Once upon a time, on my first trip to France, when I was living in a dormitory for American girls and feeling free as a bird, loose as a leaf and frail as a snowflake, I met an American boy who'd been on a Fulbright in Finland and had a notebook filled with poetry in his back pocket. One thing led to another and there I was, in the attic room above the rooftops of Paris, doing things that would have given my mother a heart attack. As the heavy, scented smoke from the Protestant boy's Gauloise floated about my head, he said, "Jewish girls are so sexy."

"Really?" I asked, pleased as I could be.

"Yes, really," he said.

"I don't think most Jewish boys would agree," I said.

This conversation came back to me the other day as I was looking at Chandra Levy's photo. Monica and Chandra had more in common than just being ambitious interns. They were both Jewish girls, not so uptight, not so frigid (at least as far as the camera could tell). So juicy Jewish girls exist, I thought. My Fulbright fellow was on to something. He was expressing the common belief in his neighborhood that Jewish girls lived in their bodies with more joy, more freedom, more pleasure than those who went to church with him.

But I was right, too. As the jokes prove, the Jewish men of a generation past did think that Jewish girls were frigid, materialistic and not so sexy, unlike the wonderful blondes, the idealized others--the Africans who promised exotic paradises, the warm Italians, the freckled Irish, the subservient Asians who knew sexual secrets that no Jewish girl could even imagine. Did my Fulbright fellow admire me because of my personal adorableness, or was he after a Jewish girl like a man might go fishing for striped bass in the sea? Was his admiration for my kind a compliment or a prejudice turned inside-out? Why am I worrying about this 45 years later?

Jewish women have all known Jewish men who wouldn't look at us twice because we carried the colors of the home folk. Our manner, appearance, gesture, body type--all spoke of outsiderness, of first-generation bottom-of-the-social-ladder-ness. And yes, they said we were frigid. Maybe, God forbid, after centuries of marriage in the same Eastern European gene pool, we also reminded some guy of his mother or sister, and the Oedipal whiff was enough to make him run in another direction, into the corn-fed, the white-bread, into the American dream, leaving behind a puzzled, rejected Jewish girl.

I thought of this again while watching The Producers, which got a huge laugh with a line that says Jewish women don't enjoy sex. I winced. It's a funny line, but the humor depends on the canard loose in the culture that Jewish women are not good in bed (or at least don't have a good time in bed). Ha ha. Well, no point in being sensitive about something in The Producers, since every vulnerable group is exposed to equal ridicule, and I laughed my head off when other types were getting theirs. Humor is mean. It's meant to bite, but it's also telling. Humor is not accidental; it depends on something we believe. It mocks our pretensions and reflects our prejudices. No big deal--but I did hope that Nathan Lane & Co. noticed that Monica and Chandra could not have been as unsexual as all that, and that some men find them the most appealing type of all. Gary Condit did not seek out a Swedish bombshell. He chased a Jewish girl whose grandmother likely made gefilte fish from scratch.

You could make the point that a guy like Gary, who is a Christian-morality candidate, is happy to play with a Jewish girl but would never marry one. You could say that Bill Clinton was happy to have oral sex with Monica but would never have taken her home to Mother. That may be true, but it doesn't change the point that the grass always seems greener on the other side of the cultural divide: that Lutheran guys daydream about Jewish girls while Jewish guys are busy making up Jewish-princess jokes and running as fast as they can from anyone who can make a good guess as to why we have matzo at Passover.

Some people say that it's a sign of Jewish acceptance in America that the losing Vice Presidential candidate was Jewish--and that that wasn't why he lost. Some point to the university presidents, the corporate executives, the scientists and musicians, moviemakers and surgeons in America's roster of successful folk who are Jewish and say, "We have arrived." These things are impressive, but most convincing of all is that the two interns involved in Washington scandals are both Jewish. That's a 100 percent rate.

The question has been loose in our culture for a long time: Are Jewish women loving, or even sexually capable? Hooked onto this issue is a disguised self-dislike on the part of Jewish men, balanced perhaps by an equal dislike on the part of the ethnic majority for the Jewish thread in our country's tapestry. Philip Roth wrote book after book about his search for the perfect non-Jewish woman. They always failed to make him happy; some positively tormented him. When one of his characters finally finds a Jewish woman, she is anti-Semitic and torments him, too. This big-joke theme is no joke.

Following the line of fantasies about Jewish and non-Jewish women through our culture, watching Woody Allen movies or reading about his affairs in the tabloids, anyone can see that there's a tension between the Jew and the non-Jew that is sometimes presented as desire or love and sometimes as rejection or hate. That tension is not a cultural artifact buried in the dust--not yet, at any rate.

Jewish otherness is still playing a role in our lives as Americans. As assimilated and successful as we may be, there is still the tension: us and them, us and ourselves. How like or unlike everyone else are we? Do we remain different? When they love us, are we most in danger?

I don't want to be flippant about Chandra Levy. Something terrible has happened to her. Almost everyone in America wants her killer caught and brought to justice. Her Jewishness is not the point of this gripping story, this tragedy. But as a side note, it tells us that yes, Jewish girls can be sexy, and a lot of guys mowing the greener grass missed out. A lot of guys who married or played with Jewish girls because of their supposed sexiness also bought into a myth. With all our personal variety, we are probably no more or less sexy than anyone else. All the rest, negatives or positives, form a tall tale--and a slightly toxic one, at that.

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