I’m always behind on TV trends, especially comedy. Recently, I started watching "Schitt’s Creek," an often-cringy, over-the-top comedy about a rich family that loses everything. I grew up far more like the show’s townies who shop at Blouse Barn, so I laugh at the cluelessness of the Rose family taken down a peg (or ten). I just can’t identify with them — except when the mechanic, Bob, tells Johnny Rose that Johnny would know how to make bagels the “real way.” Bob adds, “because you’re, uh . . .” After a long, awkward pause, Johnny finishes Bob’s sentence: “Jewish.” Bob then half whispers, “I didn’t know if I could say it.”
This experience I relate to. I know that pause, as do my Jewish friends. I’ve heard, “Oh, you’re . . . of . . . the Jewish persuasion!” “You’re a . . . a . . . Jewish person,” often followed by something like, “I had a friend from high school who was a Jewish person.” Turn these reactions around, starting with, “Oh, you’re . . . of . . . the Christian persuasion!” A little awkward? Yes?
As you probably know, I teach editing among other subjects. I can tell you all about “person first writing” from a number of sources, including the Chicago Manual of Style, which instructs us to try to use characteristics as adjectives rather than nouns. You can say “Jewish” all on its own, as in, “You’re Jewish.” If religion is irrelevant to the conversation, don’t mention it, of course.
I’d share the many style references and nuances that support my point, but I’d rather not bore you.
Why do so many people avoid saying “Jewish” like Bob does, then? In that episode, Bob hesitates to say “Jewish” again, and one more time, Johnny helps him out. Bob reflects, “It feels like a swear.” Awkwardly dodging saying Jewish (or Jew) — the stigma pause — speaks volumes of discomfort. Sometimes, it’s the surprise that I’m different. Other times, it’s wrapped in personal history: someone largely has heard Jewish in a negative context, even as part of a slur.
If this is you, ditch that history and start again. We’re adults: we can change our reactions, broaden our perspectives. I’ve had that experience myself, having grown up around all sorts of colorful language and now-passe stereotypes in the ’70s and ’80s. We all knew our share of Archie Bunkers.
If the topic of religion is appropriate and you’d feel fine saying Christian in that context, say “Jewish.” Our Alabama community members have varied lived experiences that go beyond our interests and occupations to include things like religion. I don’t hide in the shadows pretending not to be Jewish, and you don’t have to feel bad about recognizing that some of my experiences are unlike yours. The same goes for other features in our lives, from race to disability to sexual orientation. Acknowledging respectfully is seeing, and seeing is the first step in understanding our many different perspectives.
Susan A. Youngblood is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom and an associate professor of technical and professional communication in Auburn University’s Department of English. The views she expresses are her own and do not necessarily represent those of any organizations with which she is affiliated.