Calling a Jew a Jew.

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.


13 Comments on “Calling a Jew a Jew.”

  1. Jon says:

    I have always used the word “Jew” – as have most Jewish people I have known. You are right.

  2. Dash says:

    Great point.

    I DVR’d the episode and had to keep rewinding the joke, thinking I had missed something. (Say what whole word next time?)

    I found this post after Googling the joke to see what I was missing; and, as a Jew for whom the thought of “Jew” as pejorative is completely foreign, I was taken aback to see that such an interpretation is what Dan Harmon seemed to be intimating.

    It was a certainly a strange basis for a joke — and worth correcting.

  3. I agree completely. Thanks for posting this.

  4. Abigail says:

    Thank you for writing about this – I saw the rerun of the show just recently and was confused as well. I understand that the word ‘Jew’ has been used is a slur but, honestly, so has almost any other title we humans give ourselves.

    But there’s an even more basic fault in the joke and it is what confused me the most: ‘Jewish’ is an adjective and ‘Jew’ a noun. In making that comment, Annie seems to indicate that we should be saying ‘You are a Jewish’. How could the show writers overlook something like that? Maybe I’m just being a stickler for grammar here. But ‘Jew’ is the whole word.

  5. Hollander says:

    I see an additional layer that exists here (maybe it was not actually intended by the writers, but I am seeing it): the Jewish guilt trip (it works both inwards and outwards, and in this case, it is aimed at Shirley). I have heard of instances (not many, but they were there) of Jewish groups that become over-sensitive about media depictions of Jews (and nothing particularly racist, but simply some fun poking). There was an episode of The Cleveland show, where a somewhat abusive woman dated one of the main characters, and when she was confronted by some of the other characters she claimed “I’m going back to J-Date”, which apparently offended some Jews. There was also a recent application for iPhone showing which celebrities are Jews, which also incited some protest from Jewish groups in France (although this knowledge is easily accessible through the Internet).
    Obviously, being Jews means that we are over-sensitive to criticism, because we know how easily it can turn from poking fun to anti-Semitism, and yet the over-sensitivity is a major flaw, as it sometimes prevents freedom of speech (extremist Muslims prevent freedom of speech with violence, extremist Jews prevent criticism of them using politics).
    In summation, I think that here Annie thought of Jew as a slur (unjustly) when Shirley (and later Pierce) were simply stating the facts. And while I’m at it, let me just say kudos to the American Jews for never getting pissed off at South Park and Family Guy (Simpsons poked some fun, South Park and Family Guy put their heads in the lion’s mouth).

  6. Douglas says:

    Thanks for the clarification. The joke had made no sense to me.

  7. 2joy says:

    Hi. I had to google the meaning of the sentence “Say the whole word” too.
    But dont forget this is a comedy show and not all statements have to be correct. In fact all “religions” of those people came with a color, like the strange buddha figure.
    Jews is the correct terminus and when I used in a negative way in the past so has “Turks” or “Gay” and should not mean to call the Jewish people otherwise.
    Israel is a state and Israeli are the people of this state which are in most cases Jewish people. But it is the people of Israel.

  8. Sindre says:

    Thank for that! Have been wondering forever on that one!! Thought she meant Hebrew oslt :p

  9. Dan says:

    Found this blog through google, I was wondering what “whole word” she meant, cause I had no idea saying Jew was bad. Thanks for clearing that up! Consider me informed.

  10. Martin says:

    I was confused by this and thought it had to do with not having english as native language. Good to know it was just incorrect.
    Then its just one of many incorrect things in that episode. (Such as “jw dont drink” or “‘odd’ religions are brainwashing cults”.)

    It can remind us that television (entertainment and otherwise, also other media) often get things wrong and that we shouldnt just accept it as the truth.
    Google can be our friend but internet has the same shortcomings as tv.

    Prejudices is not always wrong but Prejudice is.

  11. Ethan says:

    I believe the joke plays multiple ways, as many do on community. Annie is shown as too uptight, and Shirley is just a bit too evangelical.

    There are lots of places where Jew is a word that can only be replaced by PC language-bending such as ‘Jewish Person.’ The joke is a joke and I don’t think the creators are taking a position, but I think it undermines rather than supports Annie’s request.

  12. sadminotaur says:

    I agree with Ethan, that this joke is actually, dare i say it, clever but not based on the political correct usage of the word “Jew” but based on the awkwardness that using such a word may entail. First of all, it does of course show that Annie is uptight (which she is), but it also shows the narrow-mindedness of Shirley (albeit her slight change of view on religious denominations at the end of the episode). The dilemma is to a degree comparable to the choices one has on addressing a person who is (known as) black, or coloured, or African-American, all of which has its pedantic problematics. The word “Jew” on the other hand, is even more subtle and context-based (since its not racially based but rather ethnoreligous), making it a more difficult word (difficult in a sense if one has less experience with a Jewish person) to use.

    What makes it more brilliant of course is on the meta level (and we know that Community is very meta), that no one really has the answer to “the whole word”. So everyone goes wondering “what is the whole word?”. There is none and perhaps there will be none. For some people Jew is perfectly fine, but for others perhaps not.

    Therefore I think that it is not a question of “correct usage” of a term, that would be too pedantic for Community, and honestly, a Community fan would understand that Dan Hammon likes to play with such problematics. For example Shirley’s religous bigotry has been picked up multiple times afterwards and, though not directly made fun of (because Community rarely does that), it intends to portray the various implications and problematics of communication and togetherness.

  13. CalLadyQED says:

    But grammatically, that still doesn’t make sense. She’s not a jewish.

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