The Jewish N Word

December 18, 2014

N_wordLanguage is a funny thing. Words that were once acceptable take on new shades of meaning and are replaced with new terms. These intended euphemisms may in turn acquire their own negative connotations and they will then be replaced with still newer terms.

An inoffensive example: what was once called a boneyard became a graveyard. Graveyard gave way to cemetery, which they now try to repackage as a “memorial park.” (It’s not catching on outside of the funeral industry.)

Most of us probably say cemetery. If you said graveyard, you’d be understood but you’d sound archaic. If you called it a boneyard, you’d get some raised eyebrows.

The same is true when it comes to developmental disabilities. Such terms as “retarded,” “mongoloid” and “cretin” were once upon a time used in a technical sense. (When I was in first grade, we had a girl with developmental disabilities in my class. “Retarded” was what the teacher told us was the polite term!) Now these words are considered so offensive that one wouldn’t even expect to find them used in a clinical sense.

Race is the big hot zone. “Latino” is preferable to “Hispanic.” “Inuit” is better than “Eskimo.” “Asian” has long since superseded “Oriental.” Nobody calls the Beta Israel “Falashas” any more. And terms like “colored” and “Negro” are right out.

Yes, as numerous comedians have observed, these latter terms are grandfathered into the names of such organizations as the United Negro College Fund and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but that’s not a reason for us to use them. My grandmother had black friends, whom she called “colored.” There may not be malice behind the use of a given phrase but it does betray one as the product of a less enlightened era.

I’m not personally a big fan of the term “African-American” because not all black people come from Africa (for example, indigenous Australians) and they’re not all American (Mel B, AKA “Scary Spice?” She’s British). I feel like a fool calling Star Wars character Lando Calrissian “African-American” because he lived long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. But if a black friend prefers the term African-American, I’ll use it.

Please note that last sentiment: if a person to whom a term refers has a preference, I will use it. That’s really the crux of the matter.

Along these lines, we Jews have some terms that others may find offensive. Yes, the speaker may have no ill intent but the listener may take umbrage nevertheless.

The first such word is “goy.” “Goy” literally means a nation, which includes the Jews. For example, in Genesis 12:2, G-d tells Abraham that his descendants (i.e., the Jews) will be “goy gadol” – “a great nation. In Exodus 19:6, Israel is referred to as “goy kadosh” – “a holy nation.” II Samuel 7:23 calls the Jews “goy echad ba’aretz” – “a singular nation in the land.”

But “goyim,” i.e., “nations?” That means “all the nations other than Israel.” Members of those nations are called “goyim” by extension, meaning “members of the other nations.” In the singular, “goy” – the member of a nation other than Israel. It’s not inherently offensive but guess what? Non-Jews find it disparaging. At the very least, they find it condescending. Therefore, we should not use it in conversation. (It’s not offensive as used in scripture or liturgy.)

The next word is “schvartze.” Again, “schvartze” is not inherently offensive; it just means “black.” A “schvartze” is a black guy. But people find this word offensive – far more so than the word “goy!” (On the scale of offensiveness, it actually approaches the N-word that shall not be written here.) The only time you can really justify using this word is if you are a native speaker of Yiddish and actually speaking in Yiddish. In that context, it is not offensive, much the way that the term “Negro” is not offensive in Spanish. Other than that, stay far away from it.

“Shiksa” is simply indefensible. That word is inherently condescending, racist and misogynistic. Lose it.

When my kids were growing up, I taught them that these words were unacceptable. They knew that if I ever heard them use the word “schvartze,” my wrath would be fierce. They attended traditional yeshivos and I didn’t know what language (or attitudes) their classmates would be bringing from home. Worse yet, I didn’t know what choice of terminology their teachers might use. And that’s where things get tricky. What do we do when people we’re supposed to respect use language we are told is inappropriate?

When this happens, it’s time for us to be “dan l’kaf z’chus” – to judge others favorably. What are we to think when we attend a shiur and the rabbi talks about “the goyim?” For one thing, like my grandmother who called her black friends “colored,” he might be the product of a certain generation. Even if he’s not all that old, because of his background, he might be behind the times as you or I may see them. Like the United Negro College Fund, that word may just be stuck in his lexicon.

Another thing to consider is that he knows the technical meaning of these words and their lack of intrinsic malicious intent. Like a doctor who speaks of “mental retardation,” he may see no need to euphemize when the terms in question will be understood by his audience. (This is called being melamed z’chus – we’re justifying why some people engage in a practice even as we decry the practice itself.)

So it’s a tightrope. We should totally lose these (and similar) words from our vernaculars. They’re offensive to those to whom they’re meant to refer so if we are heard using them, it’s a chillul Hashem (a desecration of G-d’s Name). But if we hear others using them, we should try not to judge them too harshly as these words are not innately disparaging and it’s entirely possible that no ill will is intended.

Except for shiksa. There’s just no other way to spin that one.