Janet Malcolm is one of my idols, I’d read her shopping lists if someone would print them. Her book The Journalist and the Murderer is a cultural landmark, it changed the relationship of journalists and their sources, giving more power to the sources. So when The New Yorker ran her piece on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas last week, I couldn’t wait to curl up on the couch and go into Malcolm’s looking-glass world, this time of occupied Paris, Jewish identity, old age, writerly friendship and abandonment. It’s a fine fine piece, I recommend it.
That said, I question the casual use, twice, of the word “goyim,” without ital, without quotation marks, to refer to non-Jews. In a piece that shows some sensitivity on the issue of Christians’ misunderstanding of Jews (they say we’re not forgiving, and that’s antisemitic), the use of “goyim” evinces a lack of understanding by Jews of their own situation. The word means “the nation,” the gentile world, and has a dash of Boratish wariness and hostility. It is Yiddish, and is not like shlep or chutzpah, that is, an assimilated neutral word. It’s a signal to other Jews, Let’s talk as landsmen. I think it’s arrogant and exclusionary. Jews have large cultural power in America; acting as if we’re still some persecuted subgroup is way way beneath us. I gather from one gentile friend that he has friends who feel themselves to be outside the cultural establishment and have appropriated the word “goyim” to refer to themselves, in something of the proud/resentful way that blacks took on the n-word. I know, the cultural valences aren’t the same. But it’s loaded—why make half your audience feel excluded?
[I note that Wikipedia agrees with me here…]