Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lately on Unorthodox, one of our hosts has twice been caught—and chastised for—using the word “sheygetz.” Don’t know it? You are not alone. Unlike its female counterpart, “shiksa”—and unlike “schmuck” and “tsuris” (which just popped in The New York Times)—the Yiddish word for a Gentile boy never leapt across Delancey into the American vernacular. On occasion, Tablet has used the word: In 2012, we referred to Rachel Weisz’s husband Daniel Craig and Natalie Portman’s Benjamin Millepied as “trophy sheygetzes.” But in general, the word remains the province of the elderly, the language buffs, and the Hasidim.
Which is precisely where some think it should remain. Earlier this week, one podcast listener, Shelly, took to Facebook in the middle of her weekly listen, imploring, “Can somebody please ask Mark to stop using the word ‘sheygetz’? Nobody deserves to be called an abomination.” (If she listened on, she heard the hosts discuss that word at the end of the episode.) Which raises the question: Is Shelly right? Should the word never be used?
Our first inclination is to say that any Yiddish word that has remained so defiantly obscure, so completely old-world, has to be pretty benign. Yes, some nice Gentile boys have been wounded on learning that their mother-in-law’s word for them is not actually so nice, that in fact it comes from the Hebrew “sheketz,” “repulsive.” On the other hand, in the contemporary United States, the word has never been deployed as often as “shiksa” (thanks, misogyny!), and by remaining unknown it has resisted the venomous connotations it had in Eastern Europe, where one’s Cossack tormentors were called, in the plural, shkutzim.
But perhaps obscurity is not a good defense for a word that, to some, however few, really is abominable. Tablet’s resident Yiddish columnist, Avi Shafran, knows the word well, and he dislikes it. “My parents never used it in our home as I grew up,” he tells us, “and my wife and I never used it as we raised our kids.” That’s good enough for us, and we are inclined to discourage our readers, and our podcast listeners, from saying “sheygetz.”
But perhaps we might be allowed an exception? In the context of referring to Daniel Craig or Benjamin Millepied as a “sheygetz,” trophy or otherwise, we are really expressing admiration for their beautiful, talented Jewish wives—the clear implication is that a million Jewish boys (and plenty of girls) would give their pitching arm for a date with one of these amazing women of the tribe, so we have to reserve a little contempt for whatever lucky man ends up with them. In such cases, calling the husband a “sheygetz” is the feeble, but forgivable, act of a sore loser. We trust that Ashton Kutcher will forgive us.
Whatever you call us, we’ll keep reading your letters. If you have a question, about anything, write to us at email@example.com. To get the Unorthodox podcast, visit iTunes here, or use your favorite app.