American Jews speak their own language. This is the thesis that Professor Sarah Bunin Benor is working under as she gathers up phrases and words for her project “Jewish English: Distinctive Lexicon.”
I spoke with Benor recently and she explained that while it is not like Yiddish or Ladino, American Jews have a specific vocabulary and unique linguistic ticks that make it distinctive. She compared it to Judeo-Greek.
The lexicon, which complements the recent Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity that she recently conducted with sociologist Steven M. Cohen, features phrases that come from biblical Hebrew, Israeli Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Aramaic, biblical literature, and liturgy. It also includes English phrases such as “nice Jewish boy” and “matzah pizza.”
Writing in Nextbook, Daniel Krieger traces the genealogy of the term “Jewess” — from neutral descriptor of Jews with two x chromosomes to slur to trendy point of pride:
In 1980, Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus, an octogenarian scholar of Jewish history, decided to title his new book about Jewish women in America “The American Jewess.” His publisher, Ktav, told him that was out of the question because the term “Jewess” was, well, offensive. Marcus, more concerned with historical truth than political correctness, didn’t really care. He compromised on the title, calling his study The American Jewish Woman: 1654–1980, but refused to remove the term from his text. “Many Jews today deem it a ‘dirty word’ and avoid it,” he writes in the preface. “I believe it is a neutral descriptive noun and I use it constantly. If for some it has become a term of contempt, it is because Judeophobic Gentiles have made it so. I refuse to bow to their prejudice.”
If Marcus had made it to the twenty-first century, he would’ve appreciated the latest chapter in the long and winding history of the word. In recent years, as demeaning “-ess” feminine nouns like “stewardess” and “actress” have continued to fade from use, their sister-term “Jewess” has been making a comeback.
The history lesson that follows is fascinating. Still, the most recent metamorphosis of the word “Jewess” is hardly surprising, given that the more overtly pejorative “JAP” has also been defanged and reclaimed, as the Forward’s estimable Arts & Culture editor Alana Newhouse noted three years ago in The Boston Globe.