R.I.P., Shiksa

Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd in The Heartbreak Kid.

One of the distractions in the Harvey Weinstein story was cultural analyst Mark Oppenheimer’s description of Weinstein’s conduct as Jewish. He said that Weinstein was behaving as a pervy Philip Roth character would toward a “shiksa goddess.” Oppenheimer drew so much scorn for the article that he apologized for it a day later, and retracted everything he’d said.

No doubt many of the men brought down by the sexual harassment revelations have been Jewish (Leon Wieseltier, Mark Halperin, and Knight Landesman); but that underlines the fact that Jews– Jewish men anyway– are an important part of the power structure, something I’ve been stating here for a while. The news in Oppenheimer’s error is: The shiksa is dead. She was once alive and buzzing, in the Jewish and American psyche. Today she belongs to a different time and place. She has no real meaning for the public that’s observing these cases, or for Weinstein either. And that is just as well; for the term was always objectionable, something like schwartzer.

The shiksa rose through the 40s and 50s (when my uncles married them to the concern of my grandparents); but the heyday of the shiksa was the 1970s, when the two tribes of Jews and Christians were feeling one another out, and Jewish people voiced misgivings over assimilation. My parents used to say their favorite movie was The Heartbreak Kid (1972). It is a work of anti-Christian humor, from Elaine May and Neil Simon, in which a Jewish schlemiel ditches his loud wife on their honeymoon in Miami Beach and falls for an icy superficial princess played by Cybill Shepherd. The punchline of the movie is that the Charles Grodin character marries the shiksa at the end, but promptly regrets his triumph, as he looks around at her chilly Minnesota family.

The film is filled with caricature and prejudice. Jews didn’t know that other world, and they were fearful. As my wife said when she met my family, “I always heard about anti-Semitism, I saw it growing up! I never heard about anti-anti-Semitism.” My father had labeled her “Brenda Frazier,” a reference only he and she got to a famous 50s debutante from my wife’s caste, privileged Protestants. I had some of that prejudice myself. “Just because people don’t express emotions doesn’t mean they aren’t having them,” she once explained to me.

My marriage came at the apogee of the crisis in inter-tribal relations, 1991. In that year, the National Jewish Population Survey revealed that 51 percent of Jews were marrying “out,” and the community sounded the alarm about the vanishing Jew and tried to get Jews to become more tribal, with Jewish day schools and Birthright trips. That effort has largely failed; intermarriage rates are now 71 percent among the non-Orthodox, Pew said, four years ago. I assume it’s 3 out of 4 today. These people are not marrying one another out of cultural curiosity/exploration. They’re marrying because they are sociologically similar. (Harvey Weinstein is married to Georgina Chapman, a fashion designer. His first wife was also a non-Jew, said to be a WASP. This is not a person who regards Christian women across some great anguished divide.)

That’s why shiksa is dead. Shiksa was an expression of the lack of the differentiation of the other (bigotry) that only an isolated community could carry on. Jews today are not isolated. We are major cultural and media producers in the U.S. (which is one reason so many non-Jews want to marry us), and privileged Jewish and non-Jewish families are mingling intimately and getting to know one another and overcoming the sorts of distrust that produce such stereotypes.

“We’re from different tribes with different manners,” my wife said on our first date in 1989. “The only question is whether these differences become larger or smaller as we get to know one another.” That comment seems quaint today: those differences seem very small, especially as Americans have struggled with far more global questions of the Other. Shiksa derives from the word “blemish.” I know people who use the word still, but we are too advanced in a multicultural era to indulge the use of such an ugly term.