The Myth of the Nice Jewish Boy

I’m pretty sure that young men like calling themselves “Nice Jewish Boys” even more than young women like the idea of dating one. I know this for a few reasons: the first is that 85 percent of the bios I have seen on JSwipe contained the letters “NJB;” the second is that I have been in three relationships with boys whose last names ended in -berg, -berg, and -witz, and though they all have endearingly large egos, I could almost say for certain that the thing they liked most about themselves is that they are self-described Nice Jewish Boys.

I also have a lot of single female friends who say they are “just looking for a Nice Jewish Boy.” Interestingly, I have less single male friends who have expressed that they are looking for a Nice Jewish Girl. This could be because of the dating discrepancy in New York — where the number of straight college-educated women heavily outweighs that of college-educated men by 35 percent, enabling single men to literally have more options than women and encouraging them to experiment more and settle down less. This could also be because the stereotype is not always in our favor (see: Jewish American Princess, overbearing Jewish mothers, etc.).

That being said, most of the men I’ve encountered who say they are looking for a Nice Jewish Girl are the men I’ve met through JSwipe. They advertise themselves as Nice Jewish Boys, as if, by means of putting themselves on JSwipe, I did not already know that. This is one of the few attractive qualities that men can get away with calling themselves. You would not write, “I am really attractive” in your dating profile, but you would write, “NJB.” I’ve seen men, too, use the “I’m looking for a Nice Jewish Girl” tactic in the same way they use the “I am an NJB” tactic, making a woman eager to fit seamlessly into his nice-sounding cliché.

Thus, “NJB” has been largely re-appropriated to mean any man who is single, Jewish, and wanting to advertise himself as such. The term, in itself, seems to be inextricably tied to men who are ready to be plucked from the masses and wed, or those who want to lure women in that way, at least. The NJB is the man who looms: This is what you are looking for. I, the NJB implies, am it.

And this is where the myth of the Nice Jewish Boy comes into play. I think he exists somewhere (full disclaimer, my boyfriend — an aforementioned -berg — is one), but I think that often, the men who claim that they are “nice,” “Jewish,” and a “boy,” are only two out of the three. Usually it’s the latter two, but there are exceptions. (I have two self-described Nice Jewish Girl friends who coincidentally dated the same guy, and he told one he was Jewish and the other he was Catholic. Yup.)

Case in point: I briefly dated someone who claimed to be an “NJB.” On our second date, he showed me the most obnoxious Instagram I’ve ever seen (literally, he said to me, “Do you want to see a really obnoxious Instagram?”) and showed me a photo of him, shirtless at Gurney’s in Montauk and holding a bottle of Dom Perignon the size of my right leg.

You can tell how abstract the meaning of “NJB” really is simply by asking different women to identify them. For example: Last month, I was in the airport with my boyfriend and his family, and we were waiting in line next to a group of four people — a married couple in their late 50s; a younger woman about my age, who was obviously their daughter (aside from the fact that she and the mother carried matching Goyard bags, they looked identical); and the daughter’s boyfriend. He wore a backwards Michigan baseball cap, fitted Adidas joggers, a crew neck sweatshirt, and slides with neon socks. Meanwhile, the father wore khakis, a navy belt, and a sports jacket, which a Jew would never do in the airport. We couldn’t help but laugh at how this family put the “goy” in Goyard and how the boyfriend was so obviously not that. (“He must be starving,” my boyfriend whispered.)

“He’s dressed like SUCH an NJB, too,” my boyfriend’s sister said while we analyzed the situation at hand. We could all tell that he was Jewish, but to me, he dressed less NJB and more with a New Jersey/Long Island flair. I looked at him next to my boyfriend, who has never worn a pair of slides in his life, sits with one leg tightly crossed over the other, studies Art History, always thinks he’s sick, and tends to cry more than I do.

I consider Ethan, my boyfriend, a traditional Nice Jewish Boy, which I grew up thinking was sort of mutually exclusive from “cool.” In Nathan Abrams’ book, The New Jew in Film, the quintessential diaspora Jew is described as such: “Gentle, timid, studious and delicate.” And as Steven Blum writes for Mel magazine, “the concept [of the NJB] has its roots in the Bible—where a nice, bookish mama’s boy like Jacob is able to outsmart a brawny bro like Esau.”

How did the NJB go from that to being synonymous with “I am single and hot stuff?” When did the NJB uniform become “ready to play pickup basketball at a moment’s notice?” If there were an Old City of NJB’s, I suppose Ethan would live there. But there is a new form of NJB, and he’s less bookish and more Goldman Sachs.

Of course, this all warrants a discussion of the Nice Jewish Girl. I have been told that I am one. My hair is dark and curly, I came out of the womb with hips built for child-bearing, I have a light mustache that I must wax every two weeks, and I think I must have been conceived while an episode of Seinfeld was playing in the background, which would explain a lot about me. But I would put all of that in a dating app profile before I would “Nice Jewish Girl.”

I actually think it would be kind of reductive, maybe even insulting, to describe myself as such. When asked to imagine a “Nice Jewish Girl,” I have a difficult time picturing what she might look like, or dress like, or do for a living. I can imagine certain stereotypes (for example, it seems that an odd number of young Jewish women want to study speech pathology), but still—there are girls who are nice and Jewish and don’t do that. Are we really all so similar as to first and foremost describe ourselves with the same three words? What about framing yourself in terms of, well, yourself?

Of course, there are the obvious and fair reasons why any two Jewish people would want to date each other. There is an allure, too, of being a “nice Jewish couple.” If anyone understands this, it’s me — I met my boyfriend in a seminar called “20th Century Jewish Humor.” He made a move by asking me if I wanted to watch Annie Hall. He is very good at the long version of the Kiddush blessing. On the other hand, he is terrible at fixing things. But he is great at laundry!

Still, we’ve been dating for almost a year, and I can tell you from experience: There is so much more to love than that.

Header image by Greg Gunn.

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