Black Comedy

It's time for "shvartze" to die.

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 18 | Posted Jan. 28, 2009

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Kahaney and able: Corey worries comedians won't have the freedom to use certain words.

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.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 18 of 18
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1. yunger yid said... on Jan 27, 2009 at 06:57PM

“I speak Yiddish and you'd most certainly would use that word in Yiddish , it's not racially loaded at all. In English it is, but in Yiddish that's the normal way of referring to a person of African descent. Past that, most young people these days (unlike myself) don't know it's a racially charged word. Considering it's the normal word in at least two languages for a person with (ahem) black skin, you can't really ban it. I would never use it in English but comparing it to the N word is just ridiculous. First of all, the bad racial slurs are all ones that both the person being attacked and the attacker know. Very few blacks (unless they're New Yorkers or have Jewish family) are familiar with the word shvartse. That alone lowers it. Past that, the way it was used in English (it's not used by younger people, at least not that I hear), it was certainly racist but not close to the N word. After all, it was used by what I'd term "di umgelernte alte kake dor" (the generation of ignorant old shiters) of racist American Jews specifically because they weren't comfortable using the N word, in any company, "mixed or unmixed." And as for Heeb magazine, they're morons. And you're non-Jewish comedian trying to act Jewish, well being someone under 75 using that word in a comedy routine, it had no hands or feet, no Jew that young would use the word unless, as already mentioned, they're the idiot editors of Heeb magazine. un take, vos iz der hoypt punkt fun aza shande far di goyem? s'past nit tsu shraybn azoy fil narishkeyt, befrat in aza tsaytung vi philadelphia weekly. ”

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2. Vlad said... on Jan 27, 2009 at 08:51PM

“when I am reading this , I realize how much US behind Europe”

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3. John said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 11:47AM

“To younger yid. (a term I would never use) I'm not from NY and I don't have a Jewish family, but I am familar with the term shvartse. Even though I detest the use of this word, I appreciate the use of other Jewish terms, concepts and ideas such as Passover, Deuteronomy 6, Purim, Esther & Mordecai, "the whole magillah". I'm black and middle-aged and I would never buy a car from a certain country because of the Holocaust and because of the ill-treatment received by Jesse Owens. Because of the Bible, African-Americans have a far greater appreciation of the Jewish people than you can ever imagine.”

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4. Jonathan said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 08:26PM

“I took three semesters of Yiddish in college, and this matter came up in a lesson on ethnicity. The "official" term endorsed by modern academia is "afrikanner-amerikanner," or African-American. The archaic completely inoffensive term is "negger" or Negro (remember, Yiddish is an old language with few modern speakers). Shvartse is not the "normal word," at least according to Uriel Weinreich. (John -- don't worry about the word "Yid." It's just the Yiddish word for Jew.) But, yes, Yunger Yid, I agree with your parting statement... this article was completely unnecessary, and serves little purpose but to rile up the "soine yisroel."”

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5. yunger yid (Young Jew) said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 11:14PM

“John: I forgot that Yid like shvartse has taken on an ugly connotation in English that doesn't exist in the original. In that context it just means "Jew." Furthermore, I guess I underestimated how far the word has travelled. It must really be a generational thing. I'm 20 and I can't imagine anyone my age either using or knowing the word. I've only heard it used by very old despicable racist Jews and people who had alzheimers and were angry with everyone. I also reiterate that the term, although despicable is not on the same level as the N word. I'd never use it in English and certainly never call someone it but I think it became popular because people saw it as a lesser of two evils (or perhaps they thought they wouldn't be understood, which as you show is clearly mistaken). I'll ask some parents of black friends of mine back home (Philly) if they know the term (more out of curiousity than anything else). Jonathan: I'm still reserving the right to use it in Yiddish. Afrikaner Amerikaner doesn't make sense. In Yiddish "Amerike" is the continent, not the USA and saying "a person of African descent from the USA" doesn't make sense. Neger, although the "correct" word used in Europe before WW2, also doesn't work for me because it's too close in sound to the English n word (it would have been the equivalent of negro in the USA in 1940, completly unnofensive but now horribly outdated, it's not used in German now either). SInce Afrikaner Amerikaner means someone from the American continent, the correct translationof "African American" would be "Afrikaner fareyniktershtatener" which is way too long to use. Some people today say "tunkl" (dark) to avoid shvartse but this sounds like a literal translation of the racist "darky" and for that reason I don't use it. Others say "shvartsehoytener" which is literally "blackskinned" but that comes out sounding like a terrible disease. If I met a non-American Yiddish speaker unfamiliar with the ugly connotation of the term in American English, shvartse would be the most normal sounding word. There is a real Yiddish equivalent of the N word but I'm not going to write it here (I don't want another Jewish word to get out there to insult blacks, one is certainly more than enough). ”

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6. yunger yid (Young Jew) said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 11:25PM

“And for the record Jesse Owens is one of my heroes. The amount of class and grace with which he conducted himself during those games is simply staggering. At least a Jewish American athlete could have hidden in plain site, Owens literally had a rabidly racist stadium watching him and was still the most humble person on the pitch. And for better or worse it says a huge amount about what the USA was that when he came home from the games he wouldn't have been able to use the same water fountain as a white man in much of the country. The USA is certainly not perfect today when it comes to race but thinking about Owen's bravery despite the racism against him on both sides of the atlantic shows how far we've come as a country. ”

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7. Alter Goy said... on Jan 29, 2009 at 12:30PM

“An American Jewish athlete could have "hidden in plain sight" at the Berlin Olympics unless he was one of the ones the US Olympic Committee kept off the team as a courtesy to their Nazi hosts.”

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8. lspikol said... on Jan 29, 2009 at 02:00PM

“I've refrained from commenting, but I think it's time. Sometimes I don't make my point as eloquently as I wish, so I'm grateful the web allows us the time for further dialogue. To me what the word means in Yiddish, as spoken by Yiddish speakers, is irrelevant. I would guess that 99 percent of American Jews don't speak fluent Yiddish, if any Yiddish beyond "meshugena" and "oy vey" and other idiomatic expressions. When I took the language in graduate school, I was blown away by how much I didn't know, despite thinking I'd had a lot of exposure to it. Most Jews don't know Yiddish as a language: They don't know how it's written, what it's roots are, its grammar, etc. etc. So those who know Yiddish intimately are lucky, but in a select group. The key question at hand is whether the word is offensive when spoken in an English-language context. If we were all sitting around speaking exclusively Yiddish, this would be a different conversation. So is the word offensive when those who are primarily English-speakers relay it to others who speak primarily English? This apparently is debatable. Such debates are long-standing. It's interesting that within the debate, the word Yid comes up too. I used it once in a headline and was torn apart by angry Jewish readers who said I was totally offensive and a self-hater by using a derogatory term to apply to our community. Again, it was debatable, but I wouldn't use it again. Seeing that some people felt wounded by it, I don't feel it's worth it. It's not a sufficient argument to say, "Well, in Yiddish, it just means Jew..." If it hurts people and marginalizes people, what are we gaining? Linguistic and semantic discussions aside, why do we argue whether such terms are offensive? You're right, yunger yid, words travel. By arguing how far words have traveled, we're not really addressing what matters. I would ask not if the word is offensive, but why we feel the need to defend it? Why can't we just say, "It wounds people. It has, for some, a racist connotation. That's enough to do without it." Is it so hard to imagine a world in which we live without it? I speak now not to fluent Yiddish speakers, but to every other Jew. Can you make a case for its use? I can't imagine one. ”

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9. wb2nd said... on Jan 29, 2009 at 07:02PM

“As a black (i.e., African-American) Jew, I wanted to thank Liz for both this article and her most recent comments in this thread. Like many American Jews, I'd had some exposure to Yiddish through the years, but I wanted to know more, so I began studying it in college last semester. As you might imagine, I was shocked to discover that "negger" was the accepted Yiddish word for a black person; however, just as I had to accept that "Yid" was the accepted Yiddish word for "Jew," ("Yid" being another word whose adoption into the American English vernacular makes me cringe, to say the least) I figured that I had to accept this as well. What I am not, however, able to accept is that "shvartze" is a harmless, inoffensive term for blacks. I do understand some of the arguments made by a couple of the other posters here, but I am also acutely aware of the racism that lurks in the hearts of too many of my white fellow Jews, so it's difficult (if not impossible) for me to believe that people who use "shvartze" (especially if they wouldn't use it in mixed company) are thinking of the word's more innocent origins. (Years ago I had a friend, a white Jew, who related to me how he used to argue with his father over his father's use of "shvartze" to describe black people. This was in English conversation, not Yiddish, by the way. My friend pointed out to his father, "But, Dad, you never say shvartze table or shvartze coat." Point made, as far as I'm concerned.) So, yeah, I think that Liz makes a very compelling argument: If that word has travelled so widely that many non-Yiddish speakers and non-Jews consider it to be the equivalent of "nigger" (which, again, is not helped by the fact that many Jews have indeed used it as a substitute for "nigger"), how hard can it be to disavow its usage in all but the narrowest of contexts (e.g., for academic purposes, etc., etc.)? Zei Gezunt, Yitzchak Adam ”

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10. Lois M. Leveen said... on Jan 30, 2009 at 11:14AM

“It's clear to me that the Jews at the comedy show in question are anomalous and do not reflect the true essence of Judaism. Which as we all know is: on Christmas you go to the MOVIES and then out for Chinese food. (as for the race stuff, well, growing up my parents said shvartse to mean nigger. they also said nigger to mean nigger. not to mention jiggaboo. I never said any of those things. Instead I became a professor of African American literature. I don't find racist humor funny. But I do find humor about racism funny. And I admit, I sometimes get the giggles just thinking of Arnold Schwarzenegger.) ”

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11. wb2nd said... on Jan 30, 2009 at 12:04PM

“Lois M. Leveen: Christmas + movies + Chinese food: Ha! Now, let me ask you: Which do you prefer--lobster or shrimp? ;-) But, seriously, I can tell you that the true essence of Judaism for me mostly means klal Yisrael, the brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity, ethical behavior, and tikkun olam. The rest, as you probably know, is commentary. As for whether the Yidn in the article are representative of my idea of the true nature of Judaism: Well, I have to acknowledge humanity's flaws--I am human and am myself flawed--and though we all carry yetzer ha'ra and yetzer ha'tov in us, yeah, there are some people who make me ashamed to be a Jew. I wish I had more accurate phrasing for what I'm trying to say since my feelings are more nuanced than that, but that'll have to do for now. I do hope that your parents don't consider you to be a shonda for becoming a professor of African-American literature. Oh, yeah, I totally get what you mean about the Schwarzenegger thing! I've always noticed it, too.”

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12. lspikol said... on Jan 30, 2009 at 04:00PM

“I think your phrasing is beautiful, and I plan to quote you on it. As for the movies, Lois, you are so right, which is why it was going waaaaay out of my comfort zone to abandon what I call the Holy Tradition of the Two Rs: the Ritz and Race Street. (There's something wrong with that capitalization, but I can't put my finger on it right now.) But I do want to clarify something: Jim David, the comedian I mention, is actually a hilariously funny guy. I thought his act was great and I really enjoyed him. He's not a bigot -- I hope I didn't imply that he was. Someone suggested that it might have come across that way. As I said to the person who read it that way, my critique was communally directed -- at the Yidn, not the comedians. Jim meant nothing wrong by using the word. ”

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13. Richard Brian Penn said... on Feb 3, 2009 at 10:04AM

“I agree...I think the word is over. We live in a society where it's too PC to use anymore. However, don't be surprised if we see an African American Jew using it in his stand-up show. Maybe in the Catskills? - RBP”

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14. shaps said... on Feb 3, 2009 at 05:07PM

“you are all out of your minds. i am not jewish, but i am an advocate for israel. ive never in my life encountered a jewish person who was genuinely rascist and purely full of hatred. if a jew uses the word schvartse, i can garantee that it was simply to refer to a black person, without any negative connotation. the writer of this article, i think, is one of those ignorant people she wrote about. she has to remember, as do all of you, that the elderly jewish population from europe constantly moved around (as a result of being unecesarily and brutally forced from place to place) because they were kicked out of wherever they went. therefore, there was not enough time to learn a language and assimilate into the culture. also, there is no reason to learn a language of the place you are living if your just gonna get kicked out soon again. therefore, the jews created their own language deriving from german (just like 'ladrino,' mixture of spanish and hebrew, also a dead language). hence, the yiddish word shvartse was created, NOT for derogatory use. so of course that is why elder jews use the word, not because they are rascist as the author so ignorantly put, but because it is just a word used from the language that they were raised on. this article is pointless, and has no place in the philadelphia magazine. i am from philly, and this article disgusts me, i am ashamed of it being in this otherwise good magazine. this article serves no purpose but to stir uneasy feelings amongst certain groups and affiliations. i hope the author reads this, she needs to know how ridiculous she is.”

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15. yunger yid (Young Jew) said... on Feb 7, 2009 at 10:20PM

“Shaps, how can you garruantee such a thing, and why would you want to? I knew racist Jews growing up, let's start with my own Grandfather. When he used shvartse in English he didn't mean anything nice by it, believe you me. I knew Jews who didn't know English well who used it but that's a whole other story. Non Yiddish speaking American Jews who know a smattering of Yiddish words (that they rarely pronunce intelligibly) use it as a subsitute for the N word because they think it won't be understood and at some level they must think it's amuzing. Having spoken to some black friends and some of their family since writing my comments last week I've seen that the word is a lot more widely known than I had imagined. And more so among younger blacks than Jews. I guess you're more aware of words if you're the victim rather than the attacker. In any case, it's a word I'm not going to be using in English (in Yiddish I'll continue to use it, see my earlier comments). I'll admit that it might slip out of my mouth once in a blue moon with close black or Jewish friends who tend to use it but now I'm going to try to avoid it entirely. And as far as Israelis, they're one of the most racist groups of people I've ever encountered. My family in Israel tells me horror stories of how their Ethiopian Jewish neighbors are treated by some people in their neighborhood and the casual racism against Arabs (both Jewish and Muslim and Christian ones) that is par for the course in Israeli society. ”

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16. yunger yid (Young Jew) said... on Feb 7, 2009 at 10:29PM

“As far a Yid, I'm always amazed how much it upsets people. To me it's always meant Jew. After all, Yiddish means "Jewish", the language of Jews (or former as the case unfortunately usually is). I sometimes write it out in English as "yeed" so people will say it with a long vowel unlike the American slur (see English speakers never get Yiddish words right, not even insults), but people don't figure it out at all. Dzhid is even more confusing. In Polish it's a racist insult for Jews, in Russian and Ukranian it's just the normal word (from the Yiddish yid). When Jews first came to the USA, the politically correct word was strangely enough "Hebrew" even though the people spoke Yiddish, Ladino or German. After Israel was formed and Hebrew speakers started coming here, it was made "Jew" again and now they don't recognize it as an ethnicity like the used to. My family's census information from years ago actually said "Jewish" which was a sandard word for the Yiddish language in American English until WW2. ”

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17. yunger yid (Young Jew) said... on Feb 7, 2009 at 10:30PM

“Jewish as their language*”

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18. Samantha said... on Mar 1, 2009 at 01:46PM

“I remember my friends having the same debate in college, circa 1982. I'm neither Jewish nor African-American, and I have long understood the connotations of "schvartze." So I would prefer others not say it in my company. I suppose a debate can be made among non-American Yiddish speakers, but doesn't Yiddish evolve? Although Yiddish is an old language, surely the action of being spoken today has caused changes. American English is absorbing "African-American" easily. Sad that we see the same debate today. I find the author's comments most eloquent. "I would ask not if the word is offensive, but why we feel the need to defend it? Why can't we just say, "It wounds people. It has, for some, a racist connotation. That's enough to do without it."" I only wish these words could be more widely read....and heard. L”

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