It's time for "shvartze" to die.
I got an email from my mother last week with the subject line: "We have a black president now." It would've seemed a banal observation if I didn't open the email, which read: "The word 'shvartze' is over."
My mother was referring to a Yiddish word for an African-American--an ethnic slur roughly analagous to the N-word. I've heard some Yiddish speakers argue that shvartze just means black, but that's an old linguistic canard. No Jew would use it in mixed company.
Unmixed, though? All bets are off.
First, some background. I'm not a joiner. I prefer to cuddle my hamster on my couch, read a book and then take powerful pharmaceuticals that make me feel like I'm traveling to Middle Earth.
But for Christmas Eve my parents and I went to a comedy-dinner show in Chinatown. As soon as I saw the communal tables, I felt uneasy. I always develop an irrational refugee-camp anxiety at shared tables, as though I have to squirrel away morsels for my five children who are huddled inside a tent somewhere. When I see a lazy Susan, I think, The kids are going hungry tonight.
On the plus side, the room was filled with elderly Jews, my favorite demographic. If I have to manufacture conversation, I'd prefer to do so with someone who knows a lot about American history and sex, which any person over 80 does.
On this night, all the teased beauty shop hair and earring-necklace sets made me nostalgic: My own elderly Jews are gone now. My father also got emotional, in his History Channel fashion, saying, "If Hitler had his way, these people wouldn't be here."
Sitting on the other side of me, my mother said, "Is your father saying something about the Holocaust?"
They've been married 45 years, and it shows.
People were complaining about the service, the food, the traffic ... it was home.
But then, above the din of hundreds of people bragging about their children, someone at our table called a waiter "Gunga Din." Another speculated on women who like "black pipe," referring to African-American penises.
What the hell? Who were these people? Then the guy across from me joked, "There are two things I hate: prejudice and shvartzes."
Ah, the s-word. I knew it was coming.
Lars doesn’t want to be there, every day, sitting in that chair, feet splayed out at an odd angle. But he can’t go anywhere until he gets a new wheelchair and he can’t get a new wheelchair until he has a job and he can’t get a job until he has a new wheelchair. Got that?
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