In which I respond as a Jew to an anon telling me off for using the word “Jew”.

Content note: This is a response to a hostile anon. (I normally don’t post hostile asks. When I make an exception, I post a content note so that people who avoid hostility can skip the post if they want.)

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:
That awkward moment when a social skills blog calls people of the jewish faith “jews”

realsocialskills said:

I’m about to be ordained as a rabbi in a few weeks. 

I’ve been in an intense graduate program for the past five years, I went to yeshiva before that, and I majored in Jewish history undergrad. I think I’ve earned the right to an opinion on this.

And since I’d rather procrastinate than work on cleaning my apartment for Pesach, I’m writing a long reply to this about why I have the language preferences I have:

I’m not a big fan of ideological commitment to person-first language in any case. I identify as disabled and autistic rather than as a person with autism. For similar reasons, historically-popular euphemisms like “people of the Hebrew persuasion” and “people of the Mosaic faith” make me really uncomfortable, and insistence on “Jewish people” over “Jews” makes me mildly uncomfortable. 

That said, I try not to get too fussed over language disputes, for reasons that are captured well in Amorpha’s “On Language Dickery”. I think that what matters most is respect, and also respecting the language used by members of the group you’re talking about. (Including respecting a legitimate range of preferences within groups you’re part of.)

I don’t know anyone who refers to themself as a “person of the Jewish faith”. I’m sure there are some people who identify that way, but it’s very much not the norm in any communities I’m part of. There are people who have strong preferences about “Jewish” vs “Jews” as ways of referring to themselves — personally, I use the terms interchangeably. (Depending on which words make for the most clearly understandable sentences.)

In my experience, Jews do not define ourselves solely as a religious group, and it’s pretty weird to insist on referring to us as “people of the Jewish faith”. There’s a reason why “Jewish studies” is its own subject and generally speaking not a subset of “religious studies”.  Judaism is a religion, and that’s an important part of Jewishness and Jewish culture, but it’s not the *only* important part.

One way I’ve encountered this in my work is that when I did a chaplaincy rotation, when I’d introduce myself to Jewish patients, they’d usually start the conversation by saying “I’m not religious” — and we’d still have a lot to talk about. People who come from minority cultures have all kinds of experiences and perspectives relevant to that, regardless of what they believe about God and religion.

You can also see this on the level of Jewish organizations and Jewish movements:

For instance, BBYO is a Jewish youth organization that has much more to do with being part of a minority culture and learning to be a strong leader than it does with religion. 

Similarly, the National Yiddish Book Center is a Jewish organization, but it’s not a religious organization. It’s an organization dedicated to the preservation of Yiddish and Yiddish literature, a language which is endangered because a high percentage of its speakers were murdered by Nazis, and a high percentage of speakers in other countries were forced to stop speaking it.

Similarly, Zionism was initially an avowedly secular movement, and the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language was not religiously motivated. (And in fact met fierce religious opposition.) Jewish literature in Modern Hebrew is not an intrinsically religious thing. It runs the whole range of perspectives, just like any other language. 

There’s even a Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv, which has the mission of giving secular Jews access to the skills to read traditional Jewish texts *as secular Jews*. I don’t think “people of the Jewish faith” describes this group particularly accurately. 

Nationality and language aside, there’s also a strong tradition of Jewish humor (some of which is pretty dark, because our experiences over the centuries have been really dark and sometimes laughing is better than crying). Here’s a page with a large collection of it. Some of the jokes have to do with religion, some do not. One iconic Jewish joke is:

  • A violent antisemite stops a Jew in the street and demands: Who is responsible for the war?
  • The Jew replies: The Jews and the bicyclists.”
  • The antisemite replies: “Why the bicyclists?” 
  • The Jew replies: “Why the Jews?” 

And many of the Jewish jokes that address religion are decidedly irreverent:

So it seems that these four rabbis had a series of theologicalarguments, and three were always in accord against the fourth.   One day, the odd rabbi out, after the usual “3 to 1, majority rules” statement that signified that he had lost again, decided to appeal to a higher authority.

“Oh, God!” he cried. “I know in my heart that I am right andthey are wrong! Please give me a sign to prove it to them!”  It was a beautiful, sunny day. As soon as the rabbi finished his prayer, a storm cloud moved across the sky above the four. Itrumbled once and dissolved. “A sign from God! See, I’m right, Iknew it!” But the other three disagreed, pointing out that stormclouds form on hot days.  So the rabbi prayed again: “Oh, God, I need a bigger sign to show that I am right and they are wrong. So please, God, abigger sign!” This time four storm clouds appeared, rushed toward each other to form one big cloud, and a bolt of lightning slammed into a tree on a nearby hill.  "I told you I was right!“ cried the rabbi, but his friends insisted that nothing had happened that could not be explained bynatural causes.  The rabbi was getting ready to ask for a *very big* sign, but just as he said, "Oh God…,” the sky turned pitch black, the earth shook, and a deep, booming voice intoned, “HEEEEEEEE'SRIIIIIIIGHT!”  The rabbi put his hands on his hips, turned to the other three,and said, “Well?”

“So,” shrugged one of the other rabbis, “now it’s 3 to 2.”

That joke is actually based on a story in the Talmud.

Every rabbi I know makes jokes like this; nearly every Jewish person I know makes jokes like this. 

I could go on, but I have a thesis about Jewish liturgy and Jewish ritual to write, so I think I’ll stop here.

In short, I think that insisting that we should refer to ourselves as solely as “people of the Jewish faith” amounts to erasure of every aspect of Jewishness and Jewish culture other than religion. I think it also amounts to erasure of our history in which people have responded to us as a racial and ethnic group in ways that had very little to do with religious. These things are vitally important components of who we are, and I am not ok with erasing them.

tl;dr A hostile anonymous person sent me a message telling me off for saying “Jews”, and insisting that I should use “people of the Jewish faith” instead. I’m Jewish. I disagree. Scroll up to find out more about why.