But the shikses, ah, the shikses are something else again […] I am so awed that I am in a state of desire beyond a hard-on. My circumcised little dong is simply shriveled up with veneration. Maybe it’s dread. How do they get so gorgeous, so healthy, so blonde? My contempt for what they believe in is more than neutralized by my adoration of the way they look, the way they move and laugh and speak.
– Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
ACCORDING TO THE Toronto Police Service’s Annual Hate/Bias Crime Statistical Report, the city of Toronto saw 174 hate crimes in 2009. This number breaks down as follows: Jews were the targeted victims in 52 of those incidents; LGBT community, 26; blacks, 24; Muslims, 6; 21 other minorities were victimized a cumulative 65 times; and, to round things off, there was a single instance of a hate crime targeting a member of a group recorded as “Non-Jewish.”
This last bit is highly unusual: non-Jews have not historically been persecuted for their non-Jewishness. The report doesn’t go into any detail we’d much care about except the epithet thrown: “shiksa,” a word of Yiddish origin, commonly defined as a female gentile, with some undefined measure of pejorative connotation.
So let’s piece this together. One day in 2009, in Toronto’s heavily-but-not-exclusively-Jewish 53rd District, one (presumably Jewish) person called another (presumably non-Jewish female) a “shiksa,” an incident that, in the eyes of the offended, the police, and the judiciary, apparently met the qualifications of a hate crime, interpreted by Ontario law as an “offence […] motivated by bias, prejudice or hate, based on the victim’s race, nationality or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or any other similar factor.” (As neither “non-religion” nor “non-ethnicity” is an option, the incident was classified under “similar factor.”)
Which if nothing else is a semantically big deal — “shiksa” isn’t usually thought to be so potent a slur. Indeed, even the pejorative connotation of “shiksa” is fuzzy at best.
Is “shiksa” pejorative? The word has been in use for so long in so many shifting contexts that your dictionary is useless here even as a spelling guide. (“Shiksa,” “shikse,” “schikse,” and “shicksa” have all had their moment.) The common understanding of “shiksa” (i.e., “a vaguely-pejorative term for gentile woman”) might be technically right, but it sieves out everything interesting about the word: the complex and layered notions of sexuality, its containment of both self-righteousness and self-loathing, the embedded yearning for and guilt of assimilation — in short, all the accrued (if often discarded) cultural valency of a word whose meaning has increasingly strayed from its Old World origin.
If you are ...