Stranger in a Strange Land

On Language

By Philologos

Published December 04, 2008, issue of December 12, 2008.
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D. Nahil writes:

“Although I was referred to in a blog as a sheygetz in a kind, jovial manner, I’m actually a middle-aged goy who follows the Torah and is thinking of a halakhically Orthodox conversion. What word would be used, more correctly, to describe me (again, in a jovial manner)?”

If Mr. Nahil’s letter is any indication, he’s ready for a conversion already. First of all, he has a sense of humor about being Jewish, which is always a sign that a convert feels at home with his new faith and people. Secondly, he knows enough to know that sheygetz, although not necessarily a derogatory word and one quite capable of expressing teasing affection or even admiration, is generally used in Yiddish and Yinglish for non-Jewish youths (or Jewish ones having qualities associated with non-Jews) and would not normally be applied to a man his age. In short, he’s no rank beginner.

But what Jewish or Yiddish words would one use to jovially tease a middle-aged man who wants to be Jewish?

Here’s an old joke for Mr. Nahil. A Jew sits down on the subway and notices that an African American next to him is reading a Yiddish newspaper. He keeps looking at him out of the corner of his eye, embarrassed to ask the question that he is dying to ask. Finally, he can’t control himself any longer. Tapping the man on the shoulder, he says:

Mister, zayt ir moykhl, ober ikh darf epes fregn,” i.e., “Excuse me, mister, but there’s something I have to ask.”

Nu, fregt shoyn,” says the man.

Ir zayt a yid?” the Jew asks. “Are you Jewish?”

To which the man answers:

Vos for a shayle iz dos? Aza a meshugener goy bin ikh nit!”

That is:

“What kind of a question is that? That crazy a goy I’m not!”

Perhaps, then, Mr. Nahil should be jovially called a meshugener goy.

Seriously speaking, however, Jewish tradition holds that one does not make jokes or remarks that may hurt the feelings of converts. The Talmud, in the tractate of Sanhedrin, puts this in an extreme form in the Aramaic saying, Giyora, ad asara darey lo t’vazeh aramai kamey, “Do not speak ill of gentiles even before the tenth-generation descendant of a convert.” The Yiddish version of this goes, Far a ger tor men kayn goy nit sheltn, “Never badmouth a gentile in front of a convert.”

The Hebrew word for a convert, ger, comes from the verb gar, to reside or dwell, and referred in biblical times to non-Israelites who chose to dwell among Israelites and adopt their customs, there having been no formal process of religious conversion prior to the rabbinic period. Although in biblical Hebrew ger can also refer to Israelites living among non-Israelites, as when the book of Exodus calls the children of Israel “gerim in the land of Egypt,” in rabbinic Hebrew it always means a convert or proselyte – and always one to Judaism, never from it or to other religions, for which there are other words.

By medieval times, the definition of a ger had grown quite strict: He or she was someone who had joined the Jewish people by the approval of a court of three rabbis; t’vila, immersion in the water of a mikva; and circumcision in the case of a male. One either was a ger (or giyoret, if a woman) or one wasn’t.

Yet, in early rabbinic times the definition was looser and gerim were classified on a sliding scale. Thus, there was the ger tzedek, the “just” or full ger, who willingly lived as a Jew in every respect and observed all the commandments; the ger toshav, the “resident ger,” who lived among Jews and, although not fully observant, renounced idolatry and other pagan practices; the ger arayot or “lions’ ger,” who accepted Judaism out of superstition rather than informed conviction (the term is based on the story in the second book of Kings about how the Samaritans, the people brought to Samaria after the exile of its Israelite inhabitants by the Assyrians, began to worship the Israelite god, because they thought he was the reason for the lions that kept attacking them); the ger Ester u’Mordekhai, the “Esther-and-Mordecai ger,” who converted in fear of Jewish violence or persecution (based on the last chapter in the book of Esther); the ger to’eh or “errant ger,” who practiced Judaism on his own and incorrectly; the ger garur, the “[self]-attached ger,” who considered himself a Jew because he associated with Jews, even though they themselves did not think of him as such, etc.

One is reminded of our own age, wherein, after long centuries in which every Jew knew exactly who was a Jew and who wasn’t, different notions of Jewishness have replaced a single, authoritative one and there are again numerous categories of full Jews, partial Jews, and fellow-traveling Jews. Mr. Nahil, it would appear, is aiming to be a ger tzedek. All in all, that’s better than sheygetz or meshugener goy.


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