Nobody talks about the fact that Taylor Swift is Jewish. Here’s why it matters.
Somehow, a Taylor Swift photo has become one of social media’s great red flags, alongside the Twitter egg and the anime avatar. If you see a Twitter account emblazoned with a Swift portrait, there’s at least a ten percent chance the person behind it is an alt-right, racist troll.
That’s because, as Vice reported back in May, white supremacists have decided that Swift is a covert Nazi and “Aryan goddess.” Without asking for it, or doing anything to deserve it, one of America’s biggest pop stars has turned into a neo-fascist icon. It’s a strange turn of events.
What makes it even stranger is that Swift, contrary to popular belief, isn’t Aryan at all. She’s a member of the Tribe. A Chosen, not a Christian. A yenta, not a shiksa. She is, to borrow a phrase from my friend’s gentile grandmother, a Deep Hebrew.
Taylor Swift is Jewish, is what I’m getting at.
This is common knowledge in the Jewish community, but for whatever reason it’s not widely known among non-Jews. I suppose that’s because Swift (née Taylor Swiftowitz) is extremely private about her religious upbringing and personal beliefs. I have no idea whether she’s still practicing, and to be honest, I doubt she is. But make no mistake: Taylor Swift is a big old Jew.
I know Taylor Swift is Jewish because my friend’s cousin was at her Bat Mitzvah. It was held at Temple Beth Keshet in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and it was reportedly extravagant even by upper middle-class reform standards. The spread, I’m told, was fantastic. As for the live band … eh. It was nothing to write home about.
But if Taylor Swiftowitz is a Jew (she is), why did she change her name to Swift? Why does she code as a WASP, and why do so few people know about her background (which is Jewish)? The answer, I’m afraid, is showbiz. Even today, when Jews are largely assimilated into the American mainstream, many Jewish celebrities still face pressure to disguise their heritage so they can appeal to the widest possible audience.
This is particularly true in country music, where Swiftowitz got her start. “Authenticity” in folk and country music is deeply connected to a particular idea of what it means to be culturally American. And to meet the criteria for authenticity, many Jewish folk and country singers have changed their names to sound less “ethnic.” Swiftowitz is just one in a long line of Jewish musicians passing for gentile; other famous examples include Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan) and Shmuley Teitelbaum (Blake Shelton).
But over the past couple of years, it seems that Swiftowitz has become less committed to passing. I think the turning point was her decision to abandon the country music aesthetic and fully embrace pop stardom. On her most recent album, 2014’s 1989, she began to tentatively explore her background and incorporate subtle Jewish themes into many of the songs.
Take the very first song on the album, “Welcome to New York,” with its stirring refrain: “Welcome to New York, welcome to New York / It’s been waiting for you.” New York has, of course, the largest Jewish population of any American city; in a very meaningful way, it is the cultural capital of American Judaism. With “Welcome to New York,” Swiftowitz frames her journey to New York as a sort of pilgrimage, a secularized American Birthright for the grandchildren of assimilated Jewish immigrants.
Then you have a songs like the hit single “Shake it Off,” which clearly alludes to Swiftowitz’s bickering with her meddlesome, traditionalist Jewish family. When she sings, “I stay out too late / I go on too many dates / that’s what people say,” she’s reenacting a conflict between strong-willed Jewish youth and overbearing elders so archetypal it could fit into a Fiddler on the Roof subplot.
As for “Blank Space,” is it possible the title of that song refers to Swiftowitz’s ambivalence about the erasure of her Jewish identity? I can think of no other plausible reading.
If you’re a Jew, it’s hard to miss this kind of signaling. But it’s just understated enough that Swiftowitz can still code as gentile to a mass audience, broadening her appeal. I sympathize with her reasons for doing this, and I understand both the market pressures and cultural forces bearing down on her. Still, the fact that she now has an anti-Semitic fan club makes her position untenable.
I implore Ms. Swiftowitz: Repudiate your neo-Nazi admirers and publicly embrace your Judaism. The fact that white supremacists have “mad love” for you is unacceptable — especially because, according to their own twisted theories of racial purity, you have “Bad Blood.” And now we’ve got problems.
In conclusion, Taylor Swift is Jewish.