Words 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.
17 thoughts on “Who are You Calling Shiksa?”
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.
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.
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!
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.
Thank you for this. It’s amazing how words like this get picked up and somehow inserted into the popular lexicon. I wasn’t aware of the original meaning of the word (and ew!), but it always seemed like an insult, in some way.
Just musing here, but I’m reflecting on how different our relationship to our non-Jewish neighbors (and family!) is here in this country, as opposed to how it was in the Eastern European world of Yiddish. Surely that had something to do with the etymology, and even though it’s no longer relevant, some more cloistered parts of our people still hold onto it. Hopefully it will eventually go away.
I would love for that word to go away, but at least here in the US, it’s become a very popular word. Some people just like it, and feel that its past doesn’t matter. I’m all for reclaiming the power of words, but this one reflects badly on the Jewish community AND it’s icky. Ugh.
Well, it’s taken me 3 yrs to come across your blog post, a FB friend was mentioning that she was called this word after she’s been exploring the connotations of a relationship with a Jewish person, another friend of hers spelled it wrong, I decided to check this word out, I’m glad I came to see your blog post, I gave my friend a link to a book about dating Jewish men and asked her to think things through carefully, why did I ask her to be careful you may ask???, to be honest it was because we all know this kind of slur word and many others are as strong as ever and will never go away, I’m concerned whether he can handle this kind of treatment long-term.
My apologies, I typed she, but as usual spell check changed it to he at last second.
I often refer to my spell check software as “spellwrecker” for similar reasons.
Not sure if this means anything here, however, my sister recently had an online DNA test done, I always knew we were almost entirely European, had no idea till this test that we have a small amount of European Jew in our DNA, interesting.
In every generation, some Jews assimilate or marry out and whose children are raised as Gentiles. You probably have one or more Jewish ancestors.
Some Jewish communities are friendly to intermarriage and some are less so. InterfaithFamily.com has some good resources for mixed couples.
Maybe you should consider writing a book about all the nasty words and their meanings used in the Jewish/Yiddish language so non Jewish people can become more aware.
That’s really outside my area of expertise. For definitions of words, try this website: http://www.jewish-languages.org/jewish-english-lexicon/