Sometime back in my childhood, I got the idea that it was “nicer” to say “I’m Jewish” than “I’m a Jew.” And preferably, in the mainly Christian suburb of Milwaukee where I grew up, one said it in a sort of mumble.
And no one ever used “Jewess,” which seemed archaic enough to ignore when encountered in 19th century novels like Ivanhoe or Daniel Deronda. (Nor was it considered pejorative then, as I learned from Daniel Krieger’s excellent article “The Rise and Fall — and Rise — of ‘Jewess.’ ”) But the word was disturbing in modern contexts, for instance, when Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep describes a woman as having “the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess.” What, we all have the same cheekbones? In that case, I’ll take Lauren Bacall’s. “Intelligent Jewess” so stuck in my craw that it inspired my novel, The Tin Horse, in which I imagine that “Jewess’s” story.
In recent years, various “out” groups have reclaimed language, taking words once flung at them as slurs and boldly using them to self-identify. “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” The gay community has asserted ownership of “queen” and “queer,” and my favorite Gay Pride Parade participants are the motorcycle-riding “dykes on bikes.”
What linguists call “semantic reclamation” has also been happening for “Jew.” The cheeky Klezmatics put out albums titled “Rhythm and Jews” and “Jews with Horns” — and they made klezmer cool. These days we’ve got the irreverent online mags Jewniverse and Jewcy, not to mention Jewcy tee shirts.
And some young, hip Jews are trying to embrace “Jewess.” Look at the smart blogs Jewesses with Attitude and Jewess. Enter “Jewess” in Jewcy’s search box, and you get ten pages of links. But those are niche websites, and they’re not trying to appeal to a wide audience. When I floated the working title for my book, An Intelligent Jewess, some people loved its in-your-faceness — the wonderful woman who would become my agent wrote in response to my query, “From one intelligent Jewess to another, I’d love to read your book.” Even more people, though, felt pushed away by it; non-Jews felt excluded, and it made many Jews squirm. And “Jewess” isn’t just anti-Semitic, it’s one of those sexist “ess” words like “stewardess,” a double whammy that suggests Hebraic odalisques. Nevertheless, maybe the Jewesses with Attitude are on to something, and “Jewess” will flip from pejorative to cool. I’d love to see it happen. On the other hand, are some words beyond redemption?