My first boss right out of college was terrific — ambitious, warm and open to friendly lunches outside the office.
I wasn’t expecting her response: “Why would you say something so derogatory about yourself?”
She whispered, “You called yourself a Jew. That’s an awful word to use. It’s like saying n—–.”
“No, it’s not. I’m just saying that I’m Jewish.”
“They’re not the same. ‘Jewish’ is fine. ‘Jew’ is not. Really, I’m surprised you just said it out loud at work.”
I tried to explain that to say one is a Jew is not offensive in the slightest, but she was adamant.
At the time, I thought her misinterpretation of the word was a one-time aberration. But unfortunately, in the 24 years since, I’ve heard the word “Jew” — the simple noun that describes a person of my faith — used as a term of disparagement again and again.
It’s hurtful for such a negative slant to be attached to a word with so much positive meaning for me.
Each time I hear “Jew” used with contempt, it stings as though I’m hearing it for the first time. “Jew” is almost as personal to me as is my own name. It’s part of my identity. Use “Jew” as a defamatory word, and I feel like I’m under attack.
At its very beginnings, the word “Jew” was just a noun. It came from the Hebrew word Yehudi, which is derived from the name Judah, one of the patriarch Jacob’s sons. The word Judaism stems directly from Judah-ism, the religion of the Yehudim.
But for almost as long as there has been Judaism, there have been stereotypes about Jews. By the time the Christian heroes of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” referred to Shylock repeatedly as “the Jew,” there was no question that the word was a slur, not just a noun noting Shylock’s religion.
Perhaps the most indelible image of the word “Jew” branded in our collective memory is the tragic sight of the Jews of Nazi-occupied countries, forced to wear yellow Star of David badges that simply read “Jude”: German for Jew.
The Nazis meant for the word for their religion alone to dehumanize and isolate these men, women and children. And decades after the defeat of the Nazis and the genocidal ideology they embraced, that choking negativity has clung stubbornly to the word on those yellow stars.
Today, “Jew” is used as a barb not just by the rare skinhead or white supremacist, but by well-meaning, often educated, people. I’ve been in social situations in which someone throws the word “Jew” at another when attempting to be funny, generally in connection with a stereotype involving finances. Both my daughters have heard children in their schools casually use the phrase “Jew him down,” meaning bargain, without seeming to recognize the very dated prejudice they carry forward when they use that phrase.
These jokes might seem inoffensive, but they are harmful nonetheless. Unless we do away with them, the underlying hostility will only continue on for generations.
My older daughter, a college sophomore, attended a sorority mixer with the Jewish fraternity on campus. The fraternity members handed out cute T-shirts emblazoned “Party with Jews” with a Star of David across the front. I thought the shirt was adorable, as did my daughter and her friends.
I showed a picture of it to a Jewish acquaintance, thinking she would agree. Instead, she took offense.
“I don’t like that it says ‘Jews’ on it. It sounds disrespectful,” she said.
“In what way is that disrespectful?”
“Because it says ‘Jews.’ To most people, that’s a put-down. It’s making fun of them for being Jewish.”
She is a teacher, as much as she is a Jew. I doubt she would take offense to a shirt saying, “Party with teachers.” The other nouns that describe our identities are not emotionally charged, and “Jew” should not be either.
I look forward to the day when we fully reclaim the word for our religion, so it is finally freed from the stain of years and years of casual, consistent antipathy.
When that day comes, I know what I’ll be doing: partying with Jews.
Susan Sommercamp is a writer in California. She previously wrote for Acts of Faith about raising one teen who is Jewish and one who is Christian.