OP-ED: Fashion podcaster called out for anti-Semitism
By BEN SALES
(JTA) — For years, my wife told me her outlook on fashion was inspired by Man Repeller, the edgy publication founded by Leandra Medine Cohen, a Jewish prep school graduate who encouraged her followers to dress for themselves, not for the men around them.
Last year, we both watched as Medine Cohen stepped down from Man Repeller, then closed it, after facing backlash for firing one of her few Black employees a few months before last summer’s racial justice protests.
So on Thursday night, when I learned that she had recorded an interview that was widely panned as a self-involved disaster, I was curious enough to listen. But when I tuned into the episode of the podcast, called “The Cutting Room Floor,” and hosted by designer Recho Omondi, I was surprised by what I heard — not because of what Medine Cohen said, but because her interview was bookended by anti-Semitism.
Near the beginning of the episode, Omondi, who is Black, discussed the racist origins of the United States — and falsely implicated Jews.
“This country was founded by racist white men — and for the purpose of this episode it’s important to note that many of those white men, slaveowners, etc., were also Jewish and also saw Blacks as less than human,” she said. In fact, Jews, let alone Jewish slaveowners, did not make up any significant proportion of the United States’ founders — and Omondi’s claim echoed a stereotype promoted by some of the most prominent American anti-Semites.
Then the interview with Medine Cohen starts, and it doesn’t go well. Medine Cohen grew up on the wealthy Upper East Side of Manhattan and attended the Ramaz School, an elite Jewish prep school. Her parents also owned a second home in the Hamptons. Yet she says at one point that until last year she thought she grew up poor and on the verge of homelessness. She also talks about how she abruptly closed Man Repeller, leaving the site’s employees without work during the pandemic.
The headline in The Cut — “Upper East Sider Realizes She’s Privileged” — summed up many people’s reactions.
But at the end of the episode, while Medine Cohen was talking about anti-Semitism, the interview cuts away, and Omondi starts talking about Medine Cohen when it seems like she’s no longer in the room.
“I couldn’t stomach another white assimilated Jewish American Princess who is wildly privileged but thinks she’s oppressed,” Omondi said. “At the end of the day you guys are going to get your nose jobs and your keratin treatments and change your last name from Ralph Lifshitz to Ralph Lauren and you will be fine.”
Omondi’s podcast has a substantial audience — at one point it was the top arts podcast on Spotify, according to Chartable, which tracks podcast rankings. And while many of the public comments about the episode praised it, I wasn’t the only one to bristle at Omondi using a decades-old anti-Jewish slur (the “JAP”) and invoking anti-\semitic stereotypes about Jews, materialism and assimilation.
The comment stream on the article in The Cut included reactions like, “[W]as it necessary to say such stereotypical and blatantly anti-Semitic things to illustrate that? Big yikes all around.”
I first reached out to Omondi on Friday, soon after I finished the episode, and Medine Cohen on Monday. Neither has replied. But Omondi seemed to recognize the backlash. About a day after the podcast was uploaded, she posted on Instagram, “I want to recognize that I understand Leandra does not represent ALL Jewish people or the vast culture whatsoever.”
“If I see any mean spirited hate for the sake of hate towards Jewish people on this account, you did not listen to the episode or are missing the point completely,” she wrote. “And you will be BLOCKED. BLOCKED. BLOCKED.”
Other Instagram posts from Omondi screenshot tweets from Jewish women praising the episode, including one that praised her “tenacious + brilliant probe of the intersection of Jewish whiteness and Black belonging” and demanded “our accountability and engagement as Jewish women.”
But criticism continued to brew. By Monday afternoon, the comment section on Omondi’s Instagram post about the episode had been closed. Then the Jewish writer Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt tweeted that the episode “shamelessly equates Jewishness with wealth, power & privilege.”
By Monday night, the false and offensive references to Jews at the beginning and end of the podcast — both the comments about “slaveowners” and about a “Jewish American Princess” had been edited out.
Omondi does not appear to have acknowledged the change to the podcast on social media. Medine Cohen doesn’t appear to have addressed it either.
But already, Omondi may have strayed from the goal she outlined on a post last week about the episode.
“I want to be clear that it’s not my intention to stir up any hate or trolling from this episode,” she wrote. “I welcome critical & constructive thoughts though.”