Mark Naison: Is "Schwartze" A Racial Slur? Reflections on Jackie Mason's Comedy and Yiddish Vernacular Speech

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jackie Mason is in trouble again . The folksy comedian, ,whose conservative politics are as in your face as his humor ( he now claims "white people in America no longer have freedom of speech "), says, after being criticized for calling President Obama a "schwartze" in a stand up comedy routine, that the word "schwartze" is merely a Yiddish slang expression for blacks, not a racial slur. Although I am a little younger than Jackie Mason, like him, I grew up in a family where Yiddish was spoken along with English. In my family, the word "schwartze" was a common expression, one which my parents used with some regularity, but for the life of me I can't think of a single context in which they used it which was positive

They never said

" The schwartzes at the local high school are making it a much better school. They are wonderful students!"

" I love having "schwartzes" as our neighbors. They are so well mannered, and so polite."

" I am so excited, we're having the Jones family for dinner on Sunday afternoon. Whenever the shwartzes come over, I make my best pot roast.""

"The schwartzes loves Jewish deli almost as much as I love grits!"

" The Concord is my favorite hotel. At least half of the guests there are schwartzes, so you know everyone is going to have a good time."

But I heard plenty of the following

"If the schwartzes keep coming into the neighborhood,, I am moving to Queens"

"Even when the schwartzes are educated, they don't have the same moral standards we do"

" I am not letting my daughter go to Wingate. It's full of schwartzes!"

" He married a schwartze and his family disowned him. They are sitting shiva right now!"

Lest I be accused of fomenting anti-Semitism, let me make one thing perfectly clear- not all Jews of that generation were closet or open racists At a left wing summer camp I attended, Camp Taconic and at Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, where I transferred after getting in a fight at my local high school, I met many Jewish young people whose parents were militant anti-racists, and participated in civil rights protests well before they became fashionable. Some of those people, whose houses I occasionally went to, spoke Yiddish as fluently as my parents, and sent their children to left wing Yiddish "shules," but none of them EVER used the word "schwartze" in conversation. It was not a part of their family's vocabulary

The refusal of left wing or anti-racist Jews to use the term casts doubt on Mason's claims that the word "schwartze" lacks pejorative connotations..While the word"schwartze" doesn't have the same awful history as the "N" word, or the same rage filled connotations, it conveys a level of discomfort about Jewish encounters with Blacks that cannot be dismissed as "neutral." Given the history of Jews as an oppressed people, it is a discomfort tinged with ambivalence,but is discomfort nonetheless. "Schwartze" was a term rarely used in anger, but often used in fear. It reflected a perception of Blacks as a dangerous "other.," an alien people who might subject Jews to the same danger they had
been in throughout most of their history.

Although I understand the experiences, and the emotions, that might lead some Jews to express their racial fears and animosities through a term like "schwartze," I would never use the word "schwartze "in conversation, and would not accept it's usage from a casual acquaintance, much less from a friend

Jackie Mason is on shaky ground in arguing that the word lacks negative connotations.. "Schwartze" is a term loaded with racial meanings, and none of them are positive.

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More Comments:

Steve B Butler - 3/18/2009

I had my own personal connection to the "S" word when I went running on winter day in Chicago with a good running buddy. We ran fifteen miles to our destination, the Goldman Home, residence of my grandma Kate. Upon seeing me, she gave me a hug, but upon spying my friend, she proclaimed quite loudly, "Steven, why did you bring that shvartza here." I turned to my friend and motioned to him that my grams was a bit nuts. I never told him what the "S" word translated to and he never asked. Now twenty nine years later, we are going for another run (albeit much shorter). Shall, I tell him what really went down on that cold winter day in the Windy City? Just as an aside, a few years later folks on my block told me that if Harold Washington became mayor they were moving to California. He became mayor and they stayed put.

Gary Baugh - 3/17/2009

Mark, you are a great example of a Jew suffering from tremendous guilt and self loathing. I am a gentile and a New Yorker. I'm proud of fact that all my life I spent working for Jewish bosses, have developed honest and candid relationships with NY Jews of all backgrounds. I know you feel like I have no right to discuss this because I'm not Jewish, but I am someone who can make an observation without hang-ups. Who are you kidding first of all? The left wing Jews who you idolized are the biggest self loathers of them all and you want a news flash? 3/4s of the black people I know put them down along with every other Jew. Funny they don't have the same concern you have for them. They also have no problem using the racially charged words for your tribe that I refuse to even think of. Despite all the Jewish people have done for other minorities in this country, Jews are still treated like shit by all minorities when they know there are no Jews around. I’m sorry I have to be the one to tell you that, but it’s the truth. Anti-Semitism in this country is much more predominant then any other racism.

There are many words that have connotations when used. My mother forbade me to say the word Jew because it was used by anti-Semites to put Jewish people down. Also, I have heard, many times, Jews use the word schwarte positively. Believe it or not, not every Jew is riddled with guilt like you are.

Now tell me honestly, in those examples of when you use the word schwartze, have you ever heard anyone actually say those things with the word "Black" or "African American" in its place? If yes, then your either a liar or gravely disillusioned. No one talks like that. Also consider this; have you ever heard a Jewish person use the word Goy, Goyim, shiksa or gentile as particularly positive? Like "Oh you dress like a goy” or "Let's eat at a restaurant with a lot of Goyim" or "Those shiksa models are so pretty"? Well you know what? Those are not meant to put Gentiles in a good light, but I don't care.

And one final thought, New York used to be a great place where Yiddish was a vibrant language spoken on the street, home and airwaves. It's sad that language is all but dead, with its final nail pounded by its own decedents who are so ashamed where they came from. Don't let your shame and embarrassment you have towards your parents lead to hating your culture too. Be proud of what you are and don't use what Mason said to ingratiate yourself to Black people and erase centuries of discrimination to them and by them. That healing process can only begin when you truly know yourself and with one relationship at a time.