Calling a Jew a Jew.Posted: December 19, 2009
In the most recent episode of Community (about a diverse group of friends at a community college), Shirley, a devout fundamentalist Christian, organizes a Christmas party. Annie brings a menorah to the party. Shirley, obviously taken aback to discover that Annie is Jewish (it seems not only that she didn’t know, but that she is vaguely troubled by it), has this exchange with Annie:
Shirley: I never knew you were a Jew.
Annie: I’d say the whole word next time.
Now, what is wrong with this picture? It’s not the portrayal of Shirley. There are people in this world who are uncomfortable around Jews (sometimes because they’ve never known any), and showing us a character like that in a sitcom is fair game. Comedy is a perfect vehicle for exposing the narrow-minded, the ignorant, and the bigoted. No, the problem with this scene is not Shirley, but Annie. In recommending to Shirley that she say the “whole word next time,” she intends to communicate that the word “Jewish” is preferred over the shorter “Jew.”
“Jew” has a long history of being used as an epithet by those who hate the Jews. The complicating thing is, it is also the correct term for us. As a Jew, I can tell you that my fellow Jews and I call ourselves Jews, and it’s not slang. Rabbis in the pulpit, delivering formal sermons, refer to our people as Jews. Respected reference works written by Jews and non-Jews abound with titles like A History of the Jews and Jews, God and History. Israeli prime ministers refer to their countrymen in official communications as Jews.
Therefore, Annie is wrong to “correct” Shirley. A Jew is what Annie is; it is the wholly legitimate term for what she is. By signing on to the interpretation that the word “Jew” is a slur, an epithet, a demeaning term to be avoided, Annie gives her tacit agreement to the proposition that the very name for her and her co-religionists is a slur. She agrees to make “Jew” a dirty word.
A smile from Annie, accompanied by the simple word “Yes,” would have been the correct response. Only by owning the word can we Jews claim it for ourselves in its rightful meaning. To respond otherwise is to adopt (perhaps unconsciously) the mantle of the self-hating Jew.
Now, I suppose one could argue that the audience is meant to take Annie’s reaction merely as that of a young woman insecure with her Jewish identity — that we are not meant to make any larger linguistic inference from it — but that’s inconsistent with other evidence in the scene. If she were ashamed of being Jewish, Annie wouldn’t have brought a menorah to the holiday celebration in the hope that it would be displayed. No, the evidence in the scene is that Annie is proud to be a Jew, and desirous of claiming a place for herself as a Jew in the holiday celebration; therefore, her rejection of the word “Jew” (her insistence that a proper term of respect must include the suffix “-ish” in it) teaches the audience that there is a taint to the shorter word. That’s a big step backward.
The talented actress Alison Brie, who plays Annie (she also plays Trudy in Mad Men), knows better. Here is a “tweet” from her Twitter page:
Yeah, my mom is Jewish, which most Jews will tell you, makes me Jewish too. 🙂
In this sentence, Brie shows that she correctly understands the words “Jew” and “Jewish” to be interchangeable and equally acceptable, even if the character she plays on Community doesn’t. The proud Jew in me wishes that as an actress she had stood up to Community’s show-runner Dan Harmon and refused to read the line as written; I wish that she had insisted her character Annie claim the word “Jew” for herself as a descriptor, not to treat it as a badge of shame. As it was, many of the millions of viewers of Community might be forgiven for concluding that the word “Jew” has a taint to it. It only does if we allow it to.