Watch Your Language: On Shibboleths, Ghettoes and Bageling


If you want to welcome people to your community, whether your Jewish community, your workplace or your secular institution, you have to talk to them in a friendly way. Sometimes this is very simple–you just hold out your hand, say hello and it’s all good. Sometimes, however, your language can get in the way. It can convey unaware assumptions that are offensive or just not inclusive. On the internet, where everything is words and there are no physical handshakes, language is paramount and there are so many different ways to convey assumptions that could hurt someone.

talking silouettesHere at, we have a big challenge. We’re a Jewish organization providing Jewish resources to families with members who are and are not Jewish. So what do we call the people in the families who are not Jewish? We do not use the denotatively neutral but connotatively negative Hebrew term goyim, unless we are quoting someone, nor do we use the more negative shiksa or shaygetz. But that’s easy to figure out. Can we use “gentile”? Well, it’s not pejorative, but it does make some people’s skin crawl. We generally use non-Jew a lot, but lately there has been a sense that calling someone a non-Jew is defining them by what they are not. We can’t say “Christian” though, because some spouses and family members come from other religious backgrounds, and also, some people only call themselves Christians if they are active believers in a sect of Christianity. It’s a puzzle.

In the wider world, there has been a movement to stop using language that assumes some kinds of people are normal and some aren’t.

People with autism and their relatives have started the trend of referring to people who don’t have autism as “neurotypical” rather than “normal.” (See for some insights into this a piece by a person with autism critiquing recent writing on autism.) Transgendered people are not surrounded by “normal” people but by “cisgendered” people. As a member of a tiny minority group, I totally understand why the people in the majority shouldn’t be called normal. I don’t want my child to think that normal people celebrate Christian holidays and people who celebrate Jewish holidays aren’t normal.

It also feels more precise and truthful, to me, to call people what they like to be called. I don’t want to say gypsy of a person who says Roma, or Eskimo of a person who calls herself Inuit. It feels rude. (Hey, did you notice that I used the word “her” for the hypothetical Inuit person there? I didn’t assume that the normal Inuit person was male. Our wedding bloggers wrote a post about seeking a rabbi in which they used female pronouns for their hypothetical rabbi–and commenters assumed they were ruling out male rabbis. Fascinating.)

There’s another question about language and welcoming, and that is insider terminology. There are terms that people inside a minority group use for themselves and for the folks in the majority that are shibboleths–terms that define membership in a group. Sometimes these terms are negative: Aliza Hausman, who writes for IFF, wrote a blog post about our discussion of the term ghetto as an adjective, in which we talked about students calling each other the n-word. Sometimes insider words are like the n-word, words that if anyone else used them about you, you’d beat ’em up. That’s a shibboleth!

Jews do have some insider words for Jew, like “amkhah” which means “your people,” or MOT for member of the tribe. But we don’t use them very much. Instead, we have a culture in which one demonstrates Jewishness with insider knowledge. Almost no one can feel completely comfortable and like an insider in our culture, because we have insider circles in the insider circles. I figured this out in 1992 when I was eating lunch at Brandeis University in the kosher cafeteria with a fellow graduate student who had been ordained as a rabbi at Yeshiva University and he told me that he felt marginal to the Jewish community. (To which I replied words to the effect of, “Dude! If you aren’t an insider now, when are you going to be one?”) It’s great that Jews don’t usually use pejorative insider terms for ourselves, but that’s in part because there are so many other ways to “bagel” (by which I mean to show that we are Jewish in a way that only other Jews understand, not the alternative meaning of throwing hard round rolls at someone’s house).

In some ways, bageling is as big of a problem for Jewish identity as using negative shibboleth words. If a rabbi from Yeshiva University feels marginal, how does a person who isn’t Jewish feel coming into the Jewish community? Especially if there is a constant checking of credentials through the use of insider language. As good as I am about politically correct usage in not making the majority the norm, I’m terrible about bageling. I use Jewish slang like it’s going out of style, which it unfortunately is.

The trick is always to use the insider language as a reason to share, even as a reason to share ways we are different. Sometimes it’s possible to make a connection with someone about the ways we are not the same.

2 thoughts on “Watch Your Language: On Shibboleths, Ghettoes and Bageling”

  • Fascinating post.

    On insider terminology, I have to admit I often feel like an outsider when talking to American Jews because so many of the ways “to bagel” (and the word itself!! which I just learned) feel so Ashkenazi centric. I barely know any Yiddish words, for example, and even what I know I did not learn from my family : even my grandparents from Eastern Europe did not speak Yiddish as far as I know.

  • I think the term “non-Jew” is best when that is indeed what you mean. The person might be Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Wiccan or atheist or may not define him/herself with the label of any religious identification at all. But on this website, “non-Jew” often fits pretty well. It is English and I don’t think it has negative connotations. The term is equally valid for a very devout Christian or someone like me who has a scheduled appointment at a mikveh for conversion to Judaism. The term defines by what someone is not, but that is, after all, the distinction being made.

    The use of “MOT” makes me personally uncomfortable. Because it is an “insider” term, I think that when Jews use it around me, they are actually trying to indicate that they are including me as an “insider”. However, the term “MOT” really makes me feel like an outsider. I think it is also true that the people I know who use the term tend to be more chauvinistic, so maybe it is the context in which the term has been used that is the real source of discomfort.

    Being able to casually use Jewish slang or Yiddish or Hebrew words (even with their correct plural form) has been a way for me to express my ties to Judaism. I think I adjust my “bageling” to the degree that the people I’m talking with do it. When my Jewish friends “bagel” when they talk to me, I think they are usually expressing the idea that “we can use these expressions around you because you understand them since you are a part of the group” (“MOT” excepted).

    As far as an Orthodox rabbi feeling like an outsider, in the book “The Kosher Pig” the author describes how he discovered that *everyone* feels like they are different from others in some way.

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