The New Yorker Uses the G-Word

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…]

Article continues below
More from Politics
(FILES): These two file photos show then Labor Secretary Thomas Perez (L) speaking to reporters about the minimum wage for federal contractors at the White House in Washington, DC, on Feburary 12, 2014; and Minnesota Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison (R) during a press conference about Islamophobia at the National Press Club on May 24, 2016 in Washington, DC.

US Democrats, licking their wounds from last year's election debacle, will pick a new leader on February 25, 2017 to take the fight to President Donald Trump and his Republicans. The race to chair the Democratic National Committee (DNC) features front-runners Tom Perez, a Hispanic-American and former secretary of labor under Barack Obama who is the establishment pick, and Keith Ellison, a black Muslim congressman from the party's progressive wing who has left open the prospect of pushing to impeach Trump. / AFP / Mandel NGAN AND Brendan SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN,BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Sanders 2020 Just Became Much More Likely With Tom Perez as DNC Chair