In college, I went out on an ill-fated date with an older, white Jewish man. Honestly, I wasn’t all that into him, but hey, you never know until you give it a shot, right?
Well, I quickly knew that he wasn’t the guy for me, or possibly for anyone. He kept making weird comments about him, a self-declared “Nice Jewish Boy,” and I having Jewish babies with strong Jewish names — all while he creepily groped me. And if this seems like it couldn’t get any more cringey, he also made a point to list all the other Black girls he had dated before. I tried to be polite, but I felt like he was doing all this to lure me into the idea of being with him. And because I was a Black Jewish woman, I felt like he thought I should feel grateful for his unwanted advances and creepy comments.
But while the concept of being with a “Nice Jewish Boy” (NJB) is certainly enticing, I could plainly see he totally wasn’t one.
Even though this guy didn’t have me fooled, his attempt to benefit from the stereotype of the NJB made me realize that the stereotype itself is not only harmful, but it impacts the way Jewish women experience sexual harassment and assault. By constantly referring to Jewish men as “Nice Jewish Boys,” we are creating the illusion that all Jewish men are nice and safe. But as many Jewish women can attest — and as we’ve seen with recent events, like the allegations against megadonor Michael Steinhardt — we know that’s not the case.
There are plenty of other examples of Jewish men who have been accused of or admitted to violating women’s boundaries or acting very un-mensch-like, including Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Brett Ratner, and Anthony Weiner. And while this in no way suggests that Jewish men are any more likely to commit sexual assault than others, it does suggest protecting Jewish women — and Jewish people of all genders — might mean that we need to examine the unique ways that the marginalization of Jewishness effects sexual assault.
This piece by Alma contributor Hannah Dylan Pasternak muses over the term’s ambiguous meaning, asserting that at times, describing oneself as an “NJB” can be a way to lure women into relationships or hookups by presenting yourself as the ideal partner.
Ronit Stahl, a religious historian and assistant professor at the University of California Berkeley, expounds upon this concept, telling me that “the idea of the ‘Nice Jewish Boy’ endangers Jewish women by anchoring a communal narrative in which only ‘other’ men harass and harm women. It turns communal discussions away from critical appraisal of behaviors within the community by assuming that threats and hazards lurk outside communal boundaries rather than menace women inside Jewish spaces.”
She continues, “The ‘Nice Jewish Boy’ trope exonerates Jewish men before women have even uttered a word and stops hard conversations about consent, harassment, and assault before they begin.”
Stahl’s assertion might make some shake their heads in disbelief, but this trope has real-world, devasting consequences. In an explosive Jewish Currents report on “Birthright Israel and #MeToo,” from last year, Debra Guckenheimer recalled, “I grew up being told things like ‘Jewish men are safe and spaces like these trips are safe… That message really sets up Jewish women to not expect violence… and to blame themselves later when it happens.”
There is this implicit assumption that Jewish women are expected to internalize the idea that Jewish men are the good ones, while the “other” guys are the ones we have to worry about. But sexual harassment and violence are often facilitated by a trusting, friendly relationship between the perpetrator and the survivor.
According to RAINN, the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the United States, nearly 80% of perpetrators of sexual violence know the survivor. If Jewish women are encouraged to trust all Jewish men — especially the ones they know personally and from their communities — and Jewish men believe that they deserve that implicit trust, this is fertile ground for things to go very wrong.
For Bentley Addison, a queer Black Jewish author, the stereotype is also rooted in racist assumptions about what Jewish men are supposed to look like. Addison told me that “when you say NJB, it’s pretty clear that someone who looks like Andy Samberg jumps into your brain. There’s a clear definition of who is a ‘Nice Jewish Boy’: he’s definitely white and Ashkenazi. We don’t consider people ‘NJB’s’ if they don’t fit the mold prescribed by our society. When we see a myth that not only excludes Jews of Color but also is at its core fundamentally misogynistic, it’s not worth it to save the myth… ” He went on to suggest we lose the term altogether, saying, “We need to eradicate this myth and replace it with a framework for dating in the Jewish community that’s equitable, inclusive of the diversity of our community, and holds [men] accountable for their behavior.”
Even though the stereotype of the “Nice Jewish Boy” can be used in racist and misogynistic ways, I also understand it has roots in very legitimate feelings. Many Jewish people do feel drawn to seeking a Jewish partner, because they often share their values and there exists a familiarity between them that is comforting and validating. But encouraging blind faith in someone because they’re Jewish is harmful. And when a concept excludes people of color, endangers people, and is used by non-Jews to fetishize Jewish men (that’s a whole other piece…), then Addison’s words ring true to me. It’s not worth saving.