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What does it mean to be ‘Jew-ish’? How the term went from warm inside joke to national flashpoint

In the hands of George Santos and Kanye West, ‘Jew-ish’ means something very different than it used to

Representative-elect George Santos, who has made headlines in recent weeks after reporting revealed he fabricated large swaths of his public biography, is the latest example of a public figure to weaponize the term “Jew-ish” — with a hyphen. 

“I never claimed to be Jewish,” Santos told The New York Post in a Monday interview. “I am Catholic. Because I learned my maternal family had a Jewish background I said I was ‘Jew-ish.'” (Forward reporting shows that Santos called himself a “proud American Jew” in campaign materials.)

At another time, Santos’ glib invocation of the term “Jew-ish,” historically something of an inside joke in the Jewish community, might not register as particularly meaningful. But this has been a year in which the private conversation about Jewish identity became a national conversation, with pop stars, political candidates and famous comedians all weighing in. 

And because we live in a moment of lies masquerading as truths — as well as one of rising antisemitism — fabrications and hate-laced slurs also became part of the 2022 conversation about the definition of “Jewish” and the meaning of “Jew-ish.”

For Jews, watching liars and avowed antisemites define “who is a Jew” and “who is Jew-ish” could feel like a form of attack as well as erasure — like having someone else tell you who you are, and dictate who could feel free to enter your spaces, and on what terms.

Just a few weeks before the Santos scandal broke, Kanye West, who has come under fire for repeated antisemitic remarks, declared that he was a Jew, while also taking it upon himself to define “Jew-ish.”

“No. I’m Jew. Not Jewish. Jew-ish means ‘like that of a Jew.’ I’m saying I’m a Jew. Blood of Christ, Orthodox Christian,” West, who now goes by Ye, said during an appearance on the Lex Fridman Podcast.

 What exactly is Jew-ish?

West wasn’t wrong in his definition of what makes something “Jew-ish” — Urban Dictionary describes the term as “Jew-ish with emphasis on the ‘-ish.’ To be of Jew-like nature.”

But he was missing a lot of nuance.

The difference between being Jewish and being “Jew-ish” begins with pronunciation: “Jew-ish” is pronounced Jew-ISH, with a nice, meaningful pause where the hyphen is.

That pause is an acknowledgment that there is a clear definition of who is Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law — but there is also a genuine desire to interact with the richness of Judaism and Jewish culture that is felt by many who may not fit that definition.

This desire comes out of respect for Judaism, Jewish history and Jewish culture. And the cheekiness of the hyphen is a sweet acknowledgment of the long tradition of Jewish humor.

In recent years, the term “Jew-ish” has also helped to broaden the tent of Judaism, giving people traditionally not seen as Jewish a way to describe rich and heartfelt affiliations with the religion. For example, a kid who wasn’t raised Jewish, but who attended scads of bar mitzvahs, made close Jewish friends and learned the brachot by heart — like a Japanese American classmate I had in college, who grew up in Scarsdale — might refer to himself as “Jew-ish” with a wide smile.

There’s a warm, familial quality to the term — a way to celebrate the diverse ways in which Judaism touches lives. And until this year, that’s most of what “Jew-ish” meant — before figures like Santos and West began to bestow it with a complicated set of new connotations.

Jew vs. Jewish

Cringeworthy as West’s remarks to Fridman were, they highlighted one essential fact: People do often avoid using the word “Jew.”

“Early in my career, I learned there are two words you should never say together,” Dave Chappelle said during his controversial November Saturday Night Live monologue. “Those words are … ‘the’ and ‘Jews.’ Never heard someone do good after they said that.”

Chappelle’s take on why those two words are loaded drew criticism. But he was calling attention to a real taboo, which has its roots in the fact that, historically, the word “Jew” has often been used to mark someone for persecution. And slurs like “dirty Jew” have given many Jews just another reason to prefer using the word “Jewish” to describe themselves.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word “Jewish” has been in the English language since 1531, and it means “of, relating to, or characteristic of the Jews and also: being a Jew.”

A tragic but apt example of the distinct cultural weight assigned to the word “Jew” comes in the case of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal journalist who was beheaded 20 years ago by Pakistani terrorists. Where Pearl said “My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish. My family follows Judaism,” a video released by his killers was titled “The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl.”

Linguistically, it’s clear that only an antisemite would say “the Jew Daniel Pearl.” That understanding is a crucial piece of why “Jewish,” and with it, “Jew-ish,” became such widespread cultural terms — and such valuable ones.

What Jews think about Jewish identity

The 2020 Pew Research Survey found that 72% of American Jews consider “leading a moral or ethical life” essential to Jewish identity. That’s a firm belief, with nary an “ish” in sight.

Beyond that, there was a variety of opinions on what matters.

“Far fewer consider eating traditional Jewish foods (20%) and observing Jewish law (15%) to be essential elements of what being Jewish means to them, personally,” the study found. “However, the observance of halacha — Jewish law — is particularly important to Orthodox Jews, 83% of whom deem it essential.”

The survey makes it clear that there is a diversity of ideas on the essence of Judaism. And that diversity is why Santos and West’s linguistic appropriation of Jewishness, and “Jew-ish”-ness, is so troubling.

Rather than using the term “Jew-ish” to express a meaningful attachment to Judaism in a world where such an attachment can take many different forms, the two have used it as a weapon to claim an identity and use it to gain some kind of power — political or cultural. It takes that centuries-old, complex and wonderful conversation about what gives meaning to Jewish life, complete with all its disagreements, out of the Jewish community.

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