‘Don’t Call Me — or Chelsea — a Shiksa’
The recent conversion to Judaism and subsequent marriage of Ivanka Trump to Jared Kushner, and Chelsea Clinton’s even more recent engagement to Marc Mezvinsky have newspapers, magazines and blogs discussing the impact these relationships have on society and on the families involved. In this Daily Beast essay, Samuel P. Jacobs touts Ivanka Trump’s, and presumably Chelsea Clinton’s, seeing the “allure of marrying a Jewish man,” — without mentioning the wealth and power both Ivanka and Chelsea bring to their respective unions. Jacobs goes on to write, “Of course, Jewish mothers worry endlessly about their sons falling prey to the seductive powers of the shiksa.”
As a multicultural society, our sensitivities are heightened. Racial, religious and ethnic epithets that were unfortunately permissible in decades past are no longer tolerated, which is why I was offended to see the word “shiksa” in Mr. Jacob’s essay, and in the sub-headline of Jennifer Senior’s New York magazine piece about the Clinton-Mezvinsky engagement. I was more shocked to see the same insulting word for a non-Jewish woman in John Purchase’s recent “From Salt Lake City to Smoked Salmon Town: On Growing Up Mormon and Marrying Kosher”, published in the pages of the Forward.
It is astounding that shiksa has not been added to the list of politically incorrect expressions — given it is derived from the Hebrew word shayketz, meaning to loathe or abominate an unclean thing.
My personal battle with the moniker began years ago.
As a Catholic schoolgirl from Brooklyn, I was unfamiliar with many Yiddish expressions. Before I looked up the meaning of the word, though, I knew through context and nuance that it was derogatory. I am a schoolteacher, and at a school where I taught, Jewish teachers, women mostly, often pointed out to one another my “shiksa” legs, nose, or hair.
At first, I thought it meant skinny, and it hit a sore spot because I was self-consciously thin. I asked that the term not be used to describe me, but I was reassured that it was harmless, positive even. I did not buy it then, and I do not buy it now.
Not a month goes by that I am not labeled with and angered by the S-word. My tennis partner, who is Jewish, recently remarked that the rain made her hair frizzy while mine remained straight. “Shiksa,” she sniffed. When I objected to the Yiddishism, she acted surprised, saying that it only meant “non-Jewish,” and that it was a compliment. After explaining the definition, supported by my phone’s Google search, she said that she was shocked and would never use it again. At my monthly book club meeting, a Jewish woman asked aloud, “What would I have to do to pass for shiksa?” Conversation ensued with the offending noun used repeatedly by several of the group. Again, I protested.
Despite the repellent meaning of the word, it is commonplace and thriving. Wendy Wasserstein, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright wrote the book of essays “[Shiksa Goddess, or How I Spent My Forties,” which was the forerunner to many “shiksa-themed” books. Type “shiksa” Google and find there is a “Shiksa of the Week Club” on Facebook — with the stated goal is to get non-Jewish girls to send in sexy pictures for Jewish guys to admire. The Jewcy essay “Nakadika Shiksa” is about a mortified Jewish mother refers to her daughter in a low-cut blouse a “nakadika (naked) shiksa.” There are many, many more examples..
Besides being disrespectful to non-Jews, “shiksa” must be offensive to Jewish women to whom the word’s message seems to be that there are females out there who are more beautiful than they are, more sensuous and more desired by Jewish men. The continuation of the myth of the “non-Jew as goddess” perpetuates an inferiority complex among Jewish women and stirs the desire among Jewish men to taste the “forbidden fruit” to fulfill the Jewish boy’s fantasy à la Philip Roth.
Dan Friedman, the Forward’s current arts and culture editor and the founding editor of Zeek, in 2004 wrote “Taking the Gloss off of Shiksa Toes” in the Forward. He wrote:
“Shiksa is the “N” word of the Jewish community. It is so often used jokingly, that we can forget that it’s a vile, sexist, racist word…. But … it remains a crass insult and reveals a state of mind that embarrasses us as a community… . For an often-persecuted people … it seems that many of us have spent too little time thinking about how we refer to the gentile and ex-gentile women in our midst. Let’s get rid of our prejudiced language and put the “S” word to the sword.”
It’s been more than five years since Mr. Friedman made the case for the obliteration of the S-word. So why does the Jewish community continue to sanction its use?
Marilyn Horan is a retired assistant principal. She is working on a memoir about growing up in Brooklyn.