Time to Junk Jewish Jargon?


You’re at a social or family gathering when someone starts throwing around a bunch of Jewish gobblygook you don’t understand. One guy is talking about a cool, new “minyan” in town and you’re picturing this guy.


Someone else is talking about her “boobie” and you wonder if this is really too intimate a conversation for a party (Bubbie = Yiddish for Grandmother). Has this ever happened to you? A few minutes into a conversation among people who are Jewishly identified, and you’re likely to hear a little Yiddish, maybe bits of Hebrew or references to things that would be obscure outside of a Jewish context. Jews love Jewish jargon. Even some who aren’t Jewish love it (Check out Ed Begley Jr. turning on the Yiddish in the film, A Mighty Wind).

Some throw around Jewish jargon without realizing it and assume everyone understands. It is just part and parcel of being immersed in a civilization with a particular set of texts, languages, history and cultural terminology. They might feel that a Jewish context—a Jewish Community Center, synagogue or Jewish home—is a place where they can let their pent-up inner Jew run free. Jewish jargon can signal in-group solidarity as well. To be honest, though, I think others use it so they sound “in the know” or to purposely alienate someone else—which is unfortunate.

Whether intended or not, the result of Jewish insider-speak is that it can alienate people who aren’t Jewish and often even those who are. Judaism often seems like a club for the initiated. But we are becoming so diverse that one can’t expect even in Jewish places that everyone shares a common knowledge base anymore. And with the growing numbers of intermarried couples involved in Jewish life, there are bound to be a significant portion of people at any given Jewish happening who weren’t raised with Judaism.

I am hearing more and more often that if the Jewish community wants to be truly welcoming of interfaith couples, we need to make sure people don’t feel alienated by insider-speak, and that we should eliminate or curb some of our Jewish particularisms. Some even think that since we don’t want to create situations that make people stand out as unknowledgeable, we might want to tone down Hebrew in services to make them more universal. I remember speaking with one interfaith couple in which the partner who isn’t Jewish felt this way, remarking that he’ll never feel comfortable in a space where there is so much Hebrew because it’s not welcoming to him.

To become a truly welcoming Jewish community, do we need to become, well, a little less Jewish? Is it time to junk Jewish jargon?

Absolutely not. Judaism can be both welcoming and uniquely Jewish. My grandparents and parents grew up in the American melting pot era. Anyone “different,” including Jews, tried to play down their uniqueness and blend in. But we live in a very different time. We wouldn’t dream of asking any other minority, ethnic or religious group to abandon the very particulars that make it unique. In fact, most of us find these differences among us to be the interesting byproducts of living in a multi-cultural society (and maybe even what attracted us to our partners who come from a different background!).

So why would we rob Judaism of what makes it Jewish? Contemporary Judaism is more and more open to anyone who wants to be a part of it, and we are enriched by the diversity of people who are being drawn to Jewish life. That may mean that we can no longer assume we are all in on the jargon. But it doesn’t mean we have to dilute it. Instead, here are a few suggestions to make Judaism more welcoming while retaining its unique flavor, and some others that might help those less knowledgeable about Jewish life navigate Jewish jargon moments.


Translate. Does your mother-in-law talk about the machatenem (the other set of parents-in-law)? Whether you’re speaking at a party or speaking from the bima, take a page from our InterfaithFamily website. We always hyperlink words that might not be known (point in case: bima).  What if we all talked this way, offering subtle explanations just in case someone needs it? The worst that can happen is that everyone nods as if to say, “We already know.” Far better than the alternative: making someone feel that he or she is the only one who doesn’t.

Explain. You never know if people have the same cultural or religious contexts you do, so it’s always a good idea to explain what you mean when talking about ideas particular to a certain field or group of people.

Transliterate. Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish and Ladino are hallmarks of our rich, Jewish cultures. Let’s not abandon them. Instead, transliterate as a regular practice—whether it is a synagogue handout or a wedding booklet.


Ask for help. If you are in need of more contextual information to make sense of something that was said, don’t be scared to ask for an explanation. You will be reminding the speaker that not everyone shares her or his knowledge and you may be saving the next listener from the same situation. Don’t just continue to nod as if you know—Judaism is a tradition with thousands of years of history, text and language. No one knows it all—even the person who’s speaking.

Don’t apologize. You have vast areas of knowledge that others don’t possess. There is nothing wrong, embarrassing or shameful about not knowing something!

Be open to learning. Judaism is a rich and complex tradition. Don’t assume that something within it isn’t meant for you. Delve in and learn something new or try to follow along in the transliterated Hebrew. Give it a try rather than expecting Judaism to cut out the pieces you don’t yet understand.

As our society and our families become more diverse, we are in the wonderful position of celebrating rather than diminishing our differences. So go ahead…embrace what is yours and learn about what isn’t. It’s a mechiah! (A great relief or blessing.)

Three Terms I Hope Not to Hear in the New Year


As the new year approaches, I’ve been thinking back over the past year—particularly about certain terms I’ve heard used in 2014 that bother me. Following are three terms I hope to hear less of in 2015.

NON-JEW: While “non-Jew” is an easy short-hand term and it’s clear what it means, this term can be offensive. Most people prefer to be described in the positive as what they ARE, rather than in the negative as what they’re NOT. For example, I identify as a “female,” not a “non-male;” and in my family I’m a “wife and mother,” not a “non-husband and non-father.” At InterfaithFamily, we’re concerned that when people in the Jewish community talk about “non-Jews” in interfaith relationships, it sends the message—even if it’s interpreted subconsciously—that the person who isn’t Jewish is somehow “less than” by defining that person with an emphasis on his or her “outsider” status.

Granted, not using the term “non-Jew” can sometimes cause us to have to do some linguistic gymnastics, but I think it’s better to sound a little wordy and awkward than to potentially offend someone. So far, I don’t know of an ideal term to describe someone who isn’t Jewish. One suggestion I’ve heard is PDF (“person of a different faith”), but that term has its own limitations in that the partner who isn’t Jewish may not identify as part of another religious group, or may be an atheist of agnostic who doesn’t have a “faith.” Do you have any suggestions?

And for the record, I’d love to never again hear terms like shiksa and goy. These terms, which simply mean, respectively, “a woman who is not Jewish” and “people who are not Jewish,” are too often used by Jews in a pejorative manner.

TeenHALF-JEW: I used to really dislike this term no matter what the context in which it was used. But now I’ve come to see a difference between using it to define oneself and using it to define someone else. Before I worked for InterfaithFamily, if I were teaching a religious school class at a synagogue and a boy with one Jewish parent told me that he was “half-Jewish” I would probably have said something like:  “You’re fully Jewish. Just because one of your parents isn’t Jewish doesn’t make you ‘half-Jewish.’” (If the boy were older, I may even have joked: “which half, left or right?”) But as my colleague Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, pointed out to me when I came to work here, people have the right to self-identify, and if someone identifies as “half-Jewish” it’s not my place to tell him otherwise.

While I may have a tendency to want the boy in my religious school class to feel “whole” and to know that he is “authentically” Jewish even if one of his parents isn’t Jewish, identity is complex. There are many things that a child (or, for that matter, an adult) could mean when he says that he’s “half-Jewish.” Perhaps that’s his way of saying that he loves and identifies strongly with his parent who is not Jewish and that parent’s family. It’s not my place to tell him that the way he self-identifies is wrong.

Yet while I now wouldn’t “correct” someone who identifies herself as “half-Jewish” because of her right to identify as she chooses, I do find it offensive when people label others as “half-Jewish.”  In my—admittedly liberal—understanding of Judaism, a person with a Jewish parent is Jewish, regardless of the gender of her Jewish parent. (I recognize that this view, which is consistent with the views of the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements, is inconsistent with traditional Halacha (Jewish law), and is not accepted by the Conservative Movement and Orthodox Jews, who require that a child’s mother must be Jewish in order for the child to be Jewish without being converted.) And such a person is as “fully Jewish” as any person with two Jewish parents. Labelling someone a “half-Jew” can be very hurtful to them (see, for example, Zach Cohen’s blog “Don’t Call Me a Half-Jew”) and risks alienating children in interfaith families from their Jewish roots.

Which brings me to the third term I don’t like…

PATRILINEAL JEW: Traditional Jewish law requires that a person’s mother be Jewish in order for him to be Jewish without converting. But for years now the Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanist Movements have recognized “patrilineal descent” (i.e. a child with one Jewish parent, regardless of the parent’s gender, is Jewish so long as certain other criteria are met). CLICK HERE for an explanation of “Who is a Jew?”

Nobody ever refers to someone whose mother is Jewish and whose father isn’t Jewish as a “matrilineal Jew”—such a person is simply a “Jew.” Similarly, those of us who accept patrilineal descent shouldn’t refer to someone whose father is Jewish (or who is being raised by two fathers, for that matter) as a “patrilineal Jew.” The modifier “patrilineal” is unnecessary, and implies that having a Jewish father, as opposed to a Jewish mother, somehow puts one into a different, less authentic, category of Jewishness.

My hope for 2015 is that we can all spend more time focusing on our own religious and spiritual lives…and a LOT less time worrying about defining everyone else’s.

Are there terms that you’d like to leave behind in 2014? I’d love to hear what they are.

Interfaith Language Sensitivity


Speech bubbleWe here at InterfaithFamily believe, like the rabbis of old, that language is extremely important. The rabbis of the Talmud wrote about the power of words. God created the world with words. God said, “Let there be…” and there was. The rabbis said that to embarrass someone was akin to killing their soul (bringing blood to the face). They spoke against lashon harah (gossip—literally the evil tongue). There are prayers about guarding our tongues from evil and our lips from deceit. The Amidah, the central prayer in the Jewish worship service, begins with a line asking God to open our lips that our mouth can declare God’s glory. The old adage, “sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never hurt us” is indeed not very Jewish. The words “thing” and “word” in Hebrew share the same root “d’var” teaching that our words create reality.

It is because words are so important that you may notice that we avoid using the term, “non-Jew” because we don’t promote the idea that someone can be a “non-entity.” We rather say, “someone not Jewish.” You may feel that this is just semantics, but we disagree.

Many Jewish institutions ask people if they are affiliated with a congregation on membership forms and surveys. The Jewish world wants to know who is a member of a synagogue and what behaviors they have as opposed to people who are not members of a synagogue. We are also interested in tracking synagogue membership for dozens of other reasons (although the topic of another blog, I personally believe it is extremely difficult to raise children with Judaism without the help of a congregation or organized community whether school, community center or chavurah).

Here are my top five reasons for not using the word “unaffiliated” anymore:

  1. This is an insider Jewish professional term that creates even more distance between the paid leaders and the people. Sometimes people do not know what it means to be “affiliated” and thus again on Jewish flyers and brochures are words and sentiments that don’t ring a bell or resonate and can make people feel like outsiders.
  2. Affiliation is a euphemism (don’t you love euphemisms?) meaning that someone pays synagogue dues. In rare cases, someone may feel so connected to a Jewish Community Center that they feel they “go” there or “belong” there but by and large this term is asking if someone is a member of a synagogue. If we want to know if someone goes to a synagogue, we should ask that and then explain why “we” want to know that.
  3. People may be affiliated with many different things that bring them closer to Judaism and this question, implying synagogue membership, is outdated, not nuanced and doesn’t refer to the interesting places people go and what that brings them there. For instance, some people are affiliated with or connected to secular non-profits like food depositories, animal shelters, hospitals and educational programs. Volunteer work for these causes brings sacred purpose and is done in the name of tikkun olam (repairing our broken world).
  4. Some people have been turned off by synagogues and being asked over and over whether they are affiliated with a synagogue can feel like a reminder that they are outsiders, or even different from “good” Jews and that their disconnect is problematic. Maybe we should be asking people what synagogues could offer or feel like, and whether they would like to have clergy in their lives for counseling, life cycle events and learning opportunities. It’s not that people don’t want this. They are not sure if they will find these things in synagogues.
  5. Jewish leaders have a goal of increasing affiliation rates. There are many reasons for this. Interfaith families connected to congregations typically have high levels of Jewish behavior like celebrating holidays, sending children to religious school, etc. Jewish leaders want to ensure that people are “doing Jewish” because it is a civilization and a way of life worthy of living and passing on, and because we care about Jewish continuity. I think synagogues, in theory (and many in practice), are definitely the best vehicles for helping people live Jewishly and pass it on to the next generation. But because it is “positive” to be affiliated, it can be interpreted as “negative” to be unaffiliated, as though one is harming the Jewish people. Nobody wants to wear or own a negative label or have a finger pointed at them.

Language matters. Labels matter. This is how people end up feeling connected or disconnected. If we stop calling people “unaffiliated” and start talking about who they are, what they are interested in or what would make them want to join or help create an organized Jewish community, we may find more answers.