Jaynie Levinson — Connecting Jewish Young Adults
Let’s Reclaim “Jew”
In many ways, I see my role at the Jewish Federation as a vehicle to push us into the future by making us more relatable to younger generations. By adapting our voice to be more relevant to young people, we are ensuring that the Jewish Federation will still be relevant to our community members for future generations to come. One of those pieces I’ve brought into the fold is the importance of hashtags, the everyday language of a Millennial (both on and off social media).
Early on, I starting tweeting out and calling events #cincyjews. I made it known that for Jewish young adults to feel a part of the Jewish community here, they need it to have a young voice and name. That name, I thought, should be “The Cincy Jews”. I was saying Jew very freely in meetings, and made it known that “Jew” is how we should refer to Jewish young adults.
Some of my colleagues had a knee-jerk reaction and found it quite offensive that I was using this term so freely. They let me run with my #cincyjews tag, but made it known that they didn’t feel comfortable with the term, even though “young people talk like that.”
According to dictionary.com, when used as a noun, “Jew” is an appropriate term that is interchangeable with “Jewish”. However, when “Jew” is used as an adjective or noun, it’s derogatory. Calling someone a “Jew boy” or “Jew lawyer” makes the person part of the negative “other” because of their religion. Using “jew” as a verb, dictionary.com actually lists a definition of “to bargain sharply with; beat down in price” (which is surprising that they list this, quite offensive, definition, even though it has an *offensive* note on it).
I didn’t really think people in America in 2014 used jew as a verb, but I am completely wrong. According to a Huffington Post article in July of 2013, an elected official in a small town in Florida used the phrase “not be to jewing up someone’s pay.” The official claimed that she didn’t mean it in an anti-Semitic way, and in some ways I believe her. The more I read the more I thought about Jewish jokes I hear, using Jew is usually referring to Jews being cheap or trying to get a deal. Have you ever experienced jokes like this? What was the context? Was the person anti-Semitic, or just using it because they didn’t know better?
Let’s circle back to the term “Jew” used as a noun, like “Cincy Jews.” Why do some Jews, from my experience older than 30, find this offensive? In an article in the Jewish World Review from when Joseph Lieberman was running for Vice President with Al Gore in 2000, Jonah Goldberg addresses whether you can address Lieberman as a Jew. What he found in his research was that Jew and Jewish were generally used interchangeably throughout history, however, the rise of Hitler and Europe’s anti-Semitism made Jews uncomfortable with being labeled by the term. Nazi Germany always referred to the Jew in a derogatory way, and it is quite understandable that the term still strikes a negative chord with many. Their hesitation to say Jews now still stems from the pain of the Holocaust and a fear of anti-Semitism rising again.
Because my generation is farther removed from the Holocaust and faces little threat of anti-Semitism, we aren’t worried about the derogatory history of terms like Jew. So we use it. Websites like Hipsterjew.com, groups like Hebro for Gay Jews, and social media characters like “Fat Jew” have emerged (he has over 148 K followers on Twitter and a youtube video with over 600,000 hits). Sarah Weiss, Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council sums this up nicely: “While I may be sensitive to the use of Jew, I’ll join the next generation in trying reclaim the word, but also encourage us to have the courage to speak up when it’s used in a derogatory way.”
I believe it’s a great thing for Jewish young adults and the organized Jewish community to break down old fears and use Jew in a positive way when speaking about our people or building a community. When it becomes an adjective or verb, however, that’s where we should continue to draw the line. That’s what I will use as a guide as I try to build a new brand for Cincinnati’s Jewish community, both young and old, in a #new #rockstar #awesomeway.