Is It Okay to Say "Jew"?
LOUIS C.K.: “Jew” is a funny word because –
- it is because “Jew” is the only word that is the, is the polite thing to call a group of people and the slur for the same group.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Louis C.K., on a word that can be a semantic sand trap. Writing in The New York Times last weekend, Mark Oppenheimer argues that the word has accumulated so many dodgy associations across the centuries that Jews, non-Jews and politicians avoid it altogether. Speaking at the US Capitol in DC at the Holocaust Memorial Museum's Day of Remembrance ceremony on Tuesday, Trump said “Jewish” 11 times but “Jew” only twice.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: We've seen anti-Semitism on university campuses, in the public square and in threats against Jewish citizens.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark, as you noted in your piece, past presidents have suffered from this same verbal tic.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: Yes, you can go back to Ronald Reagan and Obama, as well – it’s a bipartisan tic – which is that when they issue their Passover or sometimes it’s a Passover and Easter proclamation, they send much, much love out to all of the Christians and then they send it to the “Jewish people.” So the Christians get their noun but Jews are not Jews; they’re “Jewish people” or “Jewish families.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how then did “Jew” come to be perceived as a sticky wicket, even in ordinary speech?
MARK OPPENHEIMER: Well, it's not historically the term that Jews themselves have used. It is used. It’s used in the Talmud, for example, but Jews historically have talked of themselves, until the past couple of centuries, as Israelites or Hebrews, that sort of thing. And “Jews” was a word that was often used by other people to describe us. I’ll speak of “us” because I’m a Jew. Now, sometimes it was positive and sometimes it was neutral but beginning in the 17th century, you see it creeping very much into what became modern English, as a slur, as somebody who's rejected Christ or somebody who has congeries of, of negative attributes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But we can't say “Hebrews” and “Israelites” anymore.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: [LAUGHS] Right. In the United States and in English, “Israelite” became problematic after 1948 because there actually was a country called Israel, so it became a weird thing to say. And “Hebrew” very much became the language, Hebrew, so talking about people as Hebrews became strange. But, of course, the 92nd Street Y in New York City, the great cultural center, is the Young Men's and Women's Hebrew Association. So it’s – it was only in the last century that we stopped saying “Hebrews.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm, but that did leave us with a, a word gap.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: [LAUGHS] Right, we have a word gap, which is that a couple of the words that we used to all feel comfortable with for a century or two now seem antiquated, so we can’t use them. The natural word that describes this group of people we’re talking about, obviously, is going to be something like “Jew” or “Jewish.” The problem is that the noun “Jew” or the three-letter word “Jew,” for one thing, it’s been used as a very, very negative verb in English, so to “Jew” someone is to try to cheat them, so that's a negative connotation of the word. But also, there is this problem that it is used as a slur, that to call someone “a real Jew,” for example, is negative.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Since you've cued it, we have a piece of tape that illustrates this point.
DIANE KEATON AS ANNIE HALL: You're what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew.
WOODY ALLEN AS ALVY SINGER: [CLEARS THROAT] Thank you.
ANNIE: Yeah, well, you know, she hates Jews. She thinks that they just make money, but let me tell yuh, I mean, she's the one yeah, is she ever, I'm tellin' yuh.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Annie Hall.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: We know that if we do this thought experiment, someone in - behind us in line at the supermarket refers to someone - let's make it a sweet, nice lady talking in a sweet voice but she refers to someone, to the person she’s standing next to or the person on her cell phone, as a “real Jew,” we would all sort of tense up and think, what a slur. If that same person talked about someone as a “real Christian,” we would all think, ohh, a real Christian –
- well, generous and kind. I mean, and this is true for all Americans and I would say Canadians and Brits, as well, that a real Jew is a bad thing and a real Christian is a good thing. So when the real version of it is bad and negative, even the word itself to say, “I'm a Jew” or “A couple of Jews moved in next door” seems a little bit sinister, even when it's a Jew doing the talking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As a matter of fact, in your op-ed you cited a conversation you had with an editor following the 2000 election.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: I was working at the Hartford Current and I was writing a piece about how, according to the popular vote, anyway, but for the Electoral College, the American people just elected a Jew, Senator Lieberman, as vice president.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But come on, he was a big Jew.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: He was a big Jew! Lieberman's a huge Jew!
This is, this is part of his selling point and it’s partly why evangelical Christians loved him. You know, he wore his piety on his, his right and left sleeves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: So, you know, it seemed to me a fairly safe thing to say, especially writing for the newspaper in Hartford, Connecticut, Lieberman's home state that had always elected him resoundingly. And hey, my byline is “Oppenheimer,” that I, I don't think anyone mistakes me for anything but a Jewish reporter. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: So it seemed safe to say. The copy desk went ballistic and said, well, you can't say that we elected a Jew, Senator Lieberman as vice president. They wanted to say “a Jewish vice president, Senator Lieberman, rather than “a Jew.” The copy editor was a Gentile, was a non-Jew, a super well-meaning guy who just didn't want me or the newspaper to sound anti-Semitic. But I got my, my hackles up. I said, he is a Jew, why is that a negative thing?
I, of course, was being a bit precious. We all know that for a lot of readers to call someone “a Jew” does feel negative, and that's for Jewish readers, as well as Christian readers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right, because people don't want to be reduced to a single factor. And if you are secular, whether you're Jewish or Christian or Muslim, you don't want to be identified by your religion.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: Well, I - first of all, I think that even irreligious Jews are still Jews. If someone says, what are you, right, they notice your last name, not a last name that’s been changed somewhere along the way, like Gladstone [LAUGHS] –
- but a last name like –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean, made up in steerage? [LAUGHS]
MARK OPPENHEIMER: Yeah, made up in steerage but a last name like Oppenheimer –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: - that’s been Jew-y for, you know, hundreds of years now, and they say, you know, what are you? And we know what they’re asking, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
MARK OPPENHEIMER: I just there's something great about being able to say “I'm a Jew.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: And I don't think - I don't think it necessarily implies a high level of religious observance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I think you make your decision for yourself.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: But my point is there's nothing negative about any of this,
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: I feel like some part of you is still saying, if I say I'm a Jew, people will make incorrect assumptions about me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I don’t know, I, I would have to dig into my psyche to know if that's true.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: Really, I was urging writers, especially Jewish writers and Jewish politicians and Jewish entertainers, people who, who have a public persona to not be afraid of the noun. All over Twitter, there are Christian athletes, as well as TV stars, as well as animal trainers, in that little bio you get on your homepage, they will often say, you know, I'm a father, I’m a lion tamer, I'm a pastor, I'm a Christian. And it’s lovely that they feel that sort of ownership over that piece of their identity, not their whole identity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But my assumption is that if they list it among their defining qualities, then they are practicing Christians.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: First of all, I think that's wrong. I think that’s a misunderstanding of the Christian world. They might just be saying it’s exceedingly central to who I am. But, again, they’ll list it as one of five or ten things.
It’s so characteristic of American Jews, who are so worried about anti-Semitism and do have this tendency to want to keep our heads down, we’re afraid to list “Jew” even as among our top five or ten characteristics. And when we do list it, it has to be, well, “Jew-ish,” not “I'm a Jew.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I think that you’re being, frankly, presumptuous. I am neither fearful of the term, nor, you know, desirous of keeping my head down, God knows!
I just - I don't endorse religiosity of any kind.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: I don’t think the word has anything to do with religiosity, and historically it doesn't. If you're talking to someone on the show and you want to talk about, you know, something that Larry David has just produced or something that Bernie Sanders has just said, and you say, well, so-and-so, who, of course, is Jewish, if saying “he's a Jew” would be presumptuous and say too much, what does “Jew-ish” say? See, I think it says he’s ancestrally Jewish. I think that’s all we presume about Bernie Sanders, right? We’re not presuming anything about his prayer life or his belief in God, or whatever.
All I’m saying is that saying that you're a Jew makes the same claim about heritage but it does it in a way that's - I feel, is a little bit prouder. I'm saying there's no reason to avoid, as the presidents have in these proclamations, “Jews” as a noun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s a perfect way to end –
- but I have to raise an issue with you that my co-host, Bob Garfield, raised during our editorial meeting. He says that when a non-Jewish person refers to Jewish people or someone as “Jewish” rather than as “a Jew” he thinks that that's a sign of Jewish discomfort.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: If they use “Jew-ish.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: I recognize that all of us, Jew and non-Jew alike, have a lot of trouble talking about Jews in English. There is no word that is unloaded. Indeed, one rabbi I know said, we’ll know that anti-Semitism has fully ended when nobody pauses for even a microsecond to think about how to talk about Jews. That's really true. I'm not immune.
As a writer, I often think, do I say that someone is, comma, “a Jew” or do I say “who is Jewish”? This is a really tough question. And I don't presume that I have an answer for how well-meaning Gentile writers can handle this. I only think that, myself, I can be proud about using the word “Jew.” Language changes very fast. You know, if we think about how recently it was that “queer” was an entirely negative term and now it's mostly a positive term used by gay people, if we think about how quickly the euphemism treadmill changes, or “black people” from “Negro” to “colored” to “black” to “African-American” to “of color.” And now “black” is actually coming back, the linguists are saying.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
MARK OPPENHEIMER: So language is incredibly quickly mutating, and I think it would be not so difficult a project for us to say that it's okay for Jews to be Jews.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much, Mark.
MARK OPPENHEIMER: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Oppenheimer is the host of the Unorthodox podcast and the author of a forthcoming book about what it means to be a Jew. His recent piece in The New York Times Sunday Review is called, “Reclaiming ‘Jew’”.
[ANNIE HALL CLIP/MUSIC UP & UNDER]:
WOODY ALLEN AS ALVY SINGER: You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, uh, did you eat yet or what? And Tom Christie said, no, didchoo? Not, did you, didchoo eat? Jew? No, not did you eat, but Jew eat? Jew. You get it? Jew eat?
TONY ROBERTS AS ROB: Uh –
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Micah Loewinger. We had more help from Sara Qari, Leah Feder and Kate Bakhtiyarova. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Terence Bernardo and Sam Bair.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schacter is WNYC’s vice-president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this show is dedicated to the memory of Cathy Brenneman. We love you, Jesse.