Hypochondria, baked goods and matchmaking: the uncanny similarities between lesbians and Jews

Semites and Sapphics have more in common than you might think, says Eleanor Margolis.


“I’ve checked out her LinkedIn profile, it’s really impressive.”

“She went to Oxford!”

“Stop rolling your eyes, Ellie, this is your future wife we’re talking about.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the above came from the mouths of my Jewish parents. On the contrary, my mum and dad aren’t too bothered about whether or not I choose to date Oxbridge alumni with glowing professional networking credentials. They’re just happy when I’m not making up for my lack of girlfriend by watching endless cat videos on YouTube.

This zealous proposal for a romantic fix-up actually came from a couple of lesbian friends of mine. They’re determined apparently, to see me wed to a nice gay girl with a top-notch education.

My mates kvetch about my singleness like the most domineering of Jewish mothers. When another dateless week goes by, they get all “oy vey” on my tuchus . But the uncanny similarities between Semites and Sapphics only start with this shared Fiddler On The Roof -esque, enthusiasm for matchmaking. I’ve recently noticed a number of parallels between the two groups so striking that I’m beginning to wonder if lesbians are the thirteenth tribe of Israel.

You don’t have to be a devoted Woody Allen fan to be aware of the “Jew as hypochondriac” stereotype. Not only is it one of the core themes of Jewish humour, it’s true. I grew up in a household with a medicine cabinet that looked like a branch of Boots. Lesbians are identically health-obsessed. I’ve learned the hard way never to ask a fellow-gay girl about her physical wellbeing. Aside from shagging other women and feasting on organic legumes, we love absolutely nothing more than discussing our ailments. In great, often gory, detail. If a lesbian has a yeast infection or diarrhoea, she will tell you. In fact, the frankest discussions I’ve ever had about my bowel movements have been with my lesbian friends (and my mother. Natch).

While rectums, vaginas and so forth may be key features of typical lesbian conversation, the weight-watching side of health-freakery rarely crops up in Sapphic circles. If it does, it’s usually met with a collective, contemptuous groan. In lesbian vernacular, dieting falls somewhere close to birth control and testicles in the “what the fuck?” section. Just like Jews, gay girls love their nosh. I have yet to meet a lesbian who couldn’t hold her own at a medieval banquet (as long as there were a couple of vegan options).

But we also (Jewishly) love to feed each other. At lesbian gatherings, a homemade cake is de rigueur. It may have something to do with our love of Sue Perkins’s pastry puns in The Great British Bake Off , but the DIY attitude towards baked goods has become a noticeable feature of the lesbian scene. The Dalston Superstore is one example of a major London dyke hub that beautifully combines two lesbian passions: drunken dancing (another Jewish favourite) and brunch. By day, the Superstore is a mild-mannered provider of very decent coffee and cake; by night it’s a rowdy, lezzy dance pit.

So, aside from our shared hypochondria and foodiness, what else suggests that the Book of Lesbians might be missing from the Old Testament? Well, a hobby practiced by many a Jew is discussing, often to the point of argument, “who’s Jewish”. Similarly, we lesbians are keen to identify others like us. “Is she/isn’t she gay” discussions are a regular fixture at lesbian dinner tables and they often get heated. What Jews and lesbians have in common here is a desire to claim people as our own. If there’s someone we want on our team and there’s even the slightest hint that they might be Jewish/lesbian, we will fervently, and often speciously, argue that they are so. For example, there’s a longstanding lesbian obsession with the sexuality of boyish Canadian actress Ellen Page. And when rumours about her having dated Drew Barrymore surfaced a few years ago, we said a collective and triumphant, “Told you so”.  

Another thing. In the same way that the more religious of Jewish parents don’t want their children to marry outside the religion, lesbians are often suspicious, dating-wise, of bisexuals. There’s a fair bit of prejudice towards women who aren’t fully-fledged lesbians. Rest assured, bi buddies, I don’t remotely condone this. But to some lesbians, it seems, bi girls are a no-go. What’s more, I’ve seen a certain amount of stigma attached to gay women who, like me, slept with men pre-coming out. A gay girl who has never had sex with a man is known on the scene as a “gold star lesbian”. Read: “kosher lesbian”.

As that lost book of the Old Testament, so lost in fact that it doesn’t even appear in the official Apocrypha, has it, (Lesbians IX: XVI): “And the Lady said, know only that she that lie with woman hath the most uncanny – actually kinda weird – similarities to they that are the sons and daughters of Abraham.”


The lesbian scene is a lot like this scene from the 1971 film of "Fiddler on the Roof".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Jeremy Corbyn delivers a speech on the arts in north London on September 1, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Can Labour MPs force Corbyn to bring back shadow cabinet elections?

It is not up to the parliamentary party whether the contests are reintroduced. 

Soon after Jeremy Corbyn became the frontrunner in the Labour leadership contest, it was reported that he intended to bring back shadow cabinet elections. But as I later wrote, that's not the case. Corbyn has resolved that he will maintain the right to appoint his own team, rather than having it elected by MPs (as was the case before Ed Miliband changed the system in 2011). As he wrote in the NS: "Whoever emerges as leader on 12 September needs a shadow cabinet in place as soon as possible. I will appoint a strong, diverse shadow cabinet to hold this government to account from day one."

Now, ahead of his likely victory a week on Saturday, Corbyn is under pressure from some MPs to reverse his stance. Barry Sheerman, the former education select commitee chair, told me that he wanted a "serious discussion" within the PLP about the return of the elections. While some support their reinstatement on principled grounds, others recognise that there is a tactical advantage in Corbyn's opponents winning a mandate from MPs. His hand would be further weakened (he has the declared support of just 14 of his Commons colleagues). 

But their reinstatement is not as simple as some suggest. One senior MP told me that those demanding their return "had not read the rule book". Miliband's decision to scrap the elections was subsequently approved at party conference meaning that only this body can revive them. A simple majority of MPs is not enough. 

With Corbyn planning to have a new team in place as soon as possible after his election, there is little prospect of him proposing such upheaval at this point. Meanwhile, Chuka Umunna has attracted much attention by refusing to rule out joining the left-winger's shadow cabinet if he changes his stances on nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation (a lengthy list). Umunna is unlikely to remain on the frontbench but having previously pledged not to serve, he now recognises that there is value in being seen to at least engage with Corbyn. Were he to simply adopt a stance of aggression, he would risk being blamed if the backbencher failed. It is one example of how the party's modernisers recognise they need to play a smarter game. I explore this subject further in my column in tomorrow's NS

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.