The how and why of ‘Jewy’

The how and why of ‘Jewy’

“I come from a long line of Jewy-looking Jews. My dad was twice-named Schnoz Magazine’s ‘Man of the Year.’” — comedian and talk show host Scott Rogowsky, HEEB magazine

“‘My partner Rob Wilder and I both grew up Jewish and eating a lot of European Jewy style food,’ [Chef Anthony] Rose explains to us.” — “Shalom Life” (Toronto)

“Howard Jacobson promised to make his conversation with David Baddiel at the Cheltenham Literature Festival yesterday ‘not too Jewy,’ as they discussed Jacobson’s latest, Booker-nominated book, J.” — London Evening Standard

Funny, you don’t look Jewy. Or maybe you do. Long black coat, black hat, beard? To some, “Jewy” means unmistakably Jewish or, even, “too Jewish.”

Or maybe you have tight brown curls, a healthy nose, and liked to shop with your mom at Loehmann’s. That’s Jewy too, in the sense that you’d rather spend a Sunday afternoon watching Adam Sandler movies with your old Camp Ramah friends than go sailing. Or hunt. 

“Jewy” may not be the new black (or even black hat), but it is a word to be reckoned with. The examples above appeared just last week alone. JTA, the venerable Jewish news service, recently reported on the “Top three Jewy moments at the Oscars.” Jill Soloway, who created the series Transparent for Amazon, told Rolling Stone that an actress “just seemed too Jewy” to play a character conceived as tan and blonde.

So what’s with Jewy?

The first thing to note is that the word is not anti-Semitic — or not necessarily. The second thing to note is that it is mostly, if not exclusively, used by Jews to talk about other Jews or Jewish phenomena.

The Urban Dictionary defines Jewy as “referring to the outward manifestations of Jewish identity such as appearance, clothes, accent, or religious observance.” That’s a start.

The Jewish English Lexicon, the crowd-sourced, on-line glossary, digs a little deeper. Initially, it defined Jewy as “demonstrating stereotypical or conspicuous appearance or behaviors that identify one as a Jew.” At some point I added, “Highly identified Jewishly, either outwardly in terms of actions and affiliations, or inwardly based on self-definition.” And, amateur lexicographer that I am, I added this usage note: “There are two distinct senses of ‘Jewy.’ The first can sometimes be disparaging, since it refers to stereotypical behaviors or qualities. The second suggests someone or something that is the opposite of assimilated, and can be either positive or negative, depending on the user.”

The distinction is subtle. You may use “Jewy” out of embarrassment, like the Jewish guy who sees the Chabad mitzva tank up ahead and crosses the street. But it can also be neutral or admiring. Your college friend who usually had dinner at Hillel on Friday nights before coming out to the parties? Jewy. 

A profile of Soloway in the Forward is a primer on “Jewy,” and not just because it sets a record for using the word and its cognates, starting with its title: “How Jill Soloway Created ‘Transparent’ — the Jewiest Show Ever.”

Author Debra Nussbaum Cohen distinguishes between Transparent and other series with Jewish themes or characters, where “Jewishness amounts to little more than pairing Jewish touchstones like babkas and brisses with ambivalence about Jewish identity and ritual as the fulcrum for jokes.” By contrast, she writes, Transparent depicts a family “connecting with Jewishness in fits and starts, treating Judaism in an intimate and lovingly familiar way.” The show even features a “fully-fleshed out” female rabbi as a key character.

“It is so Jewy,” says Soloway. “We got away with that much Jewiness? I can’t believe it.”

Soloway’s background reinforces the distinction between Jewish and Jewy. There are plenty of Jews in Hollywood; Soloway is rare among them in that she is active in regular Jewish activities. She is a cofounder of East Side Jews, which calls itself “an irreverent, upstart, non-denominational collective.” It offers informal Friday night meals, alternative High Holy Day services, and weekend retreats called “LA Exodus.” Its members may not be deeply observant, but they are hardly “secular” in the sociological sense. 

The Pew study found that 62 percent of Jews say being Jewish is “mainly a matter of ancestry and culture.” Only 15 percent say it is “mainly a matter of religion.” That would suggest a stark choice between secular and assimilated on one hand, and religious and observant on the other.

But “Jewy” suggests something in between. To be labeled “Jewy” means you don’t just identify as a “cultural Jew,” but you affirm that identity in consistent and meaningful ways. A Jewy Jew may belong to a synagogue, but might get together once a month with a havura for potluck. A Jewy Jew may count himself as a good progressive, and remain attached to Israel, often strongly. A Jewy Jew plays in a rock and roll band, but not on Friday nights. 

“Jewish” is static — it describes an accident of birth or upbringing. “Jewy” is dynamic — it assumes affirmative Jewish choices. With apologies to Lenny Bruce, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jon Stewart are Jewish; Natalie Portman and Mayim Bialik are Jewy.

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