparent success at becoming Americans. In particular, men’s anxiety about attaining and remaining in the middle class becomes expressed through stereotypes of women who are excessive and voracious—whether, as in the case of the Jewish mother, emotionally all-consuming, or in the case of the JAP or her predecessor, the Young Jewish Woman in Search of Marriage, materially all-consuming. Drawing heavily on the Yiddish newspapers around the turn of the century, she paints a portrait of the first such stereotype, the Ghetto Girl, the young immigrant woman who was supporting herself and her family by her labor, and whose efforts at dressing fashionably were invariably scoffed at as tasteless and vulgar expressions of acquisitiveness. Prell devotes less energy to discussing women’s stereotypes of Jewish men (e.g., as cheap dates or spoiled princes); clearly, in her analysis, it is women who have borne the brunt of the burden. In this way, the larger society’s anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews as “the representation of excessive consumption and productivity” in a society centered on consumption and productivity, were internalized by Jews and turned into ammunition in internecine gender wars. Prell (American Studies/Univ. of Minnesota, Minneapolis), whose Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism, won a National Jewish Book Award, unfortunately couches her gutsy and imaginative theory in dry, academic prose, but she convincingly engages a range of complex issues about how men and women, Jews and gen tiles, perceive one another.

Pub Date: April 23rd, 1999
ISBN: 0-8070-3632-3
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Beacon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1999