RELIGION
11/21/2014 03:14 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2014

How the Jewish Boy Got So Nice

This article originally appeared in the November/December issue of Moment Magazine. For more go to momentmag.com.

Maybe you know one. Maybe you want one. Maybe you are one. Go to JDate.com, and you’re guaranteed to find one:

“I’m just a nice Jewish boy who loves his mother’s cooking.”

“Message me if you are looking for a nice Jewish boy who values family, respect and loyalty.”

“I’m a nice jewish girl looking for a nice jewish boy lol, now how cliché does that sound?”

The search for a nice Jewish boy (NJB) is lodged deeply—and ambivalently—in the Jewish-American psyche. But why are Jewish boys so special, and how did they get so nice?

The story begins in the Bible, where the best men are portrayed as more brain than brawn (see: the bookish Jacob, who outsmarts his burly brother Esau). In the Book of Proverbs, a man is instructed to treat his wife with respect: “Have joy with your wife… Be always occupied in your love towards her.”

But it wasn’t until the Babylonian Talmud that Jews came up with a blueprint for the ideal man, says Daniel Boyarin, historian of religion at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Unheroic Conduct. Gentle, pious and scholarly, this new model was the original Yeshiva bocher—a stark contrast to the traditional Roman warrior of the time.

By the 16th century, this Jewish archetype had a name: edelkayt. The Yiddish word—which derives from edel, or noble—referred to “a quality of gentleness, almost softness,” says Boyarin. Yet this “ideal Jewish male femme” was also the pinnacle of manliness, a sexual force to be reckoned with. Call him the original metrosexual.

Other cultures twisted the feminized edelkayt into something negative. An early anti-Semitic myth of medieval Europe was that Jewish men menstruated, perhaps as a result of their womanly excesses or dealings with the devil.

Things only got worse with Freud. In the 1890s, the Austrian-Jewish therapist put forth the idea of homosexuality as mental illness. At the time, homosexuals were identified by their feminine traits—and who better fit that description than the Jewish man? “The most manly Jew is more feminine than the least manly Aryan,” wrote the Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger.

This became the basis for considering Jews degenerate, says Boyarin. “What was taken as a very positive way of being in the world gets transmuted into a nebbishy, ineffective—particularly sexually ineffective—character of someone like Woody Allen.”

When Zionism gained momentum in the early 20th century, its founders sought to distance the new Israeli from the stereotype of the weak, effeminate Jew. “Our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite,” wrote Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. “Because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty. The Yid has accepted submission and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to learn how to command… the Hebrew should look the world straight in the eye and declare: ‘I am a Hebrew!’”

This prescription didn’t apply in America, where Jewish-American immigrants faced a different problem: assimilation. For parents, it became imperative to find their children partners who would a) produce more Jews, and b) afford them a “pleasant, secure, respectable, class-appropriate domesticity,” says Daniel Boyarin’s brother Jonathan, a professor of modern Jewish culture at Cornell University. “To me this phrase’s natural home is in a parent’s mouth, saying to a daughter, ‘Why don’t you find a nice Jewish boy?’”

For Jewish men, this well-meaning wish had unintended consequences: The NJB was yet another stereotype to overcome on their way to becoming truly American. “Philip Roth was one of the most important authors to blow this out of the water: that this was a debilitating thing to the Jewish male, rather than a wonderful thing,” says Neil Davison, associate professor of modern Jewish culture at Oregon State University. In Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Alexander Portnoy rails against his overbearing Jewish mother by becoming a deviant obsessed with shiksas and sex. “Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz!” he cries. “Enough!”

Norman Mailer, too, struggled to throw off the curse of the Jewish weakling. Mailer “spent his entire life trying to extirpate what he himself called the ‘nice Jewish boy’ from his soul…to overcome that lifelong terror of being a sissy,” according to Norman Podhoretz, former editor-in-chief of Commentary Magazine.

Did he succeed? Doubtful. In his 1968 book Armies of the Night, Mailer describes himself (also the protagonist) as a “radical intellectual, existential philosopher, hard-working author, champion of obscenity, husband of four battling sweet wives, amiable bar drinker, and much-exaggerated street fighter, party giver, hostess insulter.” And yet, in the end, he cannot escape “a fatal taint, a last remaining speck of the one personality he found absolutely insupportable—the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn.”

Perhaps Roth and Mailer need not have tried so hard. Today, a surplus of Jewish and gentile women covet an NJB of their own. Jewish dating site JDate draws a significant number of non-Jews—5 percent of its 750,000 members. “For whatever reason, Jewish men tend to value warmth, humor, good food, and great libidos—all prime qualities for what most women consider boyfriend material,” says Kristina Grish, author of Boy Vey! The Shiksa’s Guide to Dating Jewish Men.

Emboldened, some Jewish men are reclaiming the term. One is Adam Cohen, creator of the Nice Jewish Guys calendar, which is graced not with buff athletes but with sweet, mama-loving boys like himself. “I wanted to carry the torch for all nice Jewish guys,” says Cohen, who adds that for him the NJB means something beyond being bookish, nebbishy or even Jewish. “At the core of it, you just have to be respectful,” he says.

Not all agree that respect is really the nice Jewish boy’s core virtue. In her bestselling novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., author Adelle Waldman paints a darker, more complex portrait of the modern Jewish male. Her protagonist, Nathaniel Piven, is “in some sense an NJB,” she says—but it depends how you define “nice.” “The niceness can coexist with smugness, self-satisfaction and a host of other traits.”

Outwardly, Nathaniel P. is the boy your mother would approve of, the very picture of the nobleedelkayt. But in his intimate dealings with the women he dates, sleeps with and strings along? “There’s very little chivalry,” says Waldman, “unless you count paying for the abortions.”

And yet, despite its darker connotations, many still want to believe in the NJB's genuine niceness. Even outside the Jewish community, the phrase has been taken up by other immigrant groups who seek virtuous partners for their children, says Sarah Bunin Benor, an associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College.

In her class, Benor teachers a short story in which a bagel-eating Chinese immigrant girl living in the largely Jewish community of Westchester, New York meets a recent Japanese immigrant boy. When she finds out that his name is Sherman, she asks: “What kind of name is that for a nice Chinese boy?”

What kind of name, indeed.

This article originally appeared in the November/December issue of Moment Magazine. For more go to momentmag.com.

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