When Paul Nehlen, the congressional candidate hoping to unseat Paul Ryan, wanted to excite his alt-right base last month, he sent them a private message via Twitter. “There are a list of goys attacking me, and a separate list of Jews,” Nehlen wrote his supporters.
But just who are the goys?
The word “goy,” of course, is Hebrew in origin and simply means “nation” or “large group of people.” The Torah refers to goyei ha’aretz – the “nations of the world,” and, for that matter, to the Jewish people, as a “goy”–a “goy kadosh,” or “holy nation.”
It is the “nations of the world” usage, though, that entered Yiddish. Thus, “goyim,” goy’s plural, refers to “the nations,” i.e. non-Jews.
It’s not a pejorative, at least not inherently, merely a descriptive. But, in language, particularly with reference to races, creeds or cultures, context is everything.
“What do you expect from a goy?” (as a comment on some dastardly deed) is a demeaning usage of the word. “Can you find a goy to turn on the heat?” (spoken by a Sabbath observant Jew during a sudden Saturday cold snap) is entirely neutral; the word there is a simply substitute for “non-Jew.”
As the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party’s adoption of the word—they’ve set up a crowd-funding platform named goyfundme—shows, the word has been “reclaimed” by some goyim (here, of the decidedly dastardly deed sort) as a badge of honor, like “queer” has been reclaimed by some gays, or “Heeb” by some Jews, or the “n-word” by some blacks.
The Yiddish opposite of “goy” is “yid,” or Jew. There, too, context counts; no less than “Jew,” yid can go both ways. Shouted, as it sometimes is from passing cars at those of us who wear their Jewishness (or “Yiddishkeit”) on their sleeves (and hems and hats), it is not intended as a respectful salute.
But, at least among Yiddish-speaking yidden (yes, “Yiddish” means “Jewish” and “yidden” is the plural of “yid”), the word simply means a member of the tribe, and is regularly used in a positive manner. “A feineh yid,” or “a fine Jew,” is a common phrase.
Whence, though, “yid”? It, too, has its roots in Hebrew, specifically the word “Yehudi,” itself from the name of the tribe of Judah, or Yehudah. Arabic’s word for Jew is “Yahud” (unfortunately familiar to many from the cry of “Itbah Al-Yahud!” or “Slaughter the Jew!” ejaculated by Arabic-speaking stabbers as they embark on their acts.
Arabic isn’t the only language that preserves the initial letter of “Jew” as a “Y” sound. So do Latin, Russian, Turkish, Chinese and Japanese, to name a few. But in English and French (not to mention Swahili and Slovak), “Jew”’s “Y” has been transformed into a “J” and is pronounced more or less as such.
That’s because Biblical names tended to be borrowed “as is” from German scholarship. Since the German “j” is pronounced like the English “y,” many words of Hebrew origin that begin with the Hebrew consonant “yud” (which sounds out as “y”) were rendered, quite accurately, in German with a “J.” But they were imported to English without amending the words to preserve their original pronunciations. Thus we have Jeshurun, Joshua and Jeremiah in place of Yeshurun, Yehoshua and Yirmiyahu.
Why, though, is Yehudah the tribe whose name has been adopted for all Jews? That’s because when the king of Assyria conquered the northern kingdom he exiled the 10 tribes it contained, leaving only the residents of the southern kingdom, where the tribes of Judah and Benjamin resided. Judah’s population was the much larger of the two, and so the descendants of those tribes became known by that name.
Linguistically speaking, at least, Nehlen had the right idea: The yidden and the goyim are very different. Politically, thank G_d, we’re much more evolved than that.
Rabbi Shafran, whose latest book is “It’s All In The Angle” (Judaica Press), blogs at rabbiavishafran.com.