by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Paul Golin
Most of us would be embarrassed to learn we’ve been using hurtful or insulting language without even realizing it. Perhaps you’ve had to gently explain to a family member that while rugs or vases from Asia may be called “oriental,” people from Asia are “Asian.” Or that terms for African Americans once appropriately used in the names of organizations like the NAACP have since become offensive to some. For us, once we learned that the term “gypped” emerged from negative stereotypes given to Gypsies, we never let the word cross our lips again (and have settled into the more ethnically-neutral phraseology “ripped off”).
An awareness of language is especially crucial for those of us trying to welcome the increasing number of newcomers into the Jewish community—there’s hardly a Jewish family in America today that doesn’t include at least one family member married to a person who was not born Jewish. It is time that our language catches up to this reality.
The first step is to immediately expunge “goy”/”goyim”, “shagetz” and “shiksa” from our vocabulary, particularly because of the Biblical source of the latter two (abomination). Whatever “goy”/”goyim” once meant in the Bible (nation/s or people/s other than Israel), traveling through the Yiddish language certainly changed its meaning from neutral to negative. It marks someone as an outsider, not only different from Jews but not as good, as in the phrase “goyish kup” meaning “stupid.” Yet the word is still in constant use today, like in cutesy headlines from Jewish newspapers (‘Boy Meets Goy’ Vexes ‘Sex and the City’ As Show Enters Final Season).
People inside the Jewish community enjoy using these Yiddishisms exactly because it allows us to feel like “insiders.” Recognizing and giving up this negative language perhaps means losing a piece of our tribalism. But in the long run it will strengthen us, because current younger generations would rather leave us than remain inside a tribe that excludes–especially considering half of them have a parent that we as a community are referring to disparagingly. And for those who bemoan this suggestion as being too politically correct, remember the uproar around the Michael Jackson song lyrics, “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me.” In his (albeit twisted) mind he thought he was using neutral language! He seemed to simply not know, as a lot of people don’t, that using “Jew” as a verb is highly insulting…in the same way we once said “gypped,” and in the way our community still says “goy.” So if you didn’t know before, you know now: the word goy is implicitly negative and has got to go.
Unfortunately, we feel that “gentile” hardly works any better, though that’s debatable. Many outside the Jewish community believe “gentile” is the formal, proper definition for relating themselves to Jews, despite its distinctively antiquated tone. We prefer “non-Jew,” or “non-Jewish,” but even this seemingly neutral language forces us to identify those close to us–many of whom are raising Jewish children and engaging in Jewish practices and lifestyles–in a negative relationship to the Jewish community. It is equivalent to identifying Jews as “non-Christians,” or women as “non-men”!
Let’s agree not to define people in a negative relationship to others, so as not to place one person above another. Can we remove the term “non-Jew” from our vocabulary and come up with something that works better? It may be a struggle to recreate language in order to do so, but the effort will be worth it. Take the feminist movement as an example. Gender-neutral language is still, at times, clumsy. On the other hand, the term “Ms.” feels totally natural today, when back in the 1970s during its introduction it was an awkward adjustment to put into common use.
Of course, finding the most inclusive language often depends on the situation. When we consult with synagogues and other institutions that want to attract unaffiliated and intermarried families, we first ask the purpose. If it’s a general public event, phrases like “open to all” or “everyone welcome” might have a greater appeal than “interfaith families welcome” because you’re not asking people to self-identify as anything other than everyone else. One Jewish day school in Tucson, Arizona, uses the slogan, “All families raising Jewish children are welcome.”
If the program deals specifically with issues of Jewish intermarriage, than the phrase “interfaith” may be a misnomer. Intermarried couples that have made the decision to raise Jewish children and keep a Jewish home may not consider themselves “interfaith” at all, because Judaism is their only faith. To us, those households are simply “Jewish,” or perhaps should be called Jewish households where one parent comes “from a different background.” Sure, it’s a few extra syllables. But so is “physically challenged” when compared to the word “handicapped,” yet it makes a world of difference for those to whom it is applied.
We obviously prefer the word “intermarried” to describe unions between Jews and non-Jews because it encompasses all possibilities of faith belief, though it may be too vague. Still, it’s better than “mixed,” a word that should generally be avoided for anything other than nuts. Just as it’s insulting to call a child of interracial parentage “mixed,” it’s insulting to call a child of Jewish intermarriage–or even the marriage itself–mixed. Also, “intermarried families” has a softer tone than “intermarrieds,” in the same way that we would rather hear others refer to us as “the Jewish community” than as “the Jews.”
For those “spouses from other backgrounds,” some communal leaders have advocated renewing the ancient biblical term ger toshav, which can be loosely translated into contemporary American government parlance as “resident alien.” We don’t find that a very welcoming term. Others advocate for krovei Yisrael, “those who are close to Israel.” But using Hebrew terms tend to alienate rather than embrace people coming from outside the Jewish community. (Likewise calling “outreach” efforts keruv when many born Jews don’t even know the word basically asks newcomers to understand Hebrew before even walking through our doors!)
It takes a long time to get used to change, especially in the use of language, and especially when that language is currently so comfortable. It took many of us some time to get accustomed to “postal workers” and “mail carriers” rather than “mailmen,” or to use the term “flight attendant” when “stewardess” had become a cultural icon that marked America.
Perhaps if we have to use negatives to describe those who are “non-Jews,” we can inject an optimistic spin by calling them “not yet Jewish”. Or maybe borrow from the GLBT community and call them “Jew-curious”! We don’t have the answers yet, but as a community we should start asking the right questions and begin work on a welcoming, inclusive lexicon in which we can all feel comfortable.
Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), the only independent, trans-denominational organization dedicated to welcoming intermarried families into the Jewish community and helping the community better welcome them. He is the author of numerous books including, Introducing My Faith and Community.
Paul Golin is Assistant Executive Director of JOI and author of the report, “The Coming Majority: Suggested Action on Intermarried Households for The Organized Jewish Community.”
Olitzky and Golin are authors of Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do.