Lit Gloss

Heeb

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 6, 2008

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Heeb is a quarterly about Jews that, if you couldn't tell from its name, is irreverent, ironic and self-aware. It features "cool" Jews like Sarah Silverman, and has a Judd Apatow-meets-Corey Feldman sensibility. Humor is a rich part of being Jewish in the diaspora--look no further than the history of American standup comedy, or the subtleties of the Yiddish language. But that's where we get into trouble. In the latest issue there's a "Heebonics" blurb on the word "schvartzer" accompanied by a photo of Russell Simmons. It reads: "He worked with Rick Rubin and Lyor Cohen; he's a big shot in the garment industry; he married an Asian--can you blame me if I didn't realize that Russell Simmons is a schvartzer?" Ha. The word "schvartzer" has a complicated history. Though its masculine version originally meant black, cursed, gloomy or unskilled, the masculine and feminine noun forms became--as Leo Rosten wrote in 1968's Joys of Yiddish--"'inside' words among Jews--cryptonyms for Negro servants or employees. Since the growth of the civil rights movement, these uses have declined." That book needs updating. Since 1968 "schvartzer"--when used by English speakers--has taken on sinister connotations as a slur synonymous with the N-word. As a person who studied Yiddish in school and suffered racist relatives who used the word in despicable ways, I feel comfortable saying there's no context in which "schvartzer" is acceptable for a Jewish person to use. The relationship between blacks and Jews is fraught enough, and to invoke "schvartzer" is hurtful, bigoted and suggests a disregard for the history that has divided the two groups. If this is Heeb's invocation of the word in Rosten's "inside" context, it's all the more shameful.

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