Posted on: July 25, 2012
The first time I heard the word schvartze was while watching Jews of Color Roundtable on The Jewish Chanel. I believe it was Yavilah McCoy who described hearing the word in school growing up-she and her siblings were the only blacks in their Crown Heights Hebrew school in the 70s. So when I was approached by my editor for The Sisterhood to write about it I drew blanks. I knew it was a derogatory word that Yiddish-speaking Jews used when referring to black people, but it turns out–it just means black, like the color. At least that’s what Yiddish-speaking Jews want you to believe.
Having never heard the word, I’m not sure how to even pronounce or what it sounds like-which is why I assume it’s an easy insult to throw to the untrained ear. It’s strange, the weekend I was in Maine my friend’s aunt asked if I would learn Yiddish. She’d grown up with grandparents who spoke Yiddish and presumed, because I was a new Jew studying Hebrew, that I would learn Yiddish as well. I honestly think I shocked her–I scrunched up my face and firmly declared that I’d never learn Yiddish. She was silent for a moment and asked, “Why not?” I told her that it wasn’t part of who I am as a Jew. Sure I use some Yiddish here and there; schvitz, schmuck, schmultz, Shabbes, but it’s become American vernacular, especially in New York. But the Yiddish language and the Yiddish culture isn’t part of my Jewish identity. Now you may say that it can’t not be a part of Jewish identity, but Yiddish is only a fraction of Jew’s identities. Moroccan Jews don’t speak Yiddish, Ethiopian Jews don’t, and most black Jews that I know don’t-though, through yeshiva and Hebrew school they can understand. And when you’re walking down the street and or talking with someone and you hear Schvartze you know what it means and what the speaker intended. Perhaps it is nice to throw it around to that street tough who has no clue what you’re saying, but why speak Yiddish when you just want to call him the N-word?
Is schvartze like saying nigger? (that’s the debate on the table) I would have to say yes. The debate is raging on over at The Sisterhood as well as on Facebook and I’m not going to engage with it. But read the piece and if you’d be so kind-share your thoughts with me here.