J.A.P. (and Hippie)

My friend Sara is coming to town tomorrow. I am very excited. I haven’t seen her in three years, and every time we get together we eat sushi and talk for hours. This should be good.

Today I almost sold to the used clothing store the shirt I was wearing the night I met Sara. They wouldn’t take it because it had sweat stains in the armpits. I was feeling too placid to argue that I had bought the shirt from another used clothing store, with the sweat stains already in the armpits, and therefore they should be confident that someone else would buy it from their used clothing store. Then I realized I was trying to make a profit on a shirt I bought for $7.00 eight years ago and while I’m currently going through my annual August broke period, no one is hard up enough to pressure anyone into buying a shirt stained with the sweat of a stranger.

Lately I’ve been impulsively selling all my clothing to the used clothing store. My goals in this venture are twofold: first, I have this feeling that if I dress at least a little better when appearing at people’s homes to tutor their children, they will be soothed into parting with even more obscene amounts of money. Secondly, I am really tired of being called a hippie.

I protest that I am no hippie, I just have a knack for making everything I put on look tattered and ambiguously ethnic. I much prefer my style of dress to be characterized as “rock star camp director,” as my friend Steve once put it, or “member of Castro’s revolutionary army,” as a likeminded Nicaraguan described my fatigues–t-shirt-and-aviators travel uniform. (I used to travel in a 37-pocket fishing vest, but this embarrassed my friend Steve in the Peruvian National Museum while he was applying for an acheaological permit and Holly (a.k.a. Steve’s girlfriend) and I were in the outer office amusing ourselves by counting the pockets on the vest.)

Getting rid of all my clothes has been so liberating. If an article of clothing puts me in a bad mood, I remove it, stuff it into my satchel and bring it to the used clothing store. If they refuse to buy it, I put it on the shelf to be donated to battered women. I assuage my feelings of guilt about giving clothing with bad vibes in it to battered women by telling myself that the bad vibe is between me and the article of clothing, and does not reside in the article of clothing itself.

It’s using words like “bad vibe” that also leads people to call me a hippie, isn’t it?

Today was a very auspcious day for my sweat-stained silk tank top from the night I met Sara to almost become the property of a battered woman who is also willing to ignore sweat stains. Instead, I brought it home and hung it back up in the closet. Suddenly, it wasn’t giving me a bad vibe anymore. It was reminding me of when I first bought it, reminding me of the time very early in our friendship when Sara cautiously asked me why if I was so left wing I was so angry at the Japanese people in my hometown.

“The Japanese people? There are hardly any Japanese people where I grew up. And if there were, why would I be angry at them?”

“You keep talking about the Japs. You hate the Japs, you’re so glad to be away from the Japs, there’s some Japs here, but not as many as at home, so, I’m just wondering, you know, what have you got against Japanese people?”

It took me a minute to realize that Sara had taken the word “Jap” to mean the epithet for Japanese people, when I was in fact using the acronym J.A.P., as an epithet for Jewish people, of which I am one. (The “Of Which I Am One” theory allows you to judge, pontificate on and otherwise denigrate social or ethnic groups of which you are one, or cultural practices and behaviors of which you are a practitioner, without fear of reproach or accusations of hypocrisy. Example: “Women who wax their bikini areas, of which I am one have internalized our culture’s sick obsession with infantilizing the female genetalia to make the sexuality and sexual maturity of women less threatening!” It, along with the sweat-stained silk tank top, is one of the many things that came of my Incredibly Expensive Education.)

J.A.P. is a very contreversial term. Many Jews feel that it demeans all Jews to use it, even if you are a Jew. Others feel that the word can be reclaimed, much like epithets in the gay or black communites that have been reinvented as familiar affectionate terms when used by members of those communities.

Personally, I’m fine with the word J.A.P. and I’m fine with my Jappiness. But then again, where I grew up, it felt like Jews comprised 50% of the global population, instead of 0.5%. It was many years before I realized that the rest of the world, unlike New York and its outlying suburbs, was not populated entirely by Jews and our Italian, Irish, Polish, Carribean, African, Puerto Rican, Domincan, Cuban, Chinese and Korean friends and neighbors. I believe it was in the midst of a swap meet at a science competition in 1993 that I looked up from my collection of Kentucky Bluegrass seeds and vials of Mississippi River water and noticed that a whole lot of the other people in America were strangely mispronoucning the last name I had printed on my “Hello! My Name Is” tag. It was like they had never heard a name that ended in “stein” before!

In some ways, I am a J.A.P. I grew up in Long Island. I kissed my first boy at Jewish summer camp. My Daddy has bought me every single electrical appliance I own. The toaster (which I unfortunately set on fire and destroyed), the blender, the T.V., the stereo, the air conditioner that cools me as I write this, the computer I type this on, the iPod that sits charging next to it–even the aromatherapy diffuser. (For the last time, I am not a hippie! I just find the gentle aroma of essential oils soothing when I am sick or frightened!)

For a long time, because my family openly abhors organized religion and I personally think it is both the opiate of the people and at the root of a great deal of the violence in the world, not to mention a misogynist bunch of bullshit that has more to do with fear and hate than love and humanity, Jappiness was really all I had to connect me to my frowned-upon cultural Judaism. But since I left Long Island I have met many amazing secular Jews, of the hippie, kibbutznik, pacifist, Israeli, artistic variety. I have realized that Jewishness, even of the Long Island variety, does not have to mean Jappiness.

Today, I got curious about the word J.A.P. and did what I always do when I’m curious: I looked it up on Wikipedia. At first, I was excited in that way we are excited to see evidence of ourselves in a public forum. The entry on Wikipedia described a J.A.P. as being from Long Island. “I’m famous!” I thought happily. But as the article went on the describe J.A.P.s in a clinical, accurate and yet unflattering and insulting light, I found myself confounded by the simoultaneous accuracy and narrowness of the stereotype.

It’s a very cosmic full-circle that today would begin with me trying to sell the sweat-stained silk shirt to the used clothing store and end with me discovering the meaning of the word J.A.P.

It’s using words like “cosmic” that also leads people to call me a hippie, isn’t it?

I suppose it could also be the yoga, the marijuana, the love of classic rock and the South American travel.

I forgot to mention that Sara’s stopping into town on her way to a three-month meditation retreat and the last time we hung out was in Berkeley. We got stoned and shared an orange with her friend Sen, who she once tripped acid with Central Park.

So I’m a J.A.P. and a hippie. So be it.

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