Growing up, I learned a few things about Jewish girls from the copy of Truly Tasteless Jokes my brother kept in our bathroom. In addition to being frigid and cheap, I learned that we love Bloomingdale's, dislike oral sex, and prefer circumcised penises—as the joke goes, we like everything better when it's 20% off. While Jewish men are noted for their keen minds and acerbic wit, Jewish women are hailed as overbearing mother figures with big boobs, bodacious thighs, and a penchant for debilitating headaches—a stereotype perpetuated by Jewish men like Woody Allen and Philip Roth, whose male protagonists admire Jewish women's minds but lust after young shiksa bodies.
Thanks to Lindsey Vuolo, a 20-year-old college student from Pennsylvania who bared her bod in the November 2001 issue of Playboy, that stereotype might finally be changing. As the self-proclaimed first-ever synagogue-attending Jewish centerfold, Lindsey finds herself heralding a new generation of young Jewish women seeking appreciation for their bodies as well as their minds. Already busy with school, car-dealership appearances, and magazine signings, Lindsey has also had to schedule time to defend her bunnyhood to the Jewish community, which has had a mixed reception to her naked debut. On a panel organized by Makor, a Jewish cultural center on Manhattan's Upper West Side, she went head-to-head with Shmuley Boteach, the young Hassidic rabbi famed for his book Kosher Sex as well as for his post in Michael Jackson's clutch of spiritual advisors. Boteach's objections to pornography stem from Jewish law, halacha, which holds that sex and nudity are sanctified and belong behind closed doors. "The issue for Judaism," Boteach writes in Kosher Sex, "is that pornography does not enhance the passion and romance between a couple, but rather replaces them by something alien." Unwilling to cow to the rabbi, (who, it should be noted, promoted his own book in Playboy) Lindsey stood her ground, explaining that she had done nothing wrong. According to Lindsey, Playboy doesn't even count as pornography because to her the word conjures up images of "penetration, urination, and things like that."
In a New York magazine article, Lindsey affirmed her decision to pose nude. "I believe that the only regrets in life are the risks you [don't] take. And once people talk to me, they realize I not only have the guts to take my clothes off, but I'm intellectually prepared to defend myself." While Lindsey's defense might be more plucky than brainy, her naked-girl-power message—that it's okay to be smart and sexy—has won her an unlikely fan club among young Jewish women tired of their negative image in pop culture. Rachel Rosenberg, 26-year-old Berkeley native and Barnard Center for Women employee, attended a progressive Hebrew school that offered an entire class on the stereotypes of Jewish women. Among the subjects discussed were the loud whiny voice, unruly dark hair, and overbearing mother image associated with Jewish women. "All of these contribute to that unsexy stereotype," Rosenberg explains. "The beauty ideal in magazines is blond, thin, making as little noise and taking up as little space as possible. And honey, that ain't Jewish women!"
So who are Jewish women? According to the boob tube we're Fran Drescher, the whiny Nanny; Andrea Zimmerman, 90210's frumpy, competitive brainiac; and Kyle's mom on South Park, an overbearing kvetcher who inspires the other kids to sing "Kyle's mom is a big fat bitch." Other media favorites include Long Island Lolita Amy Fisher, Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss, and, of course Monica Lewinsky, that thong-flashing, gentile-boss-wooing icon. Our public image is that of needy princess, supergeek, controlling matriarch, and conniving whore all rolled into one.
When I called Lindsey on a Friday afternoon to discuss the public image of American Jewish women, she was lying in bed studying for her Communications class at Indiana University of Pennsylvania before heading out to Wolfendale's, the bar where she continues to work—not because she has to, but because the people there "are like family." It was one of these Wolfendale family members who snapped some digital photos of Lindsey and bet her 50 bucks that she was Playboy material; Lindsey agreed to the bet but never thought anything would come of it. The daughter of a Bronx-born Jewish mother and an Italian father who converted to Judaism, Lindsey was raised as a Reform Jew and says she feels an even stronger connection to her religion now that she's away from home. Of course, she was concerned about what her parents and rabbi would say about her foray into soft-core, but when she returned home from college, even the ladies at Friday night services were saying mazel tov.
Before seeing the November issue of Playboy, the only photo I could find of Lindsey was on the Internet—she was 13, wearing a tallis, and reading from the Torah. The transformation from dark-haired young meidel to bleached blond with an immaculately groomed muff is a bit disconcerting at first; thanks to Playboy's hair and makeup artists, however, Lindsey resembles every other centerfold, which is to say her lips are glossy, her body round, and her eyes enticing. Under a photo of Lindsey spread-eagle on a bed wearing three-inch heels is a caption that reads, "Lindsey goes to college in the small town where her grandmother grew up." Beneath the Playmate data sheet where Lindsey has written in wide bubbly letters that she has 34 DD breasts and gets turned on by true love (not davening and doctors, as one might expect) is a photo captioned, "My Bat Mitzvah, age 13." And the centerfold shot, set in a wholesome kitchen equipped with a copper teakettle, a bowl of eggs, and a fresh-baked pie, features Lindsey reclining naked on a wooden butcher's block, covered in flour. (A surprising choice, since according to the old joke the only thing Jewish girls make for dinner are reservations).
While there have been other Playmates with names like Greenberg, Lindsey claims to be the first Jewish playmate to flaunt her religion. "I think there might have been Playmates that were kind of half-Jewish and just never really talked about it," she explains. In contrast, Lindsey's Playboy spread is all Jewish: In addition to the Bat Mitzvah picture, Lindsey discusses a recent trip to Israel, saying, "Being in Jerusalem was so emotional for me—I broke down and cried."
Addressing the stereotype of Jewish girls as loose, Lindsey refutes assertions of widespread promiscuity. "We're too smart to be easy," she quips. Even so, compared to our Catholic peers—for whom sexual guilt is a given—Jews have surprisingly few issues with sex, religiously speaking. As Boteach writes in his erotic opus, "Unlike other religious traditions, Judaism has never had a prudish or conservative sexual ethic." As in Catholicism, Jewish law governs sexual activity, but the body is sanctified rather than sinful: Ancient rabbis advised men and women on how to pleasure their spouses and, as Boteach notes, "The rabbis made female orgasm an obligation incumbent on every Jewish husband." (A dictum that once caused my gentile male writing professor to exclaim, "No wonder they went to the beds of shiksas!" and may also explain why some Jewish girls developed the unofficial motto, "A little coitus never hoitus.")
If Lindsey is chosen as Playmate of the Year, an honor bestowed later this year, there is talk of an Israel 2002 Playboy tour featuring a bikini spread at Masada, a few shots at the Wailing Wall, and if all goes well, a grand finale at the Sea of Galilee. Top honors aside, Bradley Hirschfield, a modern orthodox rabbi and vice president of The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, believes Lindsey has been a positive force. "Now you have Jewish men who will go home and masturbate to a Jewish girl for a change," Hirschfield enthuses on Beliefnet, a website devoted to religious discourse. While this might seem a tad disingenuous—after all, most men probably don't care whether the women in the photos they whack off to are Jewish or not—Hirschfield equates Lindsey with progress. "When you can go to Yad Vashem [the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem]," he adds, "and see photos of naked Jewish women who really were thought of as vermin and then you can open up Playboy and see a beautiful Jewish body that's actually being fantasized over by millions of men. I absolutely understand this is not the highest level to reach, but it is the next level in our development." Lindsey shares Hirschfield's sentiments, adding, "Before Playboy I was just another Jewish woman," she says. "Now, I'm not Golda Meir or anything, but I hope that I can be a role model for Jewish women."
Lindsey falls along a continuum of progress for Jewish women that began in 1945 when Bess Myerson, a brunette from the Bronx, became the first and only Jewish woman to win the title of Miss America. On the way into the pageant at Atlantic City, an old woman with numbers tattooed on her arm grabbed Myerson and told her, in Yiddish, If you win, it will not only be a sign that we are free, but that we are also beautiful. Though she seems to agree with Hirschfield that the ability to be as sexually objectified as her non-Jewish peers amounts to a giant leap for female Semitic affirmation, Lindsey also realizes that beauty isn't everything. "A lot of people email me," she says in a conversation with Boteach posted on Beliefnet. "I'm a Jewish doctor and I graduated with this degree from Yale." Or, "My son, my Jewish son, one goes to Princeton and the other goes to Stanford..." I've replied to them "Thank you very much for the offer. Thanks for taking the time to tell me how beautiful I looked in my layout, thanks for your support." But I can't date someone because they like the way I look."