How Are You Supposed To Refer To Black In Hebrew & Yiddish?

I thought the Hebrew word “cushi” meant African. So a “cushi mamzer“, a common slang term in Israel, means “black bastard.”

Now I learn cushi means nigger.

I thought the Yiddish word shvartze simply meant black but now I learn it is pejorative.

So what is a Jew to do? How are you to say black in Hebrew and Yiddish?

Dave Deutsch emails:

“Kushim” is definitely pejorative, but to translate it as “nigger” is inflammatory and inappropriate. “Nigger” has a whole history to it, and carries a lot of baggage that “kushi” doesn’t. I don’t know enough to know if there are other derogatory terms for blacks in Israeli Hebrew–but I’m presuming that the range is far smaller in Hebrew than in American English. “Kushi” may be the worst pejorative for blacks in Israeli Hebrew, but it also may be the only pejorative term for blacks in Israeli Hebrew. At that point, you might as well have said he made reference to “jigs” or “spades” or “darkies.”

It’s an interesting question, all in all. Is there a relativity in racism? If an Israeli makes a negative comment about blacks, is it different, given the absence of the history we have, than if an American makes it? Is an anti-Jewish comment different coming from a Laotian than from German? Certainly, Israel has it’s racial issues and history, but it isn’t ours. It may be argued that, when it comes to blacks, Israelis don’t have a word for “nigger,” because they don’t have a concept of blacks so venomous as to produce it. I presume that the Israeli vocabulary is a lot richer when it comes to Arabs, but “Kushi” is probably a bit more benign. I once read about an Ethiopian immigrant complaining to a police officer that he was called a “Kushi,’ and the officer responding that he should relax–it’s like calling a redhead “gingy” or a Jew from soouthern Poland a “galitzianer.” I’d say that’s a bit optimistic, but it’s somewhere between that and “nigger.” “Nigger,” as it is currently used by whites, is a pretty self-conscious choice, that demonstrates a certain amount of bile (unless of course, you’re simply trying to show how “anti-pc” you are); “kushi” I would say shows derision, but not necessarily animus or hatred.

I just like the fact that he [Rabbi Dov Lior] refers to it as “boogie woogie.” I have an image of him getting a hold of a recording of “Minnie the Moocher” when he was a teenager and going off on a musical bender, missing mincha, an event which so traumatized him that he swore he would never listen to the siren song of “boogie woogie” again.

Sam posts: Haaretz might also want to define the word ‘shvartzer’ as “a derogatory term for black people”, but “shvartze” doesn’t mean “nigger”, it means simply ‘black’. One can also call blacks ‘shechorim’ in Hebrew; the degree of derision is not in the word itself, but in the level of derision imparted ONTO THE WORD by the speaker.

A.E. Anderson posts: There seem to be people of two minds on contemporary use of “כושי’ (kushi): in very contemporary usage, the word is used pejoratively, and it is used in its traditional, neutral fashion as a reference to African people of dark skin colour who hail from the biblical land of Kush or are descended from the son of Noah named Kush.

It doesn’t equate to, or rise the pejorative level of, “nigger,” which itself takes on different shadings when used in the American, compared with the British, context. The word couldn’t mean the same in Israeli Hebrew simply because Israel hasn’t hundreds of years of history dealing with the colour line and its problems.

Even in contemporary usage, “kushim” has varying shades of nuance: in pre-Ethiopic Aliyah times (i.e., 20-30 years ago), it was pretty much equivalent to “Shachorim” (blacks), which itself has become pejoratively tinged. Non-Hebrew speakers, speaking English, Yiddish, Yinglish or Yeshivish, may resort to the term. For some, it is clearly used as stand-in for “nigger,” while others continue to say and hear the word in its classical sense. You almost have to look to the inflection to divine the intent.

There is also the inherent problem that any word used to label a hated, disliked or lampooned group will become over time a racist insult: coloured, negros, Affirmative Action/ Equal Opportunity hirees, and, yes, kushim.

My inclination would be to let the user of the word live with the actual phrase they used, letting the chips fall where they may. I still think there are many alive who cling to the classical, non-pejorative use of “kushi” and mean no harm. After all, the word comes from the bible, and God would presumably not use bad words to describe his creations.

TRANSLAT0R POSTS: As a translator of both Hebrew and Yiddish I’d like to weigh in here.

First of all the word Schvartz is the only way to say black in Yiddish. There is no other word.

A native Yiddish speaker would describe anything black as “schvartze.”

Such as this exchange:

Velecher hoise is dayntz? (Which house is yours?)

“De Schvartze”

Velecher is dayn car? (Which is your car?)

“De Schvartze”

Velecher mench is er? (Which guy is he?)

“De Schvartze”

It’s no more an insult to the person than it is to the car or the house. It’s just the color black for heaven’s sake.

Tell me any other way to describe black in Yiddish? There is none. People use euphemisms to refer to black people in Yiddish only because people spread that Schvartze was derogatory, but none of those are considered “proper” Yiddish.

Streimel posts: Now “shvartze” was a perfectly good word to use until the shvartzes started to riot in Newark and other places full of Yidden so now it means something worse. I agree with this rabbi in Hebron. A yeshiva bachur I know began to listen to the music of the colored, then he got involved with drugs, and he became involved with heroin, stole from pishkas, stopped davening, ate pork, and finally, went to mixed dances with shiksas. From China no less! Chinese women are stealing Jewish men and so Jewish women cry, this is a fact, and it all begins with this jungle music.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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