Interfaith Insults

Yiddish Has Rich Vein of Perjoratives for Christians

Uneasy Peace: Since Jews and Christians have not always gotten along, it is hardly surprising that Yiddish is full of perjoratives for Christians.
getty images
Uneasy Peace: Since Jews and Christians have not always gotten along, it is hardly surprising that Yiddish is full of perjoratives for Christians.

By Philologos

Published July 15, 2012, issue of July 20, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

From Jacob Mendlovic of Toronto comes a letter of complaint about “the intense hostility of Haredim,” or ultra-Orthodox Jews, toward gentiles as manifested in such “Jewish n-words” as sheygets (a non-Jewish boy; from Hebrew shaketz, “abomination”); shikse (a non-Jewish girl); orel (an uncircumcised man) and akum (heathen — a talmudic acronym for ovdey kokhavim u’mazalot, “worshipers of stars and signs”). And that’s not all. “When a Haredi Jew dies,” Mr. Mendlovic writes, “Haredim use the Hebrew-derived expression er iz nifter geven, ‘He passed away,’ whereas when a gentile dies, they say er iz geshtorbn [the past tense of German-derived shtarbn, to die] — or worse yet, using the Hebrew word peger, an animal carcass, er hot gepeygert. In their literature and newspapers, they make a sharp, punning distinction between a beys-tfile, a ‘house of prayer’ or synagogue, and a beys-tifle, a ‘house of folly’ or church. If you want, I can mail you examples of all this.”

There’s no need to. The hostility of some Jews, particularly insular ones, toward gentiles is hardly news, and certain Yiddish turns of phrase that express this, like er iz gepeygert, “He [a gentile] croaked,” are truly ugly. But although there’s no real excuse for such turns of phrase, one needs to remind oneself of two things. The first thing is that Yiddish was, until recently, an Eastern European language, and that in Eastern Europe, where millions of Jews were murdered by Christians not very long ago, neither Jews nor Christians made a secret of not liking each other. (This is, of course, a generalization. There were always many exceptions to the rule.) The second thing is that Yiddish has a whole set of binary terms for Jews and gentiles that, while they certainly reflect a Jewish sense of superiority, do not necessarily reflect animus. Rather, they come from a traditional Jewish sense that Jews and gentiles inhabit separate universes, one sacred and the other profane, and that language may sometimes indicate this.

In most cases, Yiddish made such distinctions in matters of religious practice. Although Yiddish-speaking Jews in Eastern Europe did not call a church a beys-tifle unless they wished to be derogatory (the neutral terms kirkh and kloyster were far more common), and beys-tfile was not a frequent term for a synagogue, once in a church or synagogue, the words used for Jewish and Christian worship were not the same. When a Jew prayed, he “davened” (the word is of obscure origins, though many years ago, in these pages, I tried to trace it back to Hebrew); for Christians, the verb was molyen zikh, from Polish modlić się. The holiday the Jew prayed on was a yontif (from Hebrew yom tov, “good day”); the Christian celebrated a khoge (from Aramaic ḥ aga, “holiday”). A sermon in the church was a preydik (from German predigen, to preach); a sermon in the synagogue was a droshe (from Hebrew d’rashá). The lectern the Christian preacher stood at was a shtender; a shtender in a synagogue was a stand for a book, while a preacher’s lectern, also used by the prayer leader and the Torah reader, was the amud (from Hebrew again).

The emphasis was on difference, not derogation. It was often reinforced, as can be seen, by the use of a Hebrew word with sacral associations for Jews and the use of a non-Hebrew word for gentiles. The Jewish slaughter of kosher animals was designated by the verb shekhtn, from Hebrew shaḥ at; Christian slaughter was koylen, from Russian kolot. A Jewish cemetery was Hebrew beys-oylem, a “house of eternity”; a Christian cemetery was a tsvinter, from Ukrainian tsvintar. (This word ultimately goes back to Greek koimeterion and Latin coemeterium, and has such Eastern European cognates as Polish cmentarz and Hungarian tzinterem.) Burying a gentile was bagrobn, a Germanic word related to English “grave”; burying a Jew was more often mekaber zayn or brengen tsu kvure, from Hebrew kavar, “bury,” and k’vurá, “burial.”

One could go on. A saintly Jew was a tzaddik, from the Hebrew word for “righteous man”; a saintly Christian was a heyliker, from German heilig, “holy.” A scholarly Jew was a lamden, from Hebrew lamad, “learn, study”; a scholarly Christian, a gelernter. And once again: heyliker and gelernter were respectful terms. They just referred to a different realm, a separate sphere of existence.

None of this is to argue for or against Mr. Mendlovic’s assessment of ultra-Orthodox attitudes toward gentiles. Having little first-hand familiarity with the Haredi world, I have no idea how much we are talking about unthinkingly inherited linguistic usages and how much about genuine prejudice. Although words like “goy,” sheygets, shikse, orel, etc., can certainly be contemptuous, they don’t have to be. They can simply express a sense of otherness, of the enormous gulf dividing Jews from gentiles that was the common experience of many Eastern European Jews and continues to be that of ultra-Orthodox Jews today. Feeling superior as a Jew doesn’t necessarily mean denying a non-Jew’s worth, even if you think you’re lucky not to have been born one.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel:
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.