We Jews, too, recoil from calling ourselves Jews. In my experience as an editor at a publication focusing on Jewish news and culture, and hosting its podcast about Jewish life, I have noticed how many Jewish writers — me included — avoid calling anyone a “Jew.” I frequently edit articles that mention “Jewish politicians” or “Jewish artists” but not “Jews.”
Like our non-Jewish friends, we Jews have been conditioned to think of a “Jew” as something bad. We will say, “Some really nice Jewish people moved in next door,” rather than, “Some really nice Jews moved in next door.” Trying to discern if someone is suitable dating material for a single, religious friend, we’ll ask, “Oh, is he Jewish?” but not, “Oh, is he a Jew?” To be “a real Christian” is a compliment, but to be “a real Jew” is considered an insult. “A real Jew” may be stingy, crass or pushy — whatever she is, it’s not good.
There are understandable reasons one might prefer the phrase “Jewish person” to “Jew.” For one thing, anti-Semites love to talk about “Jews” and “the Jews.” The noun has been a slur in English since the 17th century, and to the Jew-haters of the world, Jew-ness, with all the genetically heritable perfidy it entails, is an essential and ineradicable trait. Whether it’s the stain of having murdered Jesus or an inborn capacity for greed or deception, the vices perceived by the anti-Semite belong to “the Jew,” not someone who happens to be Jewish. Anti-Semites have made “Jew” a term of opprobrium, and the rest of us have acquiesced.
But there’s another reason Jews prefer “Jewish.” Many of us don’t think of Jew-ness as central to our identity. If what we’re talking about is an ethnic inheritance, but not one that defines us in an important way, we may rightly feel that “Jewish” makes a more modest, weaker claim than “Jew” — just as “I’m German” sounds a bit milder than “I’m a German.” The former is purely descriptive, the latter a bit proud.
It’s precisely because “Jew” is a bit proud that I want Jews to use it more.
I agree with him that Jews should use it more, and for the reason he says. But until I read this piece, I had not realized that I do the same thing. I’m much more likely to describe someone as “Jewish” rather than “a Jew,” because I want to avoid any hint of anti-Semitism. There is nothing anti-Semitic about calling a Jew a Jew, of course, but as Oppenheimer notes, anti-Semites have made it sometimes a term of opprobrium. Better to be on the safe side. Nobody objects when you ask, “Is she Jewish?”, but if you say, “Is she a Jew?”, then there’s a part of you that may wonder, “Hmm, why does that person want to know?” I do that too, though again, I wasn’t aware of it until I read Oppenheimer’s column.
To be “a real Christian” is a compliment, but to be “a real Jew” is considered an insult. “A real Jew” may be stingy, crass or pushy — whatever she is, it’s not good.
Again, I have to admit that I would not have noticed this unless he pointed it out, but it’s true. If someone described a devout Jew to me as “a real Jew,” I would assume that there was something sinister in the formulation. I don’t know why that is.
Here’s what it reminds me of. I became serious about my Christianity as an adult in my mid-twenties when I converted to Catholicism. I was living in Washington DC, and had been pretty secular for almost a decade. I remembered how derisively my secular friends had spoken of Christians — I had done this too — and I had a lot of social anxiety about it. I settled on describing myself when asked as “Catholic,” deliberately not using the word “Christian,” though certainly that’s what I was. Why? Because “Christian” was — in my circles at the time — usually a negative descriptor, in a way that “Catholic” was not.
After reading Oppenheimer’s piece, I tried to understand why “Christian” made me feel so uncomfortable back then. After all, politically speaking, as a Catholic I held the same pro-life views that made me so offensive to certain progressives. But there was this context: the power and presence of TV evangelism.
I was at LSU in the 1980s, when Jimmy Swaggart, based in Baton Rouge, was a big national deal. I was present in his congregation back in 1988 for his big confession sermon after he got caught with a prostitute. I associated Christianity with people like him, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and the whole herd of charlatans. Plus, on campus, the loudest Christian voices were the most obnoxious. To be fair, I was ideologically primed to see only the worst of Christians, and to think of them as emblematic. All the quieter Christians, both Evangelical and Catholic, escaped my notice, in part because of my confirmation bias.
When I finally got serious about Christianity, and did so through the Catholic church, I was well aware of the fact that whatever negative thing one might say about Catholicism, it could not be accused of the anti-intellectualism and chicanery that came with TV evangelism. I was ignorant back then of the differences among Evangelicals. I assumed — wrongly — that everybody who called himself an Evangelical was in some way part of the TV evangelism world. Choosing to identify as a “Catholic” and not a “Christian” when asked was a way of distancing myself from that mess. It played right into the ugly distinction that many of those believers make; I ran into it the other night in New Orleans, when an undergraduate at the J.D. Vance event introduced herself to me and said, “I was raised Catholic, but now I’m a Christian.” The TV evangelist types and the more conservative Evangelicals didn’t consider Catholics to be Christians, so by choosing the label “Catholic” instead of “Christian,” I signaled that I wasn’t one of the “bad” kind of Christian.
It was also, I hate to say, a form of intellectual snobbery. I didn’t want to be considered one of those Christians. It made sense to me back then, in my twenties, but the memory of it embarrasses me today. For a long time, I have been describing myself simply as “Christian,” or “a Christian.” If people want to know more, I tell them I am an Orthodox Christian. Of course I don’t agree with all Christians on everything, theologically or otherwise, but if you’re the sort of person who hates Christians, I would rather you go ahead and lump me in with all the other less “respectable” believers. I wear that spite as a badge of pride.
And that, more or less, is why I agree with Mark Oppenheimer about the word “Jew”.