In France, they called me Monica—and boy, was that the joke that wouldn’t quit. They chuckled “Monica” when I walked down the street, winked “Monica” when I picked up a baguette, sniggered “Monica” when I bought a bottle of wine … Read More
In France, they called me Monica—and boy, was that the joke that wouldn’t quit. They chuckled “Monica” when I walked down the street, winked “Monica” when I picked up a baguette, sniggered “Monica” when I bought a bottle of wine at the corner store. This was back in 1998, the post-college year I spent loafing in Paris, and here’s the weird part: At first I didn’t even know what they were talking about. My name was, and is, Lauren.
“Non, non, Mon-ee-ka!” exclaimed my pal Eric, making a vulgar gesture with his hand and his mouth. Eric was a balding Parisian who waited tables at the restaurant next door to my apartment. We smoked cigarettes together, and if I came in to the restaurant during the late afternoon, he’d give me free bowlfuls of runny rice pudding.
“Mon-ee-ka Levinsky!” Eric said, then looked at me questioningly. “I am saying it right? Tu comprends?”
He was saying it right, but I was not comprending at all. Did the people on the street, at the boulangerie, at the wine shop—did they really think I was Monica Lewinsky? No, that couldn’t be it—as far as the world knew, Monica was sequestered somewhere in DC with her lawyers. So then they must have thought I looked like her—but I didn’t look like Monica any more than I looked like Brigitte Bardot (which is to say, sadly, not at all). So what was it, then, that the French found so Monica-esque about me?
“I hardly resemble Monica Lewinsky,” I informed Eric. “She has long hair. And a teeny nose. And she’s, you know…” I tried to make the international gesture for “chubby,” tracing the outlines of a round woman’s figure in the air with my hands.
“Yes,” Eric said thoughtfully. “But of course,” he added, “she is Jewish, no?”
“Monica?” I blinked. “I guess.”
“So then you see.” He shrugged one of those awful Gallic shrugs and lit a cigarette. “She is Jewish, you are Jewish. You have that Jewish face, that body. Very, sexy. Very beautiful. But it is the face and the body of,”—here a thoughtful exhale of cigarette smoke—“a Jewess.”
When I didn’t respond for several moments, Eric’s expression shifted from worldly to anxious. “I said the wrong thing, heh? The right word is not Jewess? That is a bad word?”
Jewess. It’s certainly better than a hundred other derogatory names you could call a Jew. But still it rankles. The word Jewess brings to my mind heavy locks of thick black hair, long skirts, clinking bracelets, a musky odor. A Jewess sounds juicy and slightly dirty, like a lot of other words that end in the feminine suffix -ess: mistress, seductress, stewardess. Never mind that most of the Jewish women I know are wildly overworked, too stressed to be seductive. Never mind that in their current pop-culture depictions, Jewish women tend to be emasculating shopaholic Princesses bearing Daddy’s AmEx, not shaking tambourines. And never mind that, as far as clinking bracelets and long skirts go—that ain’t the Monica I picture, and it sure as hell isn’t me.
Intrigued, I did a little digging on the subject. First of all, it was no shock that I came face to face with the term in France. The Jewess, or “la Juive” in the native tongue, seemed to be an especially French construction, rife with all the dualities that France shows its own Jewish population. In the literature of Balzac and de Maupassant she was a courtesan, while in de Goncourt she was the buxom model of a Christian painter. Chateaubriand claimed that the Jewess’s beauty was compensation to the accursed, humiliated Jewish man; Alexandre Dumas warned that the wily Jewess could, snake-like, loosen the morals of French society. The Jewess even got her own French opera, Fromental Halévy's La Juive, in which she played, à la The Merchant of Venice, the gorgeous daughter of a tyrannical hook-nosed Jew.
These days, the sexy Jewish woman, both in France and elsewhere, is the subject of a different kind of fascination. To some, she’s a bronzed lady of leisure, tanning in South Beach or shopping at Saks. To others, she’s the whiny, raven-tressed Nanny from the sitcom of the same name. And to still others, she remains the Orientalized Other; if you have the misfortune of visiting a skinhead website you’ll see the nineteenth century Jewess stereotype lives on in all its terrible Alexandre Dumas incarnations. But for most people, the platonic form of the sexy Jewish female is “that woman” from Beverly Hills who sucked on Bill Clinton’s cigar.
Even now, eight years after the Lewinsky scandal, Monica’s impact remains profound. She is the lascivious “portly pepperpot,” a lingering late-night television joke. Certain ultra-Orthodox Jews hail her as a modern-day Queen Esther. Golda Meir doesn’t score a quarter of her name recognition, and Gloria Steinem doesn’t get an eighth. For better or worse, she is the Jewess of our age.
“But it does say something about us, doesn’t it?” This was from an acquaintance of mine, a Jewish woman a few years older than me. We were at a café in Manhattan a month after I’d returned from Paris, talking about the newly-released Starr Report, which had been printed in the Times in its full filthy ickiness.
“ ‘According to Ms. Lewinsky,’” she read, “ ‘she performed oral sex on the President; he never performed oral sex on her.’ It’s so typical. Jewish women are such givers. They give and give and give. Even when there’s no hope of receiving.”
“You know, I’m not sure the Starr report is a testament to the Jewish woman’s generosity,” I said, shuffling the Times to a different section.
I headed home unnerved. When I was in Paris, whatever discomfort I had felt about the whole Monica-Lauren vector I had attributed in part to the general discomfort of being an expat. But here, back on home turf—New York City, the Jewish capital of the world!—I still couldn’t shake that feeling of indictment.
It’s not that I was a prude, exactly, but I had always been averse to talking about sex in public. And now I felt like the whole world was talking, not just about Monica’s sex life, but also, by extension, my sex life. All of our sex lives. De Goncourt’s Jewess was reclaiming her place on the public stage, crowding out our own ideas of ourselves.
At the end of that summer, the knot tightened. The House Judiciary Committee announced that it would release the tapes of Bill Clinton’s X-rated grand jury testimony on September 21, which just happened to be the first day of Rosh Hashanah—the first day of the year 5759. Was this anti-Semitism at its most insidious? Making our New Year a national smut fest? Why couldn’t the House Judiciary Committee have waited one more day? September 22 would be a very nice day to humiliate the President too.
Desperate for someone to gripe with, I called my mother in New Jersey. A wickedly smart woman, she is usually a reliable source of good old-fashioned Jewish liberal indignation. But all she said was, “Well, I’m glad I’ll be in shul so I don’t have to watch.”
“But Mom!” I sputtered. “Don’t you see? It’s like they’re waiting for all the Jews to be in temple so they can talk behind their backs about what it’s like to fuck one of them!”
“Watch your language,” my mother said. “So will you be joining us for erev Rosh Hashanah services or what? You need your dad to pick you up at the bus station?”
“Mom!” I said, dismayed at her lack of dismay. “Don’t you get it? Monica’s a Jew. They’re airing the testimony on a high holiday. This is totally all about the Jews!”
“Listen to yourself,” my mother chuckled. “You sound like one of those people who boycotts the Times when they write a good review of an Arab movie. Listen, if you could pick up two challahs on your way to the bus station that would be a help.”
Really, who had time for self-definition in the days before Rosh Hashanah? The leaves were changing, the air was cooling, there was poultry to roast and apples to cut up and serve with honey. Kids needed to be picked up from airports and bus stations, and grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were preparing to take their places at the holiday table. This was what mattered. This was what was real.
On the day before Rosh Hashanah, most Jewish women I know go to work, hurry home, order someone to set the table, heat up the soup, pour glasses of Manischevitz, pass bowls of chopped liver and candied nuts, serve and eat a big dinner, put on their good suits, go to synagogue, and pray. They do not contemplate how Monica’s blowjob defines perceptions of their sexual identity. Their minds are on bigger things.
Two days after talking to my mother I sat by her side at Rosh Hashanah services. I listened to the rabbi begin his prayers. I listened to the rabbi’s son blow the shofar. I knew that it was time to stop my Monica-mania and my paranoia; it was a new year now. After services, I did not read the paper, nor did I turn on the television. Instead, I took a walk to the local creek. Throwing my bread down the river, I let myself off the hook.
GO: Want to hang out with a bunch of Jewesses doing Jewessy stuff? Head over to the launch of Aish New York's women's division on November 12. Aish says that "soulful diva Esther Neistein" will be performing!