The unusual headline caught my eye: “Reclaiming ‘Jew’” read an April 23, 2017 opinion piece in The New York Times.
“Jew” is a singular word, the article claimed: used by both Jews to describe themselves, as well as by anti-Semites as an insult. For many today, “Jew” sounds provocative: the term “Jewish person” is more often used instead.
A recent example: Donald Trump’s recent speech extolling the holidays of Passover and Easter. “Good people of all faiths, Christians and Muslims and Jewish and Hindu” the President extolled: only “Jews” were called by an adjective - Jewish - instead of by a proper noun. (This verbal tic isn’t limited to President Trump; previous presidents too, including Presidents Obama and Reagan, also referred to “Jewish people” or “Jewish families”, not “Jews”.)
Reading, I realized that I too am more apt to use the term “Jewish” instead of “Jew”, which somehow sounds more old-fashioned and, yes, even potentially offensive to my ears. Just then, my young son came in and started reading over my shoulder. Nodding, he agreed with my unspoken thoughts. “Of course the word ‘Jew’ is offensive: it’s a bad word in English!” he explained. I stared at him, astonished. How did my kippah-clad son, who attends a Jewish school, know that in some dark corners of the world, the word Jew is an insult? Is the negative connotation of the word Jew so pervasive that he’d picked up on it already?
After all, “Jew” isn’t commonly used as a slur today. My son’s dictionary (Merriam-Webster, 2006) identifies a Jew, simply and accurately, as someone of the Jewish faith. But earlier sources tell a different story: an old family dictionary on our shelf offers these definitions: “a usurer, an extortionate tradesman, moneylender, etc… To get the better of in a bargain, to overreach….” Who knew that so much anti-Semitism lurked on our family bookshelf, hidden in plain sight?
For generations, Jews in Europe were banned from most professions. Banking, money-lending and tax collections were some of the only avenues for earning a living Jews could legally pursue. A mythology grew up around Jews, linking them - unfairly - with greed and avarice. Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta was typical in its demonic image of Jews: incensed at losing his money, Marlowe’s “Jew” goes on a murderous rampage, colluding with foreigners to invade his land, killing, even poisoning an entire nunnery. Shakespeare’s depiction of Jews was hardly any better: the “Jew” moneylender Shylock, with his bloodthirsty desire to claim his “pound of flesh” in lieu of payment, seems barely human. No wonder “Jew” became a term of malign abuse.
The slurs persist. In 2011, the Chairman of the Texas House Republican Caucus, apologized after saying “Don’t try to Jew them down” in a debate. I’m not sure what it is with local American politicians and the name “Jew”, but two years later another couple of legislators again confused the name of adherents to the Jewish faith with a term for crooks. In April 2013, Oklahoma House Majority co-leader Dennis Johnson was arguing against restrictions on big box stores when he offered this gem about retail strategies: “People come back and like what you do but they might Jew me down on the price; that’s fine.” A few months later, in Florida, a local commissioner explained in a debate she didn’t enjoy “Jewing over somebody’s pay.”
These and other misuses of the term Jew have allowed anti-Semites to define our very name for us. This is tragic, for the word “Jew” has a long, fascinating, and incredibly noble history.
The term Jew, or Yehudi in Hebrew, comes from the name Yehudah, one of Joseph’s sons. From his earliest moments, Yehuda’s name was steeped in holiness. Leah, Yehudah’s mother, was not her husband’s first choice of wife: her husband Jacob loved her sister Rachel more. For years, Leah was miserable with this situation, and the names of her first three sons reflected this: each bore a name that conveyed her sadness, her bitter longing for her husband at last to love her best.
When Yehuda was born, however, his mother Leah had changed. She no longer pined for what she couldn’t have; with Yehuda’s birth, she finally started to appreciate the many blessings she possessed. With Yehuda’s birth, Leah finally declared herself perfectly happy, declaring “This time I thank (odeh) the Lord!” Yehuda’s name comes from his mother’s word odeh, praising God. (The Hebrew words hodu, praise, and todah, thanks, come from this same root.)
The first person to be called a Jew, a Yehudi, in the Bible was Mordechai, one of the stars of the Purim story. Interestingly, Mordechai wasn’t even a direct descendent of Yeduah: he belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, not Yehudah. (Technically, he might have been called a Benjamini, not a Yehudi.) The rabbis of the Talmud noted that by calling Mordechai a Yehudi the Torah is drawing attention to a unique attribute of the descendents of Yehudah. “He (Mordechai) was a descendent of the tribe of Benjamin” notes Rabbi Jochanan; “Yet he was called a Yehudi because he rejected idolatry, and anyone who rejects idolatry is called a Yehudi” (Megillah 12b).
Ever since, Jews have followed Mordechai’s example, and called ourselves Yehudi. For thousands of years, our matriarch Leah’s prophetic insight in bestowing this name endures. Each time we use the name Jew, we are echoing Leah’s praise. Each time we say the word Jew, we are echoing its timeless Hebrew roots: hodu, praise of God.
In the days since the New York Times’ thought-provoking article appeared, I’ve been watching my own speech, newly aware of the power of the word “Jew”. It’s not as commonly used as it should be, and perhaps it’s time for us to rectify that. Let’s take back the name Jew from its misuse by generations of anti-Semites. Let’s reclaim “Jew” from those who’d distort it, and start uttering it with pride, instead. Each time we proudly say the name Jew - not “Jewish person”, not “of the Jewish faith”, but Jew - we’re declaring that we’re a link in a chain that goes back thousands of years, a part of a people who praises God, with our actions, with our words, and with our very name: Yehudi, Jew.