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The Birth and Death and Rebirth of the Nice Jewish Boy

Where did this stereotype come from, and why does it linger?

I have often wondered exactly what it means to be a “nice Jewish boy,” a label ascribed to me by doting relatives between cheek pinches. While the concept has its roots in the Bible—where a a nice, bookish mama’s boy like Jacob is able to outsmart a brawny bro like Esau — the stereotype persists to this day. Drake is a nice Jewish boy. So is Daniel Radcliffe. Nice Jewish boy Anthony Ervin won Olympic gold this year in Rio. (Why can’t you be more like Anthony?)

It feels a bit ridiculous to complain about a philo-semitic trope that’s meant as a compliment, especially one that’s used by Jews themselves to attract mates (see: JDate). Nice Jewish boys are (supposedly!) good marriage material. They’re “studious.” But you don’t have to dig too hard to find the negative side to this stereotype. (And if you’re Jewish, you will.)

“Gentle, timid, studious and delicate,” is how Nathan Abrams describes the prototypical diaspora Jew in his book The New Jew in Film. These traits contrast with the stereotype of the “idealized, hyper-masculine, macho, muscled and bronzed, though not very intellectual, Jew of the Zionist project.” (In an obituary in 1904 for Theodor Herzel, Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote of the male Zionist ideal, “Our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite… because the Yid is ugly, sick and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty.”)

In the 16th century, the Jewish man was referred to in Yiddish as an Edelkayt, which translated to “nobility” and stood for “delicacy and gentleness, not bravery and courtliness,” according to Daniel Boyarin’s book Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and The Invention of the Jewish Man. But other cultures didn’t see the Jewish community’s ideal man as the OG Matt McGorry. In 1400s Italy, a rumor spread that Jewish men menstruated. The image of Jewish men deteriorated from there.

For centuries later, this diaspora Jew was frequently viewed as weak and even hysterical as a consequence of a distinctly Jewish paranoia (as well as “lack of outdoor and healthy activity,” as Abrams describes it). Thus the nebbish was born.

By the 1890s, Otto Weininger was writing in Sex and Character that “Judaism was saturated with femininity” and that the Jew was “found to approach so slightly and rarely the ideal of manhood.”

Cinema, at times, helped to combat the stereotype: Between 1913 and 1970, the Jewish Romanian actor Edward G. Robinson played gangsters and tough guys in 50 films (though many his characters were meant to be seen as Italian, not Jewish). Later, in the ’60s, Kirk Douglas appeared in Champion and Spartacus, playing a boxer and a gladiator, respectively.

An even bigger shift occurred in 1990s, when Jewish leading men came to be seen as the “vanguard of a new softer and kinder cinematic multiculturalism and cultural pluralism,” Abrams writes. They fit the metrosexual ideal: emotionally sensitive, vulnerable, tender, loving but hunky.

Today, most Jewish stereotypes have been exploded on screen with Jewish characters that contain multitudes. They are “nasty, brutish, short, stoned, solitary, unprofessional and working class,” according to Abrams.

Abrams believes you can’t understand this diversity without understanding Walter Sobchak. The Big Lebowski’s gun-toting Vietnam vet is a Jewish convert who owns a dog named Maimonides. In one scene he yells, “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax. You’re goddamn right I’m living in the past!”

Warren Rosenberg, author of Legacy of Rage: Jewish Masculinity, Violence and Culture cites another archetype-destroyer: Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus. “When I found out he was half-Jewish my 11-year-old self went nuts,” Rosenberg tells me. “Handsome, smart, and able to handle a machine gun — and he got the goyishe girl. What a dream.”

He agrees with Abrams that as images of masculinity become more complex, some of the old stereotypes about Jewish men as weak and hysterical are breaking down. “But they actually never fully go away,” he says. He noted that while it’s been 13 years since Adam Goldberg’s The Hebrew Hammer portrayed a Jewish crime-fighting vigilante, the passive stereotype persists — otherwise we wouldn’t laugh at Jews for defying it.

“Last spring, my students introduced me to Lil Dicky, a Jewish hip hop artist who, like Goldberg, seemed to be smashing stereotypes by also working off them. The fact that this current generation of students — non-Jewish students — watched and enjoyed this guy means that some of the stereotypes must still be known,” he said.

Adam Cohen, creator of the Nice Jewish Guys calendar (currently sold at Urban Outfitters) told me he thinks the negative qualities associated with the Jewish dude — good with numbers, nerdy, frail — haven’t changed, but the world has come to embrace them. “Bad boys are now computer hackers. The business titans are programmers. I think the new world order has changed at how we look at geek chic. And yeah, some nice Jewish guys might be more geekish, but they certainly ain’t weak,” he says.

Joe Goldman, a gay Jew in San Francisco, sees the other side of the coin: He thinks sometimes the golden-boy stereotype can blind other Jews to problems like toxic masculinity in the Jewish community. After his aunt was murdered by her estranged husband three years ago, he says, he encountered many Jewish people shocked to find out that a Jew could be homicidal.

“They can’t believe that a Jewish man was capable of becoming so inhumane as to murder the mother of his children. We have fed ourselves these lies as to what Jewish men are supposed to be and it’s hurting us,” Goldman says.

He thinks American Jews see what they want to see. “Israel in a way has shown us that we’re complex, at times unsavory or even outright savage. American Jews — and surely other Diaspora Jews — do not have that same frame of reference whatsoever.”

In my own life I’ve come across every type of Jewish man, and I could be seen as the embodiment of the stereotype in many ways: I’m proudly femme, and my least favorite words are, “Here, catch!” But rarely do I attribute these qualities to being Jewish; that seems reductive and almost fatalistic.

Similarly, Abrams says that younger Jews don’t seem to care about whether or not they fit the stereotype. “There’s not some sort of sense of needing to fight that. Older generations are the more PR-minded Jews,” he said.

These days, Jewish characters on TV and in film are so commonplace that Abrams struggles to find reviews that refer to them as such. He’s begun bypassing newspapers and logging on to Stormfront, a neo-Nazi site that (rather accurately, Abrams reports!) spots the Jews. (Just read this hilarious thread on Transparent.)

“Although, of course, they think the zombies are Jewish, too,” he says.