I am a funny guy. I like to tell jokes and love to hear them, although, sadly, I forget them almost as fast as I hear them. But because I am the funny guy I just told you about, people frequently tell me jokes. Lately, they have been so-called JAP jokes and they involve not -- as you might have guessed -- Japanese, but something called the Jewish American Princess. She always gets the pie in the face.
This is a JAP joke: What does a JAP think of during sex? Shopping. This is another one: What does a JAP make for dinner? Reservations. There are many others, but they are all variations of the same theme. The so-called Jewish- American Princess is spoiled, obsessed with material things, cares only for shopping and is, in bed, sexually unresponsive. In certain parts of the county the JAP joke is called the Junior League joke, but in either case we are dealing with the same stereotype.
Maybe the first thing to say about these jokes is that they are often funny. Maybe the second thing to say about them is that they are often told by women, including Jewish women, so no one -- not even me -- can yell ethnic prejudice in any convincing way and get anyone to listen.
But both the JAP and the Junior League joke are based on prejudice. The JAP joke is based on an ethnic stereotype. It holds that Jews are more materialistic than other people and that the women are manipulative, selfish and sexual cadavers. That this conflicts with the other stereotype of the Jew as charitable and the Jewess as both sexually gifted and, as a mother, warm and caring to the point of suffocation (Portnoy, where are you when I need you?) is just more evidence that prejudice and logic are often at odds.
At one level, the joke is really about nouveau riche values. But since there is no reason to believe that nouveau riche Jews are any more crass and materialistic than nouveau riche Italians, Poles, Germans, WASPs or Hispanics, the anti- Semitic stereotype is the engine that propels the JAP joke. After all, for a joke to be funny, it has to be believed. Try telling a joke about a cheap Israeli. Now try telling one about a cowardly one.
Ironically, though, the anti-Semitic component of the joke is not its message -- not the only one, anyway. In some perverse way, anti-Semitism served to clean it up. For the JAP joke really is not just about Jewish women or Junior League women, but about all women. It's nothing but the old anti- woman joke dressed up in the glad rags of country-club anti-Semitism. This is the basic joke comedians used to tell about their wives -- the sort of joke that was a vaudeville staple until feminism and a new sensitivity wrung the humor out of it.
Interestingly, women -- including Jewish women -- are often the first to tell a JAP joke. I assume this is their way of showing that they have assimilated into the larger culture -- non- Jewish and male -- while also differentiating themselves from the stereotype. They are, in effect, saying, "See, there are women like this, but I am not one of them."
You can argue that the JAP joke and its Junior League variation represent a healthy coming-of-age for women in general and Jewish women in particular. If women can laugh at themselves and at their own stereotype -- if they can cast off the boilerplate jargon of feminism for the freedom of the real thing -- then that is healthy.
On the other hand, you can argue that these jokes represent something else entirely -- the wholesale acceptance of an ethnic or sexual stereotype based on prejudice. In that case, the fact that the victims themselves tell the jokes signals no independence or coming of age, but rather the self-contempt and yearning for acceptance that is a byproduct of bigotry. You decide for yourself, but for me, I feel the way Henny Youngman used to feel about his wife.
Take the JAP joke . . . Please.