What is the Meaning of Jewess?
Jewess is a term that refers to a female Jew.
Though it was not originally used as an offensive term, Jewess today is seen as derogatory for two reasons: The word Jew is sometimes used as a slur, and the -ess is outdated and not feminist. Many women prefer to be called Jewish women, just like female poets want to be poets and not poetesses, as they were once called.
History of Jewess
The term Jewess came into being as early as the 1300s. One Bible translation from 1388 contained the sentence, “Timothe, the sone of a Jewesse cristen.” It showed up again in another Bible translation in the 1500s, and then in a book by English writer Samuel Purchas in 1613. Sir Walter Scott used the word Jewess 76 times in his 1812 book “Ivanhoe” in both negative and positive contexts. He called the main character Rebecca “lovely” and “beautiful,” but also said she was a “sorceress” and sent her to be burnt for “witchery.”
There was a magazine called “The American Jewess” that ran from 1895 and 1899 and was the first English-language publication exclusively for Jewish women. Founded by Rosa Sonneschein, “The American Jewess” lasted for 46 issues and featured early American voices in support of Zionism.
As anti-Semitism grew in America and the world at large in the middle of the 20th century, Jew was deemed and used as an offensive term. Jewess fell out of style, too, as did many –ess words after the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1980, the scholar Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus wanted to name his book “The American Jewess,” but his publisher would not let him. Instead, he called it “The American Jewish Woman: 1654–1980” and used the word Jewess throughout the text anyway.
In the book, Marcus wrote, “Many Jews today deem it a ‘dirty word’ and avoid it…I believe it is a neutral descriptive noun and I use it constantly. If for some it has become a term of contempt, it is because Judeophobic Gentiles have made it so. I refuse to bow to their prejudice.”
Just like many Jewish people now prefer to be called Jews, millennial women, or Jewesses, are reclaiming Jewess for similar purposes. They want a word to express their uniquely female and Jewish identities.
In 2011, the Jewish Women’s Archive launched their “Jewesses with Attitude” blog, which ran until 2013.
On the first episode of Broad City, the main characters, Abbi and Ilana, posted a job ad on Craigslist that read, “We’re just 2 Jewesses tryin’ to make a buck.”
Jewish Journal writer Danielle Berrin says she is a Jewess journalist and Jewish women are openly using it on their Twitter handles and blogs. For instance, there’s the blog Viking Jewess and the company Fit Jewess. Jewess Magazine is also the name of the publication you are currently reading. It was founded in September 2017 and run by proud Jewess in Chief Kylie Ora Lobell.