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.

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