Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.
March 18, 2009
A few years ago, I invited my friend Sarah to check out a Tot Shabbat program with her husband and young daughter. She is not Jewish, but her husband is.
"Is it OK for shiksas to come?" Sarah asked immediately. While her comment was mostly joking, I could detect a trace of guardedness.
I reassured her that she was welcome and wouldn't be the only "shiksa" in the group.
It was actually the first time I'd heard this well-known Yiddishism in a while, and I'd begun to assume it had, like the derogatory Yiddish term for black people, mostly fallen out of use. After all, as Christine Benvenuto points out in the 2004 book, Shiksa: The Gentile Woman in the Jewish World, it derives from the Hebrew verb "shakaytz," meaning "to abominate or loathe an unclean thing." Nonetheless, the "s" word doesn't die easily and, more than a decade after George told Elaine (ironically, played by the half-Jewish Julia Louis-Dreyfus) on Seinfeld that she had "shiks-appeal," it may even be making a comeback.
Witness The Shiksa Syndrome, a new chick-lit novel by Laurie Graff about a single Jewish Upper West Side woman who pretends she is Christian so she can snag a Jewish boyfriend. If you can get over the abundance of Borscht Belt stereotypes (gentile gals eat ham and mayo on Wonder bread and are simultaneously sexier and more frigid than Jewesses), the book is actually a mildly entertaining page-turner. I found it troubling that the author, who is Jewish, nowhere acknowledges the offensiveness of the term "shiksa."
Shortly after Syndrome hit bookstores, a column entitled "Shiksas Are for Practice" appeared in the San Diego Jewish Journal (a similar piece, under a different byline, was published a few months earlier in the Boston Jewish Advocate). "Practice," authored by a Jewish woman, was shockingly unapologetic in its use of "shiksa."
The typical "shiksa," according to this column? "A tall, skinny blonde with perky boobs, no butt and no brains." Hmm. When I think of the gentile women I know who are married to Jewish men, not one comes even close to this description. Most are brunettes, a number are Asian (and not the stereotypical submissive "Oriental" fantasy girl, by the way) and none is any thinner or chestier than the Jewish women I know. They also seem to be doing OK in the brains department: academics, psychologists, publishing professionals, filmmakers and so forth.
While Jewish women now intermarry at the same rates as Jewish men, few people are familiar with the word for gentile man: "shaygetz" (it scores 11,600 Google hits to shiksa's 143,000). And these men have no accompanying stereotype; there is no stock "shaygetz" character we can conjure up. That's partly because previous generations had more shiksas than shaygetzes and because women always get hit with more slurs than men (Google "JAP Jewish," excluding all references to "Japan," and you'll get a whopping 751,000 hits).
But it's also because, thanks to the Jewish tradition of matrilineal descent, gentile women--whose children are not considered Jewish by Orthodox and Conservative Jews--are perceived as the ultimate threat to Jewish continuity. I asked the "shiksas" of the Mothers Circle, a network of more than 55 support groups around the country for gentile women raising Jewish children, to send me e-mails weighing in on the word.
Barbara Ginsberg of Olathe, Kan., said she and her husband use "shiksa" so much she's come to think of it as a "term of endearment" and "funny."
Samantha Breger, of suburban Baltimore, said she, too, used to consider shiksa "sort of humorous." But then a female Jewish friend said, "Sam, don't call yourself that."
"Honestly, before that point, I had no idea that it was offensive," Breger said, adding that when she talked to her husband about it, he wasn't aware of the negative connotations either.
Jill Frank, who lives in Tampa, Fla., does not mind when her husband laughs that she is a shiksa, but when the same comment comes from a Jewish woman, "I feel like there is a negative connotation--even if she says it to be funny."
Alicia Scotti, a member of Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan, warmly recalls an old Jewish colleague from before she got married who sometimes called her a shiksa, but "in a friendly way and as an explanation of why I didn't understand something he said."
On the other hand, at a recent wedding of her husband's Orthodox relatives, a family friend, noticing that Scotti's son had been the only child in the wedding party who was not given a place under the hupah, said, "It's because you're a shiksa!"
This time, "shiksa" hurt her feelings, because it underscored that "my son had been treated differently because of me," Scotti said.
Which gets back to matrilineal descent.
"Jewish women married to non-Jewish men really don't understand that there is a difference in the larger Jewish community," Scotti added. "Their children are never called into question. Mine are. It's that simple."
Twenty-five years ago the Reform movement made the historic and controversial decision to accept as Jewish any child with at least one Jewish parent, so long as the child is raised as a Jew.
Nonetheless, even in Jill Frank's Reform temple, where the rabbi welcomes her, some members "tell us [our son] is not Jewish because I'm not."
That attitude, rather than an epidemic of blonde bimbos snapping up hapless Jewish guys, is the real "shiksa syndrome."