The other day, we had an extended discussion around the office about the proper term to use to refer to people who aren’t Jewish.
While it might not be water cooler conversation fodder at most offices, this linguistic issue comes up regularly in our writing of community histories for the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. On several occasions across the South, members of the larger community supported Jewish communities and causes, from contributing synagogue building funds to fundraising campaigns for Jewish charities.
This support is noteworthy and historically significant, but I always wrestle with the appropriate language. Some of my co-workers feel the traditional word “gentile” carries a negative connotation and should be avoided. I usually respond that the word was used by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. himself in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, when he declared “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Of course, the word “negro” is no longer generally accepted, so perhaps the cultural meanings we associate with the word “gentile” have changed as well.
The term “gentile” comes from the Latin word “gentilis” which means belonging to a tribe or clan. In the King James Bible, the term “gentile” is used as the translation for the Hebrew word “goy,” which refers to people of non-Hebrew nations. Since the 17th century, the word has been used to refer to non-Jews. Later, Mormons used the word to refer to non-LDS church members, although it has fallen into disuse in recent years, as it has taken on a pejorative connotation – bolstering some of my coworkers’ claims of negativity around that word.
Others think “non-Jew,” the most obvious substitute, is inherently negative in construction and that we should use a more positive term. Rabbi Marshal Klaven suggested “people of other faiths,” which works nicely for an interfaith prayer or presentation, but is a bit too clunky for our encyclopedia histories. Also, what about those who don’t have a faith?
I asked one of our staff members who is not Jewish to get an “inside opinion” on the subject. She prefers the term “non-Jewish” since it is not defining or labeling them as a specific group. “Non-Jewish” simply means she is outside the circle of Jews.
This discussion got me thinking about how Jews have perceived and interacted with “people of other faiths” (or gentiles, or non-Jews) in the South and in the rest of the country. Since Jews have become so socially integrated into their communities, we are more sensitive to the feelings of non-Jews. If we sense that “gentile” might offend, we no longer feel comfortable using the word. Yiddish words like “goyim” and “shiksa” and the more genteel “gentile” were once commonly used when Jews were talking to each other, but now that we are just as likely to be talking to non-Jews (as friends, and as family members) we need a new term. For now, the consensus here seems to be that “non-Jew” is perhaps the best term.
What do you think? What is the most appropriate term to describe someone who is not Jewish?
As our Monday post indicated, it’s that time of year when we have new staff starting at the ISJL. During orientation we have time to get to know each other, sit around lunch tables discussing our former homes (Florida, Washington, New York, Wisconsin!) when it inevitably comes up—regional differences.
I started using this phrase during my first year as a fellow. I was making my summer visits and found that I was having the same conversations over and over again.
“So Rachel, where are you from?”
“Oh my goodness, it’s so cold there! How are you adjusting!”
“Um.. air conditioning?”
Soon I was having the “the temperature varies in different parts of the country” and “people are interested in different sports teams” conversations over and over again with new host families throughout the region. And so the “regional differences” title stuck.
Someone else must have known it was Orientation Week because this great article with regional dialect surveys was recently posted on the Business Weekly website. Joshua Katz, a Ph. D student in statistics at North Carolina State University, just published a group of awesome visualizations of a linguistic survey that looks at how Americans pronounce words.
It’s a perfect example of the typical regional differences dialogue. My particular favorite is the survey for “pecan.” Early in my ISJL tenure someone on a visit told me the way I pronounced it was not the ingredient featured in pecan pie but that a “pee-can” was something you take on a fishing trip. I always think of the anecdote before I utter the word aloud!
I had never even heard of crawfish, yet alone tried to eat them, before I moved to Mississippi, so I’m not sure my pronunciation would gave mattered. But after spending time in Louisiana, I know how delicious they are!
And of course y’all is always a heated topic of conversation in this office of transplants. I myself could never pick it up.
The diverse make up of our staff makes for a really interesting summer, as new interns and fellows join our team and spend time in the South. I’m going to make sure I figure out where everyone places themselves on these surveys. Where do you fit on the map?