The S-Word: A Response to More Than a Succubus

A response to More Than a Succubus: Confessions of a Shiksa, published in our Web Magazine on Feb. 13, by Ellen Jaffe-Gill:

I had taken a stand on the Yiddish word shiksa long before the afternoon I visited my husband’s Hebrew class. Having learned, while researching a book on intermarriage, that it (and its male form, shaygetz, and the plural shkotzim) derived from a Hebrew word meaning “abomination,” I was already gently correcting people who used it, asking them questions like “An abomination — is that really how you think of your daughter-in-law?”

Then one day I celebrated the meeting of a major deadline with a day off, a nice lunch, and a little text study at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, where my husband had been enriching his life studying classical Hebrew on Wednesday afternoons. The class was looking at I Kings, chapter 11, in which Solomon wrong-headedly builds altars to pagan gods for his foreign wives.

Most Hebrew vocabulary is organized into families of three-letter roots, and I recognized the Hebrew root shin-kof-tzadi spelling the word shikutz before I looked at the translation.

“Hey, there’s the root for shiksa,” I said. “Is ‘abomination’ an accurate translation of shikutz?” I asked the teacher, a native Israeli.

“Yes,” she said. “Literally, it means a slimy, crawly thing.” In modern Hebrew, I found out later, depending on the dictionary you look in, shin-kof-tzadi is still the root for words whose meanings range from “loathe, abominate” to “unclean insects.”

That’s when a program of gentle reminders became a crusade. I began e-mailing copy editors whenever I saw the s-word used outside of direct quotation. My response to anyone who tells me, “Oh, I don’t mean it in a nasty way,” is “Would it be okay for her to call you a kike if she didn’t mean it in a nasty way?”

Yiddish and Hebrew are wonderful languages, full of metaphor and color, but they aren’t particularly polite. The Hebrew word for “female,” after all, is the same as the word for “hole,” and the literal meaning of the Yiddish word “bupkes,” generally used as a synonym for “nothing,” is actually “goat dung.”

Accordingly, sometimes we Americans need to depend on the richness of English to label and describe without insult, unwitting or not. I will prevail on anyone who will listen to consider the s-words to be as inappropriate as any other ethnic or racial pejorative, especially when they’re referring to people who are, after all, members of their families.

Around our house, we don’t consider that political correctness. We believe that not referring to people with pejorative labels comes under the heading of something our parents taught us: good manners.

Cantor Ellen Jaffe-Gill is author of Embracing the Stranger: Intermarriage and the Future of the American Jewish Community (BasicBooks) and editor of The Jewish Woman’s Book of Wisdom (Citadel Press).

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