Sunday, May 16, 2010

Funny Word, Funnier Concept

The word “Jew” is odd enough considered merely as a phonetic phenomenon; it gets even funnier when you try to figure out exactly what it means.

Jerry Seinfeld

Is not the word “Jew” somewhat—well, funny? That a religious identity with three thousand years of often tragic history behind it, the source of some of the founding texts of Western and Near Eastern civilization, should be signified in our language by a paltry monosyllable is, to say the least, incongruous. More than that, the word has at least a potentially humorous ring to it. Thus an elective class at the religious school that I attended as a boy was whimsically titled “Jews in the News.” (That is the kind of measure to which a Reform Jewish Sunday school—and yes, it was held on Sundays, not Saturdays—resorted in its efforts to avoid boring us: elevating the hallowed pastime of Jew-spotting to an academic subject.) My classmates and I were inspired by this title to add “Jews in Trees” to the list of classes on a bulletin board. But the impulse to play around with the word started with the grown-ups, not with us.

Of course, it may well be that I can say such things only because I had the good fortune to grow up without hearing the word “Jew” used in hatred and contempt, something that I imagine most Jews of earlier generations in English-speaking countries cannot say (to say nothing of Jews in countries of other languages). Even today, many people, especially non-Jews, shy away from using the word and substitute the dainty phrase “Jewish person” for fear of giving offense. I suspect that I am not the only one who finds something jarring in the designation of a rabbinical college in London as “Jews’ College.” (I suspect that that is one reason why in 1999 it changed its name to “London School of Jewish Studies.”)

As far as its origins are concerned, the curtness of the word “Jew” says more about the eliding tendencies of the French language than about the sentiments of those who have used it. It was in French that the word for one belonging to the tribe or the kingdom of Judah, transmitted in trisyllabic form from Hebrew (y’hūdī) by way of Aramaic (y'hūdāi), Greek (ioudaios), and Latin (iūdæus), was reduced to a monosyllable, variously written giu, gyu, or giue, before ending up in English as “Jew.” (Source: Oxford English Dictionary.)

And yet, the very word that is innocent in one language can become a slur in another. In English, “Yid” is an ethnic slur; in Yiddish, it is just the word for “Jew.” “Zhid” (жид) in Russian is an offensive term, while a word of identical sound and origin in Czech (žid), Slovak (the same), and Polish (Żyd) carries no derisive connotation. 

Whatever the oddities of the word “Jew” and its monosyllabic equivalents in some other languages, they are superficial compared to the oddities of the concept expressed by the word. In my first entry in this blog (“Three Ways of Looking at Being Jewish,” December 27, 2009), I considered three possible ways of understanding what a Jew is: (1) one who belongs to the Jewish people, (2) one who practices Judaism, and (3) one who adheres to the Jewish faith. That last phrase, “the Jewish faith,” makes me cringe somewhat, as it so strongly suggests attempts to assimilate Judaism to a Christian, and more specifically a Protestant, model of religion as “faith.” Of course, Judaism is a religion and does involve faith, both in the sense of a body of theistic and eschatological beliefs and in the sense of trust in a divinity (at least in most of its varieties). But it would be an error to presume that the beliefs define the religion or that they are more fundamental than the observances.

The relation between belief and observance in Judaism is subject to endless disputation. Yet it is merely one “funny” element of the concept of being a Jew. Let us simplify the matter by distinguishing between only two rather than three aspects of Jewishness: belonging to the Jewish people on the one hand, and accepting—whether that means practicing, professing, or both—Judaism on the other. Now it seems plain that the first of these has priority; for one who is born into the Jewish people is a Jew, regardless of whether he or she accepts Judaism, while someone not born into the Jewish people and not converted by a rabbi is not a Jew no matter what practices or professions he or she may make.

Is the term then an ethnic designation, or a term of descent? Not at all. In the first place, one can become a Jew by conversion. There is no such thing as converting to an ethnic membership, and while one may be adopted into a family, one does not thereby acquire a new descent. In the second place, it is religious practice that determines membership in the Jewish people (a.k.a. Israel), not in the sense that you have to practice Judaism to count as a Jew, but in the sense that it is Jewish practice that determines the criteria for so counting. Traditionally, the primary criterion is that one is born of a Jewish woman. Reform Judaism also accepts patrilineal descent under certain conditions as sufficient for membership. Whatever the specifics, the important point is that the criteria of belonging are themselves a matter of religious practice. The Jewish religion determines both a religious condition (conversion) and a non-religious condition (descent) for belonging to the Jewish people; and the non-religious condition is the normal or default condition. A Jew is, by and large, such by dint of being the child of Jewish parents.

So the term “Jew” compresses into one syllable at least two pairs of divergent but mutually inseparable aspects of Jewish identity: religious belief and religious observance on the one hand, religious practice and descent on the other. Anyone who tries to impose an either–or on these matters and make the term unidimensionally a matter of, say, religious profession or observance or descent—just one and not any other—does not even understand what the word means.

Is this logically incoherent? Of course not. It merely refuses to conform to certain a priori expectations. Face it: it’s a funny word.

Previous entry: You Have Been Spammed

Next entry: Three Kinds of Religious Beliefs


  1. I wonder if the complications of Jewish identity would have arisen if Judaism in ancient times had not adopted the unique idea that a Jew remains a Jew even if he no longer acts Jewish. Of the three monotheistic religions i think Judaism is the only one which developed (or maybe maintained) a national element to it thus complicating the definition of what makes a Jew even until this day.

  2. Shilton, I am tempted by such questions too, but I suspect that they are like saying, “If my grandmother had two wheels, she would be a bicycle.” Of course we can speculate about what might have happened if the Jews in ancient times had developed a religion without the idea of Israelite peoplehood; but no such religion could be the religion of the Torah or be recognizable as Judaism. The word “Jew” (or its equivalent in other languages) might have been applied to members of this alternative-world religion, but the word would have a completely different meaning. I think that the “complications” introduced by the “national element” are as much a part of the bargain as anything in the Torah!

  3. The Seattle Jewish newspaper tried to modernize its image by changing its name from "The Jewish Transcript" to the truly offensive "JT News," as if afraid to use any form of the "funny" word.

  4. To Sherry: I wonder if at some later point they will come out with a new name with the same initials but a different content. You may recall that there used to be a chain of coffee shops in Seattle called Stewart Brothers Coffee. An older British coffee company of the same name brought suit against it for infringement of trademark. The Seattle company changed its name to "SBC," and eventually changed that to "Seattle's Best Coffee," thus preserving the original initials but nothing else. Maybe the so-called JT will re-emerge at some point as—I don't know; Jocular Tidings? Journal of Tedium?

  5. PS. I think that your anecdote has more to do with the American mania for initialisms than it has to do with a reluctance to use the word "Jewish." Still, such coyness is annoying. An organization that calls itself "JTA" describes itself on its banner as "the global news service of the Jewish people," but does not say anywhere on its Web site what those letters stand for. I had to go to Wikipedia to confirm my suspicion that it stands for "Jewish Telegraphic Agency." I suppose that that designation is just outmoded.