Who are You Calling Shiksa?

שיקסעWords matter. Words have power. Judaism establishes its reverence for words in Genesis 1, when God creates the world using the power of words.

I know that the word shiksa is a word many people have come to use ironically in English as a fun little word to use for gentile woman. It sounds cute. It’s crisp and appealing to the ear: shiksa!

But in Yiddish, shiksa means “filth” or “abomination.” It means the stuff you clean up out of the cat box. It means something you don’t want on your shoe, much less in your house. And yes, it came to be used to describe gentile women. It expressed disgust for women who were outsiders, women who were sources of contamination. It’s an ugly word.

The fact that it has become common via pop culture doesn’t change that history. It doesn’t change the fact that in Yiddish, that’s still what it means: filth.

But perhaps you say, no, I’m using it to take back the power of the word! I understand that idea – I am a lesbian, and I use the word “queer” to describe myself sometimes. But “queer” originally meant “odd” – the nasty connotations came later. There are words I would never use about other people, because those words were designed to convince both speaker and listener that a human being was sub-human. The word shiksa is such a word: it was coined to demean and denigrate a woman, to express nothing but disgust for her.

So when I hear a young woman describe herself as a shiksa, I cringe. Maybe her friends agree that it’s cute and sassy. But there is deep ugliness in that word, a hatred aimed at women. I  don’t want anything to do with it.

I know that my little blog post is not going to stop someone who likes the word shiksa.

I just want you to be perfectly clear what it means.

5 Responses to Who are You Calling Shiksa?

  1. Thank you for this post rabbi. I have to be careful about this as it is a snappy little word, and, I thought, mostly reserved for those particular “abominations” of my ilk: non-Jews intermarried to Jews. (I was just treated in NY (again) to how my husband should never have married me. :-) )

    I first heard this word when a Jew, with a heavy Brooklyn accent, told me his mom always cautioned him to stay away from the “shiksas and sheygetz”. Not having anything negative to attach to to these words, they meant nothing to me.

    But the same is true about another word. While dating my husband, I made some remark when suddenly he jerked his head and in shock and offense, asked me if I had just called him a “kike”.

    “Why would I say that?” I asked, I had never even heard that word until that very moment, and had no idea what it meant… It took a while to convince him but the point is, you’re correct, words carry meaning.

    • rabbiadar says:

      Yes – “Shaygetz” is the masculine form corresponding to “shikseh.” “Kike” is a horrible word that has an unclear etymology but oral tradition and Leo Rosten’s “Joy of Yiddish” suggest that it came from the late 19th century, when Jews from Eastern Europe would arrive at Ellis Island unable to sign their names. The officials told them to sign with an X, which looked to them like a cross, and they didn’t want to do that, so they signed with a little circle in place of their names. “KY-kel” is “circle” in Yiddish, and thus a slur began.

    • rabbiadar says:

      Agh. I should have begun my reply by saying that I’m terribly sorry your husband’s family are unwelcoming. I hope that someday they’ll come to recognize you as the true friend to the Jews that you most certainly are. I enjoy my correspondence with you, and I learn from your blog posts.

      • Oh thank you rabbi, no problem! Actually, it wasn’t his family, it was an Orthodox Jew and I don’t think he was trying to be mean to me. I understand how he thinks, I simply disagree.

        Our story is so convoluted, and we do not fit into any neat or tidy little box, so, we must press on, knowing God has His purposes for all of us. :-) I enjoy our correspondence as well!

        Blessings,
        Ruth

  2. Sarah says:

    Thanks for this—waaaayyyy too many people don’t know what the work really means. I never use it or allow it to be used around me.

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