JYT: Reclaiming the Term ‘Jew’

Sure to trend high in the NYT “Most Read” pieces is “Reclaimining ‘Jew’” by Mark Oppenheimer, which discusses the pressing social question of whether the term ‘Jew’ is a slur or merely an accurate descriptor.

Jew’ is a funny word,” the comedian Louis C. K. once said, “because ‘Jew’ is the only word that is the polite thing to call a group of people and the slur for the same group.”

It then takes all the way until paragraph #2 for Der Trumpenfuhrer to be mentioned, with the obligatory snarky asides:

I was reminded of these wise words on April 14, halfway through Passover and two days before Easter, when President Trump gave a short speech recognizing the two holidays. As far as Trump speeches go, it was pretty decent, a short bit of hortatory boilerplate with Trumpian flourishes, like calling the Exodus the story of “an incredible people.” He did not attack immigrants, or journalists, or Pope Francis, and he gave equal time to the two holidays, which was reassuring.

But Mr. Trump’s speech bothered me nonetheless, because he fell into a common linguistic habit that most Americans, even most Jews, surely didn’t notice. While the word “Jewish” appeared in the speech, Mr. Trump neglected to mention “Jews.” In his remarks, it was “Christians” who celebrated Holy Week and the resurrection of Christ — but it was “Jewish families” who celebrated Passover and “the Jewish people” who survived a long history of persecution. There were “Christians” — people with their own noun — and there were “Jewish” people — collectives described by an adjective.

The shift from the noun to the adjective was most jarring near the end of the speech, when Mr. Trump prayed for an age in which “good people of all faiths, Christians and Muslims and Jewish and Hindu, can follow their hearts and worship according to their conscience.”

This verbal tic is not unique to Mr. Trump. In his first Passover statement, in 1981, President Ronald Reagan extended “warmest wishes” to “Jewish people everywhere.” In President Obama’s last Passover message, he mentioned “Jewish families” twice but “Jews” never.

Both Trump (who is a paragon of evil) and Reagan (who was a paragon of evil), imagine that.

I suspect that had Trump or Reagan flat-out said “Jews”, there would liberal Jews whining about that too. Gentiles have been conditioned not to say “Jew” in polite society for the same reason many refrain from saying “Merry Christmas” in polite society. Oppenheimer acknowledges this:

There is, in fact, a widespread hesitation to describe Jews as Jews. In 2000, in the aftermath of Al Gore’s popular-vote victory in the presidential election, a well-meaning editor forced me to rewrite a sentence in an essay about Joseph Lieberman, the vice-presidential nominee. I had written that Americans had, in effect, “elected a Jew as vice president,” but the editor — a non-Jew — made me change the wording to “a Jewish vice president.” He knew that to write “a Jew,” even in a positive article by a Jewish reporter, would strike some as offensive.

The problem for Oppheimer, however, is when Jews themselves refrain from using the word ‘Jew’ as a noun. And what Jews think about the matter is, naturally, The Most Important Voice on the Matter.

We Jews, too, recoil from calling ourselves Jews. In my experience as an editor at a publication focusing on Jewish news and culture, and hosting its podcast about Jewish life, I have noticed how many Jewish writers — me included — avoid calling anyone a “Jew.”…

Like our non-Jewish friends, we Jews have been conditioned to think of a “Jew” as something bad. We will say, “Some really nice Jewish people moved in next door,” rather than, “Some really nice Jews moved in next door.” Trying to discern if someone is suitable dating material for a single, religious friend, we’ll ask, “Oh, is he Jewish?” but not, “Oh, is he a Jew?” To be “a real Christian” is a compliment, but to be “a real Jew” is considered an insult. “A real Jew” may be stingy, crass or pushy — whatever she is, it’s not good.

Nice dating material? What would the NYT’s collective mind say if a white Christian described being white or Christian as a necessary condition to being “nice dating material”? The ‘white’ part is the racial component and the ‘Christian’ is the religious component; both categories are conjoined in the singular term ‘Jew’.

There are understandable reasons one might prefer the phrase “Jewish person” to “Jew.” For one thing, anti-Semites love to talk about “Jews” and “the Jews.” The noun has been a slur in English since the 17th century, and to the Jew-haters of the world, Jew-ness, with all the genetically heritable perfidy it entails, is an essential and ineradicable trait. Whether it’s the stain of having murdered Jesus or an inborn capacity for greed or deception, the vices perceived by the anti-Semite belong to “the Jew,” not someone who happens to be Jewish. Anti-Semites have made “Jew” a term of opprobrium, and the rest of us have acquiesced.

But there’s another reason Jews prefer “Jewish.” Many of us don’t think of Jew-ness as central to our identity. If what we’re talking about is an ethnic inheritance, but not one that defines us in an important way, we may rightly feel that “Jewish” makes a more modest, weaker claim than “Jew” — just as “I’m German” sounds a bit milder than “I’m a German.” The former is purely descriptive, the latter a bit proud.

I chuckled at the ‘Many of us don’t think of Jew-ness as central to our identity’ bit. In any event, Oppenheimer then gets to the crux of the matter: reclaiming the noun ‘Jew’ as matter of ethnic pride, the latter of course a concept that only non-whites are allowed to possess:

It’s precisely because “Jew” is a bit proud that I want Jews to use it more. Jews, like other minority or marginalized groups, are entitled to a noun to call our own. Such a word will have as many meanings as there are people who claim it, but no matter. When asked by somebody scrutinizing our last name or facial features, “What’s your heritage?” we should be able to answer, with whatever meaning we impart to it, “I’m a Jew.”

For most of us, speaking such a sentence would feel odd, even scary. But it doesn’t have to. It shouldn’t.

If only there was an entire book exploring this all important subject:

As Cynthia M. Baker points out in “Jew,” her book about the word, Jews have “not, in fact, owned the word ‘Jew’ or controlled the discourse about it — or even much used the term — for most of the past 2,000 years.” It was Christians who talked about “Jews,” while our preferred term for ourselves was “Israelite” or “Hebrew.”

Thankfully, there will soon be more important books like Baker’s, as in Oppenheimer’s byline description we learn that he is “the host of the podcast Unorthodox, is working on a book about how to be a Jew.”

Oppenheimer ends his piece with a ‘You go, girl!’ chant:

So it’s time for us to own “Jew.” We can do so by using the word more ourselves, and by giving everyone else permission to call Jews Jews. We can rescue, as Louis C. K. would say, the “polite thing” from the slur. Jews are what we are, after all, and the anti-Semites shouldn’t be the only ones saying so.

So, Jews will give Gentiles permission… to use the term ‘Jew’?

Alrighty, then.

The best place, however, to gauge both the cognitive dissonance (from Jews) and the many degrees of P.C. genuflecting (from goyim), is in the ‘Comments’ section of the piece.

Debbie writes:

I was instructed, many years ago by Jewish friends, that Jews can use the word Jew but non-Jews should use the word Jewish. I have passed on this advice to several non-Jewish friends. I was told this was being respectful, which is what I wanted to be.

Within the context of educating me in the correct phrasiology, I never questioned the advice. I grew up hearing or reading the nasty things people said about Jews, Blacks, etc., and didn’t buy into that garbage but I never wanted to ever be perceived, even momentarily, as being “one of those kind of people” – racists. So, I followed the instructions lovingly imparted by good friends.

Just wanted to share why this Catholic woman doesn’t use the word Jew although I never, personally, associated the word with any negativity. After all, Jews, for me, are the source…the place where my religion started. I love a Jew called Jesus. And Mary and everyone else!

Elizabeth Connor writes:

To the present day…I understand and accept the author’s thesis. I think there’s a little more to be made of the possibility that the noun “Jew” sounds a little more dissonant to the ear than, for example, noun-or-adjective “Christian.” But if that’s so, it’s probably because we simply don’t hear it that often, to the author’s point.

CanDo wites:

Very good article. I always thought the term “Jew” to be a strong, somewhat harsh word and a bit of a slur because of the anti-semites that would use the term. It is true they appropriated the word. I would always shudder when I heard it and referred to myself as Jewish. Thanks to Mr Oppenheimer I will think differently about the word but not sure if I can get over my shudder, though, given how long it has affected me.

More assertively, Jonathan writes:

We Jews are in the unusual position of being as much a nation as a religion. There is no such thing as an atheist, entirely secular Christian, but a substantial proportion of Jews will tell you they are both atheist and Jewish. Jewishness for these people is a cultural identity, not a religious one.

And, most importantly, Joia writes:

“I’ve always described myself as an “Upper West Side liberal Jew”. I’m proud of it.”

I’m sure she is.

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