A Harmless Joke, or Nothing to Laugh At?

Growing up, one of the first lessons my mother taught me was, “A joke isn’t funny if it hurts someone.” Some people (Don Imus comes to mind) learn that lesson late in life, and often the hard way. What one person thinks is high comedy might be viewed as low-brow by another, and determining what is and is not funny remains an inexact science (that’s why it’s called a “sense” of humor and not a “humor algorithm”).

At JOI, we feel that shirts like this and this are decidedly unfunny. The politics of language can be a slippery slope, and we are not calling for these shirts to be burned en masse in a public place (our environmentalist friends at Hazon would have something to say about the pollution that would create), but we would simply like to point out that jokes such as the ones printed on these shirts aren’t funny because they hurt people – often, people who play important roles in the Jewish community.

Stanley Womack, Executive Secretary of Resisting Defamation has written that not only is the literal translation of the word shiksa (”unclean animal; loathsome creature, abomination”) hate-filled, the word also has taken on a colloquial meaning (”Christian whore”) in Europe and North America that is not only offensive but divisive as well. In this era, countless Jewish families have members who either are or were originally from a Christian background, and using terms like shiksa only serves to isolate those women, many of whom have cast their lot with the Jewish community and work extremely hard to feel accepted (and often even raise Jewish children). Some might think that the word shiksa only affects those outside of the Jewish community, but in the 21st century, such a term could easily be applied to a woman who spends her time shul shopping, enrolling her kids in Hebrew school, and creating a Jewish household. Hurting her and driving her away would be a terrible loss for the Jewish community, and the few chuckles garnered by those shirts certainly are not worth it.


  1. i am 72 years of age i always felt that shiksa ment a non jewish woman it had no bad meaning to that word .i have heard and seen it used in complemantry and affectionet terms it appears that you are opening a new list of meanings and at 72 you are telling me not use yedish unless i know the literel meaning . i will never use yedish again and i feel so terable for many have passed on that ilove and can’t aplogize to them thank you malcolm

    Comment by malcolm stone — June 20, 2007 @ 7:34 am

  2. Yet another over reaction. Boy you folks are really out of touch. Clearly you have too much free time on your hands.

    Comment by Sue Johnson — June 26, 2007 @ 5:57 am

  3. Why do you say it’s an overreaction, Sue? An overreaction would be buying an armload of shirts and setting them ablaze in front of the manufacturer’s home offices. Shiksa is a word that drips with unpleasant sentiments, and should be avoided as much as possible.

    Comment by Eric — July 4, 2007 @ 5:03 pm

  4. Hmmm. You know, Adam, you’re really on to something here!

    As a Jew, I am appalled to think that I could easily have been born to a mother who was once a “Christian whore,” never mind being an “unclean animal” (the English translation of a term commonly found in traditional and widely-accepted Jewish texts referring to a woman undergoing their period).

    Moreover, your implied general critique of the comedic use of ever-so-slightly controversial words is right on, my man! I guess we’ll have to do away with jokes about “Goys,” “Schmocks,” and the inhabitants of Helm, as well.

    By the way, and for the record, that is yours truly posing in the photo you’ve posted above. Now I’m famous!!!

    Comment by Yoni — July 12, 2007 @ 12:11 am

  5. We all know that jokes about “Goys,” and “Schmocks,” really slay them in the aisles. And how could I forget that famous George Carlin bit about the inhabitants of Helm? Genius.
    Don’t let me cramp your style, Yoni - you seem destined to become Israel’s next top comic. The more I think about it, the more I can see how your hilarious use of ever-so-slightly controversial words is cutting-edge humor. You, sir, are a Semitic Eddie Murphy.

    Personally, I think your definition of “funny” is as liberal as your definition of “famous”, but we can agree to disagree on that. What we can’t agree on, I believe, is how a term that is, at its core, an ethnic slur, can be a punch line when it comes from someone from another group. Chris Rock uses racially charged words in an effort to reclaim them and deaden their meaning; directing vitriol outward is simply poor taste, not humor, though.

    Comment by Adam — July 14, 2007 @ 12:05 pm

  6. I’ve got a new one. My boyfriend is here from Israel and was working for a Jewish women. When we tried to collect his wages she refused. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying as it was in Hebrew. She then started pointing her finger at me and started shouting Shiksa at me. He wouldn’t tell me what it meant so I looked it up. I now consider her the Shiksa as she is a disgrace to the Jewish people for cheating him out of his wages. He is now working for Arabs from Isreal, I can hardly wait to see how this works out. I am hoping they don’t cheat him like one of his own did. I didn’t know a Christian man with a Jewish man is considered a Shiksa too. I have learned a lot since being with him.

    Comment by Luca — September 29, 2007 @ 12:43 pm

  7. Things did work out working for the Arabs. They always pay him on time and treat him with respect. One of them came over to our home and he is a really nice guy. He is from Israel too. It is nice that here in Canada some Arabs and Jews get along well together.

    Comment by Luca — December 30, 2007 @ 11:07 am

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