Buzzfeed, the “hip” online website that features everything from politically oriented news pieces to personality quizzes to celebrity gossip, is an online favorite for zoning out and giving brains a silly pseudo-intellectual quick-blast sugar fix. Some people despise the website for being too “Millennial” in tone. Others seem to not get enough of articles about why it’s so cool to meet garbage collectors as a little kid, lists delineating how “perfect” the tribute to Finn at the ending of “Glee” was, quizzes on spotting items in a New York City bodega, and the like. Most of the pieces on Buzzfeed are harmless fluff or simple quick reads (I’d recommend going elsewhere for news updates, though, but that’s just me).
What hasn’t been so fluffy on Buzzfeed, though, is its attitude toward Jewish people–more specifically, anyone who isn’t your stereotypical white and Ashkenazi Jew.
Some of their editors proved to just be doofus-y this past year when they taste-tested Ashkenazi dishes–what they labeled as “Jewish food”. Of course, don’t you know, this is the only kind of Jewish food in existence. These guys work in New York City and don’t even know, somehow, about Israeli fare, let alone other kinds of Jewish food. They’re in their cubicles too much to actually go out for lunch instead of ordering in from the same old places, I suppose.
I wouldn’t necessarily call that video offensive as much as just stupid and annoying. When it was first released, I know that lots of other Sephardim were as annoyed as I was over how everything was labeled as “Jewish food” while our dishes were nowhere to be seen. Granted, perhaps it was best that our foods weren’t made fun of by Buzzfeed and we shouldn’t have complained about it too loudly. I certainly would rather there not be a follow-up video of some sort mocking hamin or bourekas. The first video was obnoxious enough.
Buzzfeed saw fit to try to be cute with the Jewish community again, though, with a recent video entitled “11 Things Jewish Friends Just Get”. Oh, wow, did this one get on my nerves, way more so than the Jewish food video. Like, “piss me off” get on my nerves. What’s more, even non-Jewish friends of mine found this video offensive. They saw the stereotypes and were left feeling uncomfortable. The Ashkenormativity of this video has already been tackled by other writers online in one fell swoop, but allow me to tackle the narrowmindedness of the video a bit more deeply along with the other ways that the video offends me (and others), Buzzfeed style, on my own:
Here are my Four BIG Reasons Why Buzzfeed Literally Does Get It, Isn’t Cute, And Needs To Sit Down And Shut Up:
1. Not all of us speak Yiddish left and right. And let’s not forget that Yiddish is an actual language.
I mostly only speak bits of Yiddish around non-Jews when I’m really annoyed about something and two inches from ranting about something full throttle, since that’s what I heard people do when I was growing up. I learned most of what Yiddish I know from my Italian family who lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Long Island, New York. I admittedly picked up a little more from watching “The Nanny” and from hanging around off-the-derech Jews who grew up in places like Monsey, New York, people who actually did grow up speaking nothing but Yiddish. But, most of the Yiddish I know, I learned from my Italian family.
The only other times that I speak any Yiddish are when I’m at my synagogue and hear others using Yiddish words, or when I say “shul” in regular conversation because, well, it’s less syllables than “synagogue”. It’s not much if at all, and certainly not like it’s portrayed in this video. I only speak Yiddish when I’m annoyed or when I’m in shul, or talking about shul. That’s hardly what’s portrayed in this video, and I’m hardly an oddball Jew. Many Jews I know are like that, actually, or speak far less if any Yiddish at all. If you come to my primarily post-Soviet Jewish neighborhood, you probably won’t hear any Yiddish anywhere. That doesn’t make anyone here any less of a Jew.
As for my Ashkenazi friends, many are struggling to learn the actual Yiddish language because the last person in their family who actually spoke it for real was their grandmother or great-grandmother. They don’t necessarily want to see the ability to speak it die off in their families. I can resonate with that respect for a language: I’m facing it with my own family and the fact that none of us can speak Italian anymore on my father’s side. I wish we could say more than “mangia” or a few other random words. Some Protestant caseworker forced my great-grandfather from Calabria to speak only English when he got off the boat, and he was terrified of any of us learning to speak Italian as a result.
It’s sad to see the ability to speak a language die off in a family. It’s like losing a limb. Yiddish may be alive and well in Hassidic enclaves like aformentioned Monsey, but for most Ashkenazi Jews I know, as Italian is for me, it’s something that’s being clutched onto desperately. I mention it as something to think about.
2. I don’t know one single Jew who determines when Chanukah is by when their grandmother sends them a check in the mail. The holiday is not all about money, and I fervently believe it shouldn’t be.
We Jews aren’t all about money, either. I’ve heard Jews from the former Soviet Union say that they hate being Jewish because we’re money hungry all the time–something they were taught in their own schools in the USSR. When I meet people who actually hate themselves so much because they were indoctrinated by their own government with hateful lies like these, I just can’t find the humor. At all. Why does this hurt to witness so much?
Imagine a young Russian Jewish woman, now living in America with her parents, deciding to be the first Jew in her family to light Shabbat candles in who knows how many generations, without fear of government retribution. Imagine her father coming in, seeing this, and flying into a rage, smacking her across the face and blowing the candles out. Imagine her relaying all of this to me, along with the statement about Jews being obsessed with money in a very matter-of-fact way–to me, the convert–at a sukkah at a Chabad house, her heart breaking as much as mine. Now imagine me watching this Buzzfeed video. Sorry, but I’m not laughing. And I’m not about to “lighten up” just to make someone else more comfortable, either.
3. The term “JAP” isn’t for Buzzfeed to play with.
This is word is for us Jewish sisters, not anyone else, to take power over it and make it our own. WE are the ones who must choose to own it. WE are the ones who must decide when to say it. Not someone who isn’t Jewish, and definitely not Buzzfeed, regardless of who on their staff may have made that video. Period.
Think we’re not talking about something hateful, though? Well, let’s talk about the time I was waiting for a subway train and some non-Jewish guy walked by me, saw my Magen David necklace, and said “Yeah, I can never get with JAP girls like you, you’re too expensive”. I then shot him the southern Italian glare that I inherited from my great-grandfather, and he noticed that I was also wearing an IDF teeshirt and combat boots. He very quickly walked down to the other end of the platform as I clenched my fists and took a defensive posture. He realized quickly that this “JAP” was ready to defend herself and go Ziva David from “NCIS” on him.
I’m a very friendly, mostly harmless individual, but I’m not going to take any crap and do know some martial arts. Push me with anti-Semitism, and yes, I will fight back like a Mossad agent. I don’t mind being treated like a princess, I don’t resent the word, but if I’m going to be called a JAP, I’m going to be the one calling the shots with the use of the term, not someone else.
4. Let’s tackle that last bit of the video in one fell swoop because there is just way too much to cover and it is so super uncomfortable:
Not all Jews are Democrats, and that is okay. Not all Jews have jobs, and that is also okay (I’m on disability, and anyone who thinks it’s not okay isn’t worth my time). And even people who are outside of the Jewish world frequently know that there is a lot of disagreement over whether or not it is okay for a Jew to marry someone who is not Jewish: it can be enough to divide some even some mildly observant families. I can’t claim to feel comfortable with the debating regarding intermarriage by a long shot, simply because I’ve seen it cause drama and pain for several good friends of mine.
Either way, with any of the above, that was such an obnoxious thing to claim: that all Jews are Democrat and have jobs, and that all we look for in spouses are Democrat voter registration and employment. Stereotype, stereotype, stereotype. And, they’re ones that I’ve seen cause painful challenges even in my own synagogue’s congregation. We’ve worked very hard to address them in thoughtful, meaningful ways, too, because these challenges can either ostracize members or bring us closer together, and we’d of course prefer the latter. We’ve seen other congregations ignore these things like elephants in the living room and witnessed their memberships dwindle as a result.
This isn’t to say that I don’t get that this video was supposed to be satire (though it fails at it in my opinion), or that it’s supposed to play on stereotypes for a laugh (again, fail, I didn’t laugh and the minority of people I know who watched it and laughed stopped when they saw the JAP part). The problem is that it’s reckless with the stereotypes. We don’t need these things perpetuated: we need them to be dismantled because of the harm that they do. I’ve had one non-Jewish friend tag me on Facebook with this video as one of two Jewish friends of hers, thinking this video was hilarious and oh, wouldn’t I think it’s funny, too. How was I supposed to explain to her that the video didn’t represent me as a Sephardi Jew, let alone how hurtful so much of it was?
Luckily, the Sephardi part was covered by that blog post from The Forward, and I was able to introduce it with a quick comment about how saying “JAP” isn’t cute. I didn’t say enough to her, though, and I’m hoping as I write this that I don’t have to say anything more to anyone else, at least not before this goes to print. It’s bad enough when I have to explain other uncomfortable topics in the Jewish community on Facebook, like the agunah crisis, to non-Jewish friends, who then ask why I even want to be Jewish (see my piece on what I tell them in response). Having to clean up a mess made by a stupid Buzzfeed video sucks.
Here’s hoping that I won’t have to do much more of it.
Gavriela hails originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but now resides in Forest Hills, New York. She has a Masters degree in clinical social work from Temple University and is a dedicated volunteer in the animal rescue community. Gavriela is a major science geek and finds that her love of science strengthens her belief in G-d and vice versa, contrary to what others might expect.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.