Schmuck! Schlep! Schmooze! Yiddish terms abound in American usage, but none as loaded as the Yiddish term for non-Jews: Goy. While often used with self-aware cheekiness, the word carries historically derisive connotations, apparent in traditional (and often amusing) Jewish idioms.
“Goyische kop,” literally “Gentile head,” while sometimes affectionate, can also suggest that someone is stupid. There’s a Yiddish song entitled “shiker vi a goy”—“drunk like a non-Jew.” The phrase, Oxford’s Sherman says, “…originated in Jews’ drawing a contemptuous distinction between drunken Russian peasants and sober Jews, who did not drink to excess.” That bias gave rise to the reverse phrase, too, “nichter vi a Yid”—“sober as a Jew.” The late Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish, compared the way Jews use goy pejoratively to the way Gentiles have used “Jew” as a synonym for “too-shrewd, sly bargaining.” His examples include “dos ken nor a goy”—“That, only a goy is capable of doing”—and “a goy bleibt a goy”—“A Gentile remains a Gentile,” or, less literally, “What did you expect? Once an anti-Semite, always an anti-Semite.” In his book Born to Kvetch, Michael Wex cites yet another down-the-nose expression: “a mamoshes vi der goyischer got”—“as much substance as the god of the Gentiles.”
But where did the term come from? In the Bible, God actually refers to the nation of Israel as goyim, the Hebrew word for “nations,” when telling Jacob that “a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee.” As Yiddish evolved in central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, Goy became the language’s sole term for Gentile or non-Jew, a large burden for a small word.
“Where Yiddish was the first language, it frequently was used to mean simply, ‘He’s not one of us,’” says Max Ticktin, associate director of Jewish studies at George Washington University. But that’s not to say that goy didn’t have its condescending moments. “In tsarist Russia, the word goy meant ‘peasant,’” says Joseph Sherman, a fellow in Yiddish literature at England’s Oxford University. “Of course, given the extent of Gentile Jew-hatred in all countries and in all times, it was inevitable that the word goy should assume a pejorative connotation when used by Yiddish-speaking Jews.”
In the East European Pale of Settlement, goy could also carry nuances of class. “Jews were more likely to be educated than their neighbors,” explains Paul Glasser, senior research associate in Yiddish at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. “So using goy would be negative there.”
A long-standing but more neutral usage of goy comes from the custom of observant Jews hiring non-Jews to perform tasks prohibited on the Sabbath: starting a fire on a cold Saturday morning or extinguishing a candle (or, later, turning a lamp on or off) on Friday night. The person who does such chores bears the honorific of “Shabbes goy.”
Once the word goy crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the 1800s, the term that once described the Jewish people persisted in setting them apart. Among American Jews who grew up in Yiddish-speaking environments, goy remained a popular way of referring to non-Jews.
Sometimes one Jew will deride another as a goy, usually for failing to follow proper religious practice, says Harriett Segal, host of a Boston radio show, The Yiddish Voice. Paul Glasser of YIVO concurs from personal experience: He recalls walking through a New York park frequented by ultra-Orthodox Jews and being “sneered at” as a goy. “I probably wasn’t wearing a hat,” he says.
“More often than not,” says Max Ticktin, “it’s now a way of saying, ‘He’s not one of us, and we are different and better than he is.’ Or, ‘He’s an outsider who doesn’t know or understand us.’”
In today’s politically correct times, when most try to avoid language that others might find offensive, the traditional use of goy may be on its way out, especially if someone outside the in-group is listening. “Within Jewish circles, you can say, even in a friendly way, ‘He’s just a goy,” says Ticktin. “That communicates a value, that the other person doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do.”
Of course, like other Yiddish words, goy has been rediscovered by a younger generation and swept into the maelstrom of mainstream American culture without the baggage of negative connotations. Goy now happily pokes its head up in all media and can roll off the tongue of a non-Jew with nothing but fondness. The playful expressions it has spawned are plentiful: goy power, goy-to-goy, goy-girl, goy-boy, girl meets goy, boy meets goy, goy next door, what’s a goy to do?, and as The New York Post once called actor Don Johnson, “Barbra Streisand’s goy toy.”
As Jews and goys themselves have discovered, there are simply times when no other word will do. Writer Melissa Schorr published a well-respected young adult novel about a Jewish girl with a massive crush on the gorgeous non-Jewish star of her high school’s basketball team. One reviewer has praised it as “well-written chick-lit with a Jewish slant.”
It’s called Goy Crazy.
Adapted from an Article by Boris Weintraub