On the Term Shiktza Goddess

Two of my Facebook friends raised some issues related to the joke I posted on that platform and focused on the issue of the term “shiktsa* goddess” used in the joke. The first thing I want to say is that I am glad and grateful that my friends would indicate sensitivity to the issue. It is good to reflect on language and the nuance of words, and the fact that words can be painful or harmful. Others of my friends will take the other side–presumably most of them since the joke seemed to work for them–and most of them would take offense at being labeled something like a misogynist for using that term.

*Note: there is no standard English spelling for the Yiddish word shiktza and I have no intention of making my own practice standard. OCD folks will just need to grin and bear it.

Both of my friends demonstrated their point by looking at another Yiddishism, namely the word “shvartze” which can be the rough equivalent of what we call these days, “the N word.” Let me start with that term. Jews from Eastern Europe referred to people of color by the term “Shvartze” in their Yiddish language. In that language, it simply means “black.” In normal Yiddish usage, it is not a pejorative and carries no more hateful intent than the English word “black.” But–and this is a big but–when that term is used by an English-speaking Jew, at least in my experience it is always used as a racial epithet. If one of my Facebook friends referred to a person of color by this term, I would first ask that they edit their post, then if they did not, delete the post and privately ask that person to refrain from using racial epithets on my page. If they repeated the language, I would block them. There is no place on my page for racism.

Now, I said this could get complicated. What happens if the person using that word is actually a native speaker of Yiddish? They might very well refer to someone as a “shvartze” with no pejorative intent–no more than if an English speaker used the term “Black.” In that case I’d have to look at the context, and I might have to add a note of my own explaining the issues. But I might not censor the comment (and let’s face it, we are talking about censorship here) if I believed the intent to be innocent.

With that background, let’s turn to the issue of the word shiktza. There is not even the slightest doubt that the term began as a pejorative, and a nasty one at that. It is Yiddish, but derives from the Hebrew which means “insect” or “vermin.” At some point in the long history of ethnic conflict and hatred, Jews began referring to “gentiles” or non-Jews with this sobriquet.

My attitude to this word when used by an English-speaking Jew is precisely the same as my attitude towards the term shvartze. I would never use it, and if someone used it on my page, I would first ask them to rewrite the post, if they did not I would delete it, and if they persisted with such offensive language, I would block them. And this is not just an intellectual exercise–I have in fact blocked at least half a dozen people for this behavior.

But the word used in the joke was not “shiktza.” It was the term “shiktza goddess.” This is a term whose origin we know and understand. It was coined by Lenny Bruce, a man who literally went to jail to defend the right of free speech. And he meant nothing offensive to the woman in the term. If anything, he was casting aspersion on the Jewish men of his acquaintance who he saw as chasing after non-Jewish women as a way of denying their Jewish heritage. In the meantime, as often happens with such expressions, not a few women have adopted the term as a badge of honor. I don’t have any good statistics for this, I can only say that I know many non-Jewish women, and a few women who became Jews, who think it’s great that their Jewish friends or partners regard them as “goddesses.” Personally, I have a big problem with calling a woman like Ivanka Trump a shiktza goddess, although it doesn’t surprise me to hear others do so. But Ivanka is now a Jew, so IMO that term is inappropriate for her. Steve Mnuchin’s wife, on the other hand…well, I digress.

Louise Linton, Steve Mnuchin's wife, deletes post in support of Greta Thunberg

It might startle some people to learn that for most of the 19th and a large part of the 20th century, many Jews regarded the word “Jew” to be a pejorative. That’s why Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise called the organization he founded in 1873 and which has become the largest religious organization of Jews “The Union of American Hebrew Congregations.” It wasn’t until 2003 that the organization voted to change its name to the Union for Reform Judaism. Interesting, to me at least, is that they still avoided using the term, “Jew.” In like manner, the Orthodox Jewish organization which was founded to provide no-interest loans to Jews (because interest is forbidden by Jewish law) is called The Hebrew Free Loan Society. HFLS was founded in 1892 and has not changed its name. One prominent Jewish publication which began in 1879 called itself The American Hebrew. Through a variety of changes over the decades it retired that name in 1956 and now survives as The Washington Jewish Week. Emma Lazarus, the poet who wrote the words on the Statue of Liberty, was first published by The American Hebrew.

I want to finish on a positive note. I think it is great that some of us care enough about these issues to raise objections. They are acting honorably, and it is good to remind ourselves that we need to look at ourselves and our language to ensure that we are actually communicating what we want to say. Not every issue has a resolution that will satisfy everyone. I never use the term shiktza goddess in my own writing other than to quote others. I see that it is problematic. But it’s not a term of ethnic or religious hatred, and it does convey nuance that is difficult to convey otherwise. I’m glad I had this opportunity to think about it.

 


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