NEW YORK, SEPT. 2 -- Perhaps it was inevitable, in this age of ethnic sensitivities, that someone would rise to the defense of the much-maligned Jewish American Princess, that Long Island-based subspecies said to have an insatiable passion for Bloomingdale's and Saks and an equally strong distaste for passions of the carnal variety.
In a conference sponsored today by the American Jewish Committee, JAP jokes and related terminology were roundly denounced for perpetuating crude and hostile stereotypes.
Author Francine Klagsbrun told an overflow crowd over tuna salad that "Jewish American Princess" has become "the new anti-Semitic code word. In this day, polite Christian society would not openly make anti-Jewish slurs. But JAP is okay ... It's a way of symbolically winking, poking with an elbow, and saying, 'Well, you know how Jews are -- so materialistic and pushy.' "
Experts in JAPology say there has been a noticeable rise in JAP-baiting of late. At Cornell University two years ago, a Jewish fraternity set up a booth with a life-size inflated doll bearing the sign "Slap a JAP." At American University in Washington, two Jewish male disc jockeys were reported to have sponsored a "Biggest JAP on Campus" contest.
At basketball games this year in Syracuse University's domed stadium, pep band members pointed at expensively dressed women and led thousands in a chant of "JAP! JAP!" -- leaving female students afraid to stand up for fear of "getting JAPed." University spokesman Dan Forbush said the school ordered the band to stop the chants and cleaned up anti-Semitic graffiti on campus. But Gary Spencer, a Syracuse professor who has studied the problem, said crowds continued the JAP chant during games.
Even as today's speakers asserted that JAP ridicule has anti-Semitic overtones, they acknowledged that the genre was created by Jewish men. Moreover, the JAP image -- described by Klagsbrun as a "clever, bossy and manipulative ... bubblehead" -- is often projected onto non-Jewish women as well.
The image was forged in literature by Herman Wouk's "Marjorie Morningstar" and refined in Philip Roth's "Goodbye Columbus," Klagsbrun said. In his novel "God Knows," Joseph Heller has the biblical King David describe his first wife, Michal, as "the first bona fide Jewish American Princess" and moan about being "the first in the Old Testament to be stuck with one."
Such authors gave birth to the proverbial princess as "the receptacle for all the anger, all the confusion, all the discomfort of the Jewish male writer trying to find his way and his voice in a world outside the Jewish experience," Klagsbrun said.
Sherry Merfish, a Houston attorney, spoke of her anger at finding a greeting card that featured a nail-filing woman with five diamond rings participating in the "JAP Olympics," including such events as "cross-country kvetching, mah-jongg jump and bank vault."
Merfish, who persuaded Houston rabbis to pass a resolution condemning JAP jokes, said the stereotype "has grown from bits and pieces of reality ... Behind every Jewish American Princess crack lies a man who views every Jewish woman as grasping, demanding, empty-headed and selfish."
The earnest solemnity of today's proceedings was leavened only occasionally by disgusted quotations from JAP humor, purely for illustrative purposes.
Q. What does a JAP make for dinner?
But the speakers preferred to cite Lilith, a Jewish women's magazine, which put out a special issue this fall devoted to JAP-baiting. In that issue, Sherry Chayat, a Syracuse, N.Y., art critic, offered this list of JAP characteristics: "The credit cards that spill from her designer purse; the oversized Benetton sweater, the skinny pants tucked into bulky socks and high-top Reeboks; the cascades of jewelry, the expensive perfume, the butterfly clip in the hair; the disdainful glance, the haughty walk, the Long Island accent; the pouting and complaining, the cajoling and manipulating; the obsession, in short, with achieving the status of a precious object."
Klagsbrun agreed that some Jewish women ostentatiously display their wealth, behavior she attributed to the insecurity of the nouveau riche as they attempt to mimic the landed gentry. But while other ethnic groups have similar foibles, only JAPs rated a cover story in New York magazine, she said, adding that Jewish men would have howled if the magazine had derided them as princes.
Still, not all women see JAP humor as a threat to society. Klagsbrun said that one prominent Jewish woman, upon hearing of the conference, sniffed, "You feminists have no sense of humor."