Magazine article Moment

Goy to the World

Magazine article Moment

Goy to the World

Article excerpt

It begins, like the world itself, in Genesis: God appears before Jacob, tells him to be fruitful and multiply and gives him the good news that "a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee." The Hebrew word God uses for "nations" is goyim. Yes, you '"tad right: God refers to the nation of Israel as goyim.

The meaning of goyim, like the people it originally described, has come tar since those clays in Canaan. As Yiddish evolved in central and eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, it derived perhaps a fifth of its vocabulary from traditional and largely religious Hebrew. Goy became the language's sole term for Gentile or non-Jew, a large burden for a small word.

"Where Yiddish was the first language, it frequently was used to mean simply, 'He's not one of us,'" says Max Ticktin, associate director of Jewish studies at George Washington University. But that's not to say drat goy didn't have its condescending moments. "In tsarist Russia, the word goy meant 'peasant;" says Joseph Sherman, a fellow in Yiddish literature at England's Oxford University. "Of course, given the extent of Gentile Jew-hatred in all countries and in all times, it was inevitable that the word goy should assume a pejorative connotation when used by Yiddish-speaking Jews."

In the East European Pale of Settlement, goy could also carry nuances of class. "Jews were more likely to be educated than their neighbors," explains Paul Glasser, senior research associate in Yiddish at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. "So using goy would be negative there." Once the word goy crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the 1800s, the term that once described the Jewish people persisted in setting them apart. Among American Jews who grew up in Yiddish-speaking environments, goy remained a popular way of referring to non-Jews.

A number of traditional idioms employ the words goy and goyim to make this point. "Goyische hop" literally "Gentile head," while sometimes affectionate, can also suggest that someone is stupid. There's a Yiddish song entitled "shiker vi a goy"--"chunk like a non-Jew." The phrase, Oxford's Sherman says, "originated in Jews' drawing a contemptuous distinction between drunken Russian peasants and sober Jews, who did not drink to excess." That bias gave rise to the reverse phrase, too, "nicbter vi a Yid"--"sober as a Jew." The late Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish, compared the way Jews use goy pejoratively to the way Gentiles have used "Jew" as a synonym for "too-shrewd, sly bargaining." His examples include "dos ken nor a goy"--"That, only a goy is capable of doing"--and "a goy bleibt a goy"--"A Gentile remains a Gentile," or, less literally, "What did you expect? …

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