You Can Take the Jew Out of Jewish... But You Probably Wouldn’t

By Berel Lang

Published October 06, 2006, issue of October 06, 2006.
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What is the difference between saying that “so-and-so is a Jew” and that “so-and-so is Jewish?”

An admittedly unscientific poll I took recently among 18 acquaintances reached a unanimous verdict; they always spoke of themselves as Jewish, not as Jews. Would “Jew” in the same context, they were then asked, be wrong or pejorative? Again a consensus: “No, but….”

Something in designating oneself or others a Jew evidently differs from the designation of Jewish, with the difference sometimes invidious. But what is this, and how far does it reach?

One gap between the terms is obvious: “Jew” is a noun, “Jewish” an adjective. Grammatically, then, the two diverge, although that structural difference need not be ideological. So, for example, to “What is your religion?”, the usual response would be “Jewish,” not “Jew,” calling on the adjective rather than the double noun of “Religion: Jew.”

“Jewish,” in this case, would be analogous to “Episcopalian,” “Muslim” or “Catholic.” To be sure, noun and adjective in those examples are identical, but this would not explain why, without the ambiguity, Jewish should be favored over Jew.

In the traditional grammar of metaphysics, adjectives are accidental properties, whereas nouns are associated with essences. Yet little of the edge attached to “a Jew” carries over to “a Catholic” or “an Episcopalian” — again suggesting the specific reference as cause, not the grammatical category. (In other languages the adjectival and noun forms for “Jewish” and “Jew” may be identical, such as the Hebrew “Yehudi/ah.”) A wry improbability might claim “Jewish” as an application of the vague “ish” suffix — think sweetish or purplish — an almost, but not quite, property. This, however, is rather unlikely.

And then, of course, “Jew” does not always have the mysterious connotation noted, either in English or in other languages. In Berlin’s Oranienberg synagogue, the rabbi asked me in Yiddish greeting: “Fun vanet kumt a yid?” Warm, friendly, formulaic: “Where does a Jew come from?”

But we also know that identity-references made by others may give offense neither given nor taken within the group. Kinky Friedman could name his band the Texas Jewboys, even though “Jewboy” from the outside would be a slur. And the magazine Heeb would have had a harder and shorter life if it had been directed from outside rather than inside the community.

Even these comments, however, do not resolve the question of why references to “a Jew” — however accurate — acquired its edge. Perhaps some of that derives from openly derogatory uses of “Jew” which — perhaps because of its conciseness or the ease of uttering one syllable? — have been more plentiful than those employing “Jewish.” “Dirty Jew,” for example, has a long history in English.

To be sure, “Jewish” may also appear negatively. “The saleslady in that store was so Jewish,” an upright (and uptight) non-Jewish lady once informed me, assuming I would understand — which, alas, I did. “Too Jewish” was the title of a 1996 show presented, without irony, at New York’s Jewish Museum. The museum, it is worth noting, was not named, as it might have been, the “Jews’ Museum,” which was perhaps too overtly Jewish.

Even the venerable Jews’ College London has turned, opting now for the London School of Jewish Studies. And although Israel’s Declaration of Independence defined the country as a Jewish state, rather than as the state of the Jews, the latter locution sometimes (mistakenly) appears, as if the two references were synonymous.

Certain oddities in this grammatical network are worth mentioning. The noun “Jew,” for example, has been pushed into other parts of speech. To “Jew someone down,” as in bargaining, has made its derogatory way as a verb, and a “Jew store” turns the proper noun into an offensive adjective.

Does forcing a noun into other grammatical forms introduce negative connotation? That clearly depends on the particular noun and its context. Then, again, some negative connotations related to Jew seem to emerge only when the indefinite article preceding it becomes definite — that is, when “a” or “an” become “the.”

So, for example, in T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion,” “And the jew squats on the windowsill.’ The lower case “j” and the squatting make the derogatory intention here unmistakable — although “the jew” even in upper case would have sufficed, as the corporate reference is meant to capture all Jews as one. Certainly, the phrase “the Jews” at the beginning of a sentence often augurs a less hopeful future for the sentence than the term “Jews” by itself. As, for example, in “The Jews killed Jesus” or “The Jews control Hollywood.”

What, then, of those who view Jewish identity as indeed essential, and not, as the adjectival “Jewish” might suggest, accidental or contingent? The Orthodox respondents to my poll did not differ from those with variant claims of Jewish identity. So, again, the preference for “Jewish” does not seem a less assertive measure of identity.

Could it be that identity-terms cover a range of intimacy, with nouns bolder or too emphatic or revealing, and thus the discreet turn to the adjective? Has public discourse as such tilted toward anti-essentialism, with being “Jewish” one part of the postmodern constituency? Is being “Jewish” just a kinder, gentler way of being “a Jew?”

Well, perhaps. There seems hardly any unequivocal explanation for the preference of “Jewish” to “Jew.” Undoubtedly, a variety of factors converge on what then becomes a common cause.

To be called or to designate oneself “a Jew” may suggest an essentialist self that minimizes contingency, implying the exclusion of choice in the person’s commitment. In these terms, saying that “so and so is a Jew” would have the same valence as saying that “so and so has blue eyes” — suggesting a full and inflexible condition, and that anything added would be less important or irrelevant.

The difference may, perhaps, be historical. The associations that “Jew” has accumulated, like the layers of an archeological dig, push this one usage toward invidiousness. Some of the term’s associations do not have this effect, but they don’t have to; even a few have sufficed.

Consider the classic rebuttal to charges of antisemitism, a rebuttal understood by now to confirm the charge. “But some of my best friends are Jews,” goes the protest, not “But some of my best friends are Jewish.” Indeed, with friends like that, it probably is better for Jews to be “Jewish.”

Berel Lang is visiting professor of philosophy and letters at Wesleyan University.

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