A different kind of ‘ugly holiday sweater’

Cryptologic Technician (Maintenance) 2nd Class Eva MacFarland models a Hanukkah sweater during a Coalition of Sailors Against Destructive Decisions (CSADD) sponsored Ugly Holiday Sweater contest aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Gridley (DDG-101). Click photo to download. Caption: U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet.

By Cindy Sher

The “CupGate” controversy that brewed this week over the holiday imagery that wasn’t printed on Starbucks cups was, in a word, dumb. 

But the holiday message that was emblazoned on sweaters for sale at Nordstrom’s—garnering far less media attention—is way more disturbing

The department store is the latest to pull offensive Jewish merchandise from its shelves and website. This time, the item in question was a Hanukkah sweater embroidered with the words “Chai Maintenance” on the top and “Hanukkah J.A.P.” on the bottom.

J.A.P., which stands for Jewish American Princess, is a derogatory term used to attack Jewish women. As a Jew and a woman—and as an evolved person in general—I’m sick of this worn-out, gross stereotype, which portrays all Jewish women as spoiled gold diggers. It's, in fact, the exact antithesis of core Jewish values centered around the concepts of tzedakah (charity, justice), gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness), and tikkun olam (repairing a broken world).  

The Nordstrom’s sweaters follow in a long line of major fashion chains, including Zara and Urban Outfitters, that have messed up and apologized for offensive merchandise directed at the Jewish community.  

In recent years, Zara and Urban Outfitters have done a mea culpa for selling clothing featuring yellow stars and other designs reminiscent of the Holocaust.  And back in 2004, after being flooded with complaints, Urban Outfitters discontinued selling its controversial tee, part of a line of ethnic T-shirts.

One shirt, for example, read: “Everyone loves a Catholic girl with miniature crucifixes decorating the slogan, while another declared “Everyone loves an Italian girl,” illustrated with pizza drawings. The Jewish-themed shirt, with a far less innocuous tone, read “Everyone loves a Jewish girl,” surrounded by dollar signs and purses. 

We in the Jewish community should worry what these toxic stereotypes represent, concepts synonymous with money and materialism.  

The JAP image has been around a long time. It dates back to the 1950s, when Jews themselves, outsiders in a new land, coined the term as a defense mechanism, according to Riv-Ellen Prell, a University of Minnesota anthropologist and professor of American studies. Then, in the 1970s, the image grew in popularity when consumerism took hold. But today, even though we are no longer outsiders, the JAP stereotype has stuck.  

And the origins of the rich/greedy Jew, in general, originated even further back—born many centuries ago when Jews were relegated to occupations dealing with money. Ever since, throughout history, Jews have been targets of this hateful stereotype, an image that came to a head in Nazi Germany when Hitler employed it as a tool in the initial stages of his hate campaign against the Jewish people. The Holocaust is our most tragic reminder of what happens when a stereotype becomes accepted as a general truth, an accurate way to portray an entire people. Yet, we seem to have forgotten the lessons of the past. 

In today’s global climate, when anti-Semitism, cloaked at times as anti-Israel sentiment, is rampant around the world and on our own college campuses, at a time when we’ve seen a reemergence of anti-Semitism in a way not seen since World War II, we have even more motivation to dispel ugly stereotypes.

This obsession with materialism has no kernel of truth in my circle of Jewish girlfriends. It just gives my demographic a bad—and false—rap. There’s the argument that some Jewish women are “princesses.” Yep, that’s true. But there are also Jewish “princes” and non-Jewish “princesses” and non-Jewish “princes” out there because, well, it’s a big world with all kinds of people—many of whom I wouldn’t choose to befriend. In fact, there are people of every ethnicity, sex, race, sexual orientation, and religion that fit every stereotype—and yet those images don’t creep their way onto seasonal sweaters.

Cindy Sher

So next time, retailers, you're brainstorming holiday wear, I've got a tip for you: Take a cue from the most popular coffee chain in the country and consider selling plain, solid-colored merchandise--even if it is a little more boring. 

Because sometimes less is more. 

The Hanukkah sweater, pulled from Nordstrom’s, is still available on Amazon.com without the J.A.P. reference.

Cindy Sher is the executive editor of Chicago’s JUF News, where this story first appeared.

Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.

Posted on November 13, 2015 .