Arts & Culture

Keeping Away From the Schvartzes

Hey kids!  Gather around now, we’re gonna talk about the "s-word"! Yay! Yay! Y’know, "schvartze." Or "schwartze." Or "schvatza." Or "nigg–." Whoop! I meant "shwartzer." [Because it's a completely different word, y'know.] There’s a quiz on Facebook-the "Jewish Vocabulary Quiz"-which … Read More

By / November 10, 2009

Hey kids!  Gather around now, we’re gonna talk about the "s-word"! Yay! Yay!

Y’know, "schvartze." Or "schwartze." Or "schvatza." Or "nigg–." Whoop! I meant "shwartzer." [Because it's a completely different word, y'know.]

There’s a quiz on Facebook-the "Jewish Vocabulary Quiz"-which includes this wholesome gem of a question: "Your father comments on all the "schvatzes" that have moved into the area. He is reffrring [sic] to: 1-Conservatives, 2- Mexicans, 3- Non Jews, 4-African Americans." It got me fairly boiled up until I happened across an article by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein ["On Racism, Its Costs and Its Causes"-12/10/08] in which he discusses the "s-word." Among the insightful and informed comments on the article were the following:

*I disagree with Rabbi Adlerstein’s tendentious assessments of the terms "goy" and "shvartzeh." His assertion that such terminology is pejorative is incorrect. These words are totally neutral. ("Goy" and "goyim" are biblical terms which mean either "gentile" or "gentile nations" or "nation." The noun/adjective "shvartzeh" means either black or black African-American in Yiddish. There is no other word available in Yiddish to express that idea.) *Perhaps the clergyman is confusing these innocuous terms with the notorious "n" word in English, which should definitely not be used by civilized people. His objections to the aforementioned Hebrew and Yiddish vocabulary have, on the other hand, no validity. Such comments fall under the category of inappropriate political correctness—and I would urge that we eschew such folly.

*Surprise! I know exactly what the clergyman stated; nevertheless, he is mistaken. The erroneous contention is that the words in question have a proper etymology but their current usage is improper. Gentlemen, this is precisely the argument which I contest as an accomplished linguist. Please pay attention. Educated people use these words correctly without any pejorative connotations. My point is that their proper usage should be encouraged. It is myopic to advocate the elimination of these appropriate vocabulary words. (That is censorship which you ought to deplore.) We need more education without "politically correct" euphemisms. By the same token, I hereby argue: we must continue to use the term "goy" and we must continue to use the term "shvartzeh" correctly as these words are and should be understood in their pristine neutral sense. (It should also be emphasized that these terms are used properly by intellectual speakers of Yiddish and Hebrew. Therefore, learn from the intellectuals in this particular context.)

*Rabbi Adlerstein is wrong about the Hebrew and Yiddish words he cites. Those vocabulary words (shvartzeh and goy) are appropriate and neutral. Modern cynics have to become more tolerant and accept the fact that enlightened and educated people use those words properly.

After reading these comments, I, on behalf of all Black people everywhere [because apparently I'm the default ambassador for every Black person on the face of the planet in all other cases, anyway], would like to say: We give up. You’re right.

See, we had no idea that all us Jews live in countries ruled by philosopher kings and inhabited solely by intellectuals who engage in nothing less than benign, erudite dialogue. Also, we were unaware that, apparently, words in this magical kingdom are immune to the ravages of things like "context" and "intent." And that despite the neutral original meaning of words, apparently they are also incapable of taking on insulting connotations. We now realize that when those of us [un]lucky enough to have gone to yeshiva were called "schvartze" instead of our given names, what was really meant was "Hello you person I am neutrally and non-perjoratively addressing right now. Please come forward, as I am interested in engaging you in respectful and civil dialogue."

Wow. That’s egg on our face.

Also, to that linguistics guy up there, we also apologize for not knowing that slang and code-switching don’t exist in your happy magical country either. [For those who don't know, "code-switching" is when someone speaks primarily in one language, but occasionally sprinkles in words from a different language for certain things. Like when people speak in "Spanglish."] And as we all know, whenever someone uses slang or code-switching to describe someone of a different gender/sexual orientation/religion/race than themselves, it’s always in a neutral and non-perjorative manner. Like maricon. Or bitch. Or gaijin. Or kushi. Or kike. Or falasha. Or mick. Or guinea…Hmm…I guess none of those examples are proving my point. Oh well. But you get what I’m saying, yes?

In fact, we now propose a campaign to issue a general and blanket dismissal of all silly sensibilities based on such ridiculous things as implication and usage. As such, I will start wearing a swastika to synagogue.

What?

I mean, surely civilized people can tell you that the swastika is nothing more than a neutral symbol which symbolizes good luck, wealth and good fortune. Just because it happened to be used by the Nazis in WWII doesn’t take away from what its meaning actually is, right? Hell, I’ll probably even name my kid Adolf Hitler. Why not? "Adolf" is a good strong name. Means "noble wolf" and everything. And "Hitler"? "One who lives in a hut". C’mon, nothing’s more neutral than a guy who lives in a hut.

…Actually, yeah. Now that I think about it, that is pretty f*cking stupid logic.