a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self


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.

No More Jewish N-Word.

9 Responses to "Schvartze"

I don’t use Yiddish words. If I hear one I don’t understand I will ask what it means but that’s the end of it. From what I gather about the part of my family that was supposedly Jewish I am thinking they were not Ashkenazi and wouldn’t have used Yiddish either. I figure if I didn’t grow up with it, it makes little sense for me to use it now. I’ve never heard the word “schvartze” but then again, I don’t know anyone who would use the term if it’s derogatory.

You ask if it is just like the N-word. If you ask the people who use it, of course they will say it isnt. It is only a color description – a schvartze kapote, a schvartze katz, a schvartze schvartze. It is when you HEAR them say it that the meaning becomes clear. Which you probably won’t because they KNOW what they intend by using it and usually avoid it in the presence of Black people. “Tinkele” (dark = darkie?) is a common substitute among Yiddish speakers. When I hear that word spoken, and I do quite a bit where I live, I hear the N-word.

I think it depends on context, probably. I don’t speak Yiddish well enough to know if there is an alternative, less offensive word in Yiddish that can be used to describe a black person. If there is, clearly, it should be used. If not, I’m not sure it makes any more sense to demand that Yiddish speakers erase the word “schvartze” from their vocabularies than it does to demand that English speakers cease using the word “black”- in any context- because someone could overhear, misunderstand, and be offended. I can certainly understand having a visceral reaction to hearing that word used, because its history has given it a very negative connotation, but as Chevramaidel says, there are a hell of a lot of times someone can be describing something black and not be remotely referring to a black person. And being totally frank, I’m not sure it should be up to someone with the level of disdain you show for the Yiddish language as a whole to say, “Right, that’s it- no one’s allowed to use this word anymore,” particularly when you don’t speak the language at all.

For myself, I find the word “shiksa” (and the corresponding “shaygetz,” which I hear far, far less often) much more offensive, much less debatable in its offensiveness, and heard much more often. If we’re going to have a campaign to ban a Yiddish word, that would be the one I’d start with- it’s much more pervasive. But I’m also not black, so perhaps that colors my priorities, I don’t know. I personally would not and have never used the word “schvartze,” nor have I ever heard it used in my presence. I have heard “shiksa” used, repeatedly, and I always call it out when I hear it, because it’s incredibly offensive, misogynistic and unnecessary. Strangely, though, I almost never hear debate about whether that word should be “banned.”

I don’t think it’s necessarily effective to “ban” any word, incidentally. The attitudes, all too often, will still be there, and at least if someone’s using some incredibly derogatory word openly, you can know immediately that they’re a jerk and elect to have nothing to do with them.

I’m not sure I want any word banned-I do, however think that if the word is commonly used negatively then it shouldn’t be used. When I talked to the many people I questioned about it-they candidly admitted to dropping it when speaking in earshot of a black person or when talking about blacks in general,when black people are in ear shot. To me it feels like you want to say the N-word but wouldn’t or won’t because you know that it’s insulting so you substitute it for shvratze.

I don’t disdain Yiddish and think it’s a great culture, it’s just not the Jewish culture I’m exposed to-none of my Jewish friends speak Yiddish, the siddur I use isn’t in Yiddish-so why would I speak or have the desire to learn it?

I could give a giant list of words that should be erased from many languages but that won’t happen. I do, however, think that we as Jews have a higher obligation to speak of other humans, Jews and non-Jews alike, with respect. The linguist that I spoke with confirmed that the word means black, but we went back and forth trying to figure out when and how it became an insult.

At any rate, it’s a good conversation and something to think about.

*written from my blackberry-apologies for errors*

This is a word I’d never dream of using, just as I’d never dream of using the N-word.

@Dena-I limit my use of Yiddish to schvitz and schmultz (especially when making matzoh ball soup in the summer) 😉 But generally don’t use it. When someone says Gut Shabbes to me, I usually respond in Hebrew with Shabbat Shalom.
@Chevramaidel-I agree (I thought I replied to you both from my phone yesterday) It feels like it’s meant or said in a hateful way. I’m not trying to say that the word doesn’t, in fact, mean black. When I spoke with the linguist who helped me with the piece he confirmed this-it has become, in common spaces, a derogatory word.
@Suburban Sweetheart-Ugh, even writing the N-word makes me cringe. I’m so, so grateful I’ve never heard anyone use it towards me-though last year on the subway an Asian teenager called a mentally impaired black man the N-word when he took the teen’s mother’s seat on the subway. The entire subway car was shocked-literally a quiet subway as we all watched in disbelief and horror…English was not this teen’s first language but he knew enough to know that that word is used towards one type of person in a hateful and demeaning way. Words are just words but when they’re used as venom I have no tolerance for excuses.

Ugh. Hopefully that kid learned a lesson that it’s unacceptable to use those kinds of words.

I’m from an Ashkenazic Jewish family. My grandparents spoke Yiddish, my parents understand it, and I know just a few words. The first time I ever heard the word “schvartze” was when I was in my early 20s and dating a former boyfriend whose entire family (parents included) still speak Yiddish. From the way they used it, it immediately felt like a slur and made me very uncomfortable. It’s not a word I would ever use and I wouldn’t want to be around anyone who does.

[…] will say that I was shocked that my “Schvartze” piece from a few years ago was one of the most searched and read pieces. But given the […]

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