Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · language

Good one!

If you haven’t already checked it out, enjoy this great piece by black Jewish blogger, MaNishtana where he takes the “s-word” and its users to task.

Check out: “Brought to you by the letter ‘S'”

7 thoughts on “Good one!

  1. Ok, I need an answer on this one. The S-word is not a word I let anyone use around me (without getting a lecture!)because of the IMPLICATION in the term; but Mr/Ms Manishtana refuses to answer a valid question that begs an answer. What term can be used in place of the s-word when people are speaking Yiddish? I know many, many people for whom Yiddish is their first language and I've heard there is no other word for 'black' in that language, just like in Spanish the word is 'nigra' (a little too close to the N-word for me!) It is absolutely ridiculous to suggest that no one ever has a need to speak of one's skin color, as Manishtana says in one of the comments. We don't need to be colorBLIND, but color-sensitive, right? So would someone please, please suggest a proper Hebrew/Yiddish alternative?


  2. A good question. In Spanish, it would be moreno or negro (literally the color black). And there was a huge debate when it was use in reference to president Obama recently by a Mexican newspaper.

    I'll go talk to some Yiddish-speaking friends and see if I can come up with some answers.


  3. Having come from the “inner-city” the N-word just makes me roll my eyes and mutter something under my breath. The S-word, however, actually makes me cringe. It must be because unlike the N-word, I have never heard the S-word spoken out loud. Rather, the only times I have heard the S-word said it has been spit out like something thoroughly distasteful and disgusting accompanied by looks that are usually reserved for household pests. I simply dislike the word, but this may be due to my lack of exposure to Yiddish.

    Ethnicity and race in Spanish language are a complicated issue. Due to the fact that negro or negra can be used the same way the S-word is used, they can be either a neutral or negative word. Some people try to lessen any perceived negative connotations by adding the diminutive -ito or -ita (negrito or negrita).
    If negro has been used as a thoroughly negative word in an individuals experience, he or she may say moreno or morena. (Which actually means tan and can lead to confusion at times.)
    The way that the word negro is used can also reflect on the context. “El es negro” or “He is black” is pretty neutral and can be as harmless as commenting on someone's eye colour. (At least that's my experience in my spoken dialects.)
    “El es un negro” or “He is a black” can be seen as referring to the individual in question as belonging to a foreign group and being different from oneself. This creates distance between the speaker and the person being referred to and can therefore be seen as more offensive. It brings up the whole us vs them mentality.
    I have found, much to my displeasure, that phrases such as “El es negro pero es tan bueno.” or “He is black but he is so nice.” are quite common among non-black Spanish speakers. It is as if saying that if someone is referred to being this particular colour he or she is going to be perceived negatively so I should make sure it is understood that he or she is not. Despite the good intentions of the speaker, I find this type of comment condescending and thoroughly offensive.

    However, despite all the negativity that can be applied to the words negro or negra, they are also terms of endearment. One of my favourite aunts refers to me as negra, and I rarely feel as loved as I do when referred to by this pet name. (Spanish is so confusing!)

    I couldn't say what word Yiddish (or Spanish for that matter) can use to describe a person of African descent. I would say a person of colour, but there are so many different people of colour. Really, why do we feel the need to group people according to how much melanin they have? Why don't we just refer to people with dark skin as individuals with melanin rich skin. Wait, maybe that can be how the S-word can be replaced. What's the Yiddish word for melanin?

    I personally have tried to step away from referring to a person according to their ethnicity or skin colour, especially in Spanish.This drives my relatives crazy because according to them I take twice as long to describe a person. Instead of saying that so-and-so is this “type” of person with such-and-such traits (She's a black girl with red hair and green eyes.), I try to list the “type” as one of the traits. (She's the girl with the red hair, green eyes, and dark skin.) I focus on the person as an individual with certain defining traits rather than a member of a group that has certain traits that differentiate him or her from the rest of the group. It's easier to relate to an individual. It's harder to dehumanize an individual. (In my [limited] experience, once again.) Is my use of language just as racist as I perceive other's usage to be. I really do not know. However, maybe just examining one's use of language can be the begging to a better understanding of oneself and how one relates to others.


  4. an interesting question, if you want the answer be a yiddish word that yiddish speakers would understand, there are two options & the S-word is the nice option!

    But its not surprising, most yiddish speakers are either a) really old people from eastern europe a place where even now not famed for its sensitivity to racial issues, or b) the ultra-orthodox who are probably a fairly racist bunch.

    i'm not sure but i think the s-word is much more common in american-yiddish. ve often heard it used in europe to refer to a persons hair-colour rather than their skin. the N word is still used by older speakers in europe where it doesnt seem to be used with any pejorative intention


  5. leah
    i never said that no one ever has a need to mention color. i merely questioned if color was really necessary in the telling of the story or if it was to generate a negative image [much like day's comment on “he is black but he is so nice”.] as i dont speak yiddish, i can't provide an alternative myself, but i DID suggest that ppl should be aware of the connotations of the word and be sensitive to that, the same way two dog owners probably wouldn't use the word “bitch” to describe a neutrally refer to a female dog.


  6. Sorry Manishtana; I did not mean to misquote you. I do feel that it's important to have a 'safe' descriptive word for all ethnicities, but even more importantlly -as you stressed – for people to be sensitive to the words they use and think about why they are using them. I agree with Day's comment about the way in which the S-word is often used by American Yiddish speakers. I have not seen Chasidim speak that way though (thankfully.) Perhaps we could introduce Spanish & Yiddish speakers to the term 'African-American'? Kinda like the term 'Latino' has become common for people who don't know any other word in Spanish. Does everyone agree that these 2 terms are respectful descriptions of a person's cultural and/or ethnic background? When I use these terms to describe my friends I do not think of their color, but their full heritage and I am proud of the richness they come from. I think that kind of respect needs to be introduced to people who are unfamiliar with such backgrounds.


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