Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · language · race/racism

Punched in the gut

I feel like these thing sneak up on me and punch me in the gut.

So there we were sitting all unassuming like, before Pesach (Passover), in the Fish Grill, my favorite place to eat in Los Angeles. My husband and I were wedged into a corner table when some guys plopped down in the table next to us. One of them looked like he had just gotten off a plane from Israel: snow white shirt, black pants, black kippah and tzitzit flapping in the wind. But the other three guys weren’t even wearing kippot (plural of kippah) and they looked more like the fat, smoking up types who scratch themselves in public and star in Jude Apatow films.

It was hard not to listen in on what the guys were saying. Our tables were squished together so close; it was like we were all sitting together. Except that thankfully, we weren’t. I can barely watch Jude Apatow films, much less sit with the cast of characters.

So one of Jude Apatow guys started whining about a girl he’s dating. He said it like he was trying to explain how far he’d gotten from being a religious Jew. It was like the frum guy at the table was his priest and he was taking confession at the Fish Grill.

“So, I’m dating a non-Jew.”

Everyone nodded.

“A shiksa?” one of them asked shaking his head.

“Yeah, no worse than a shiksa. She’s a schvartze.” And then the guy laughed. But no one else did.

I almost threw up over my grilled trout, rice and salad. I was cringing hard into the wooden seat. I opened my mouth but no words came out. When I was a high school teacher, I was in teacher mode all the time. I had to stop myself from “schooling” every teenager I saw in the street. One of my friends was scared I’d get jumped one day sticking my nose where it didn’t belong. But I was fearless. (I only got jumped once by a mentally ill honor student who flipped out when I locked her out of the classroom for being late—school policy.) But it’s been a couple of years since teacher mode.

I walked away from the restaurant thinking I should have said something. What kind of person goes around trash talking non-Jewesses and black people with that kind of vocabulary?Maybe he didn’t know the words were hurtful, maybe he just thought shiksa means non-Jewish female and schvartze means black person. Maybe he didn’t know both words are slurs.

But what kind of person am I? Am I the kind of person who says something? Should I be? If I stop just one person from making these kinds of statements will the ripple effects change the world? I just don’t want to be the kind of person who sits there quietly and pretends things didn’t go down the way that they did.

13 thoughts on “Punched in the gut

  1. My son, one time, was on a minivan with some guys who thought it was funny to make fun of Puerto Ricans. He said, “You guys ought to check who’s around before you start that kind of talk. My mother’s Puerto Rican.” The guys all got silent. Oh, and by the way, I’m NOT Puerto Rican.


  2. I think it’s hard to draw the line sometimes. One day we’re pushed to our limit, another we’re not. Absolutely those terms are racial slurs, and reading the story I have no doubt that is how they were meant. In a way, perhaps the man was looking to discredit himself by revealing his choice of lady-friend to his religious mates. It’s crazy, but we often will put ourselves down so others don’t do it for us.

    I’ve used the term shiksa in my day, but never have thought of it when referring to someone I like or respect.

    I feel bad for the woman — I’m sure she has no idea what he really thinks of her.


  3. Rabanit Hausman,

    Sometimes you just have to pick your fights. We had guests over the first days of the chag whose son, who had just returned from a year of study at a yeshiva in Medinat Yisrael, proceeded to quip, “my rebbe in yeshiva told me that the most depraved Jew is more righteous than the nicest goy.” I was infuriated but opted not to respond to a comment that, in the scheme of things, places Bernard Madoff on a higher spiritual level than say a Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama.


  4. I wonder if you could inform a curious gentile woman what the slur is in “shiksa”? The definition you link to just says, “a gentile woman,” yet I know that when Jewish men have talked about “shiksas” in my presence, I have felt the hostility behind the “joking.” What makes the term a slur? Thanks.


  5. Some Jews really are innocently ignorant as to the full meaning behind that word. Yeah, it hurt when I was converting and people would say ‘shiksa’. But now that I’ve been Jewish for a while I see that some Jews think it simply means ‘female non-jew’. I don’t use either word, but I have a reason to be more sensitive than others. And I can understand where the ignorant people are coming from because when I’ve been called a ‘squaw’ (American Indian word for something I can’t write here, let’s just say it’s a lot worse than shiksa!)by non-Natives, it was in total innocence, not meant to be an insult. They had no idea they were saying something incredibly offensive and that the word makes any Native American female feel like she was just punched in the stomache. When you have the opportunity I think you should explain (civilly) what is wrong with those word choices. Really,this kind of etiquette should be taught in schools.


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