Earlier this week, Janice Steinberg wrote about the Song of the Sea and Yiddish inflected English and the audiobook version of her novel “The Tin Horse.” Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Sometime back in my childhood, I got the idea that it was “nicer” to say “I’m Jewish” than “I’m a Jew.” And preferably, in the mainly Christian suburb of Milwaukee where I grew up, one said it in a sort of mumble.
And no one ever used “Jewess,” which seemed archaic enough to ignore when encountered in 19th-century novels like “Ivanhoe” or “Daniel Deronda.” (Nor was it considered pejorative then, as I learned from Daniel Krieger’s excellent article “The Rise and Fall — and Rise — of ‘Jewess.’”) But the word was disturbing in modern contexts, for instance, when Raymond Chandler in “The Big Sleep” describes a woman as having “the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess.” What, we all have the same cheekbones? In that case, I’ll take Lauren Bacall’s. “Intelligent Jewess” so stuck in my craw that it inspired my novel, “The Tin Horse,” in which I imagine that “Jewess’s” story.
In recent years, various “out” groups have reclaimed language, taking words once flung at them as slurs and boldly using them to self-identify. “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” The gay community has asserted ownership of “queen” and “queer,” and my favorite Gay Pride Parade participants are the motorcycle-riding “dykes on bikes.”