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 not Jewish and know less than a dozen words of Yiddish and are nonetheless familiar with “shiksa,” then you yourself are an indication of how far the word has come. But unlike goy or shaygetz or yok — other Jewish terms for non-Jews, of varying nastiness — “shiksa” has been acculturated, appropriated, bent, misshapen, retrofitted, loved and reviled, but rarely understood.
The shiksa exists only insofar as the Jew is aware of her; she is defined relative to him. She occupies a hazy cultural nexus; the shiksa is not Jewish but is nonetheless only a shiksa on account of Jews calling her thus. Tracing the word is as much a history of the Jewish-Gentile dynamic as it is an etymological exercise. It’s a bridgeword whose history and development say volumes about the people doing the calling (usually, but not exclusively, Jews), the people being called (usually, but not exclusively, non-Jews), the language the calling is in (generally not Yiddish, at least not anymore), and all the complexities thereof.
So who, or what, is the shiksa? Where did she come from? How did she get to where she is today? Where is she today? And behind all this, of course, the question remains: is calling someone a shiksa really a hate crime?
We can sort of trace “shiksa” to the Hebrew sheketz, a word from Leviticus that describes revolting nonkosher bugs, via the Talmud: “Let him not marry the daughter of an unlearned and unobservant man, for they are an abomination [sheketz] and their wives a creeping thing.”
This passage, from the Talmud section “Tractate Pesachim,” seizes upon a term that essentially means “yucky” and uses it to describe a nonreligious Jew. Sheketz slid into Yiddish — historically noun-reliant on Hebrew — as sheygetz. (The slight phonological kàg change isn’t surprising: like English, Yiddish groups together the velars of k and g, which are often swapped.) This was then feminized to shiksa.
Here I must address those who would argue that the question of whether “shiksa” is derogatory or not has at this point been decided: if a word’s origin references gross and prohibited bugs, they’d argue, then that word is necessarily pejorative. This, however, is a shortsighted argument. Meanings of words change, and a word with an offensive origin is not ipso facto offensive (though it certainly doesn’t help its case). How a word is used will, over time, matter more and more; where that word is from, less and less. “Bitch,” “dyke,” “queer,” “fag, “nigga,” and “Yankee” were all derogatory terms that have been at least partially reappropriated. It is true that “shiksa” in its original form was nothing more than dysphemistic jargon — used by an insular group to refer to someone not of their own — and of course it was offensive. But the shiksa, who in a sense is 1,700 years old, has outgrown her Biblical/Talmudic derivations.
(This, by the way, did not happen with sheygetz, which has more or less semantically stalled since its inception and is still a coarse, untextured term for a non-Jew, or — in a very similar flavor — a spiritually misbehaving Jew.)
“Shiksa” was less a neologism to describe something new than a mature concept finally named; the forbidden seductress is in fact a dusty Jewish trope that goes as far back as the Bible. The word, until relatively recently, didn’t have the literary space to develop any semantic/moral complexity: Jewish literature for a long while tended to be non-lay and/or in Hebrew. The modern era of the shiksa begins only towards the end of the 19th century, with the advent of a secular Yiddish literature.
The soul and setting of Yiddish literature is in the shtetl, the (somewhat apocryphal) quaint Jewish village of prewar Europe — think Fiddler on the Roof — where Jews are cloistered and their relationships with the outside world contained. Gentile characters are usually flat and stock — the cruel landlord, the boorish peasant — and the defining characteristic of the gentile female is a straightforward binary: either she is a temptress or she is not.
It’s along this line that the shiksa semantically splits: (1) the non-tempting gentile woman, whose relationship to the Jew is often of an incidental sort, like that of a maid or neighbor, and who, if she’s described at all, is usually a hag; and (2) the tempting and by-definition forbidden seductress (though “seductress” implies a proactivity that isn’t always or even usually the case: the shiksa need not make any sexual overtures or come-ons beyond her simply existing and being visible, which, granted, would be considered by many in the shtetl provocative enough). Both “shiksa”s are pejorative, but in different ways and of different intensities: one personifies forbidden pleasure, sharply reflecting the guilt and frustration of the tempted; the other is blandly derogatory, almost below concern.
“Shiksa,” then, should be understood as a polyseme whose two meanings are related — both the shiksa-hag and the shiksa-seductress are non-Jews, critically — but function independently. Both sorts, for example, are in H.N. Bialik’s 1909 novella Behind the Fence: there’s Shakoripinshchika, an ugly and violent old woman, and her beautiful granddaughter Marinka, who has a touching but secret childhood romance with the Jewish neighbor, Noah. He eventually impregnates her, and the story abruptly ends with Noah marrying a proper Jewish virgin while Marinka watches through the fence, holding his child.
The shiksa-seductress, though, is far more interesting (and, consequently, influential) than the shiksa-hag, especially on the religious/literary level. The shiksa love narrative usually diverges from a Romeo & Juliet arc in that the couple is in the moral wrong; we empathize but ultimately disapprove of their (really his) moral weakness. The shiksa in Yiddish literature — which, until relatively recently, meant literature written by Jews, for Jews, in an exclusively Jewish language, in (or about) a time and place where intermarriage was made impossible by cultural and legal strictures — is a symbol of temptation, not of classism or segregation. She inspires disgust, fascination, obsession, sin; she is sexual in that religious way that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex: she is constantly and thoroughly moralized.
Those who stray too close to the shiksa can be destroyed. The peddler in S.Y. Agnon’s 1943 short story “Lady and the Peddler” shacks up with a non-Jewish widow, who, he discovers, is planning to eat him. I.L. Peretz’s Yiddish ballad, Monish, from 1888, follows a young Torah prodigy as he falls for the blonde Marie and into Gehenna (hell, or a hellish place). There are nearly as many examples as there are Yiddish stories; the shiksa, it’s clear, is bad news.
While the shiksa of Yiddish lit is without a doubt a pejorative, she is not, alas, of immediate help to us with respect to the incident in Toronto. Indeed, the only place where this shiksa still exists is among the still-insular Orthodox and Hasidic, many of whom either still speak Yiddish or borrow heavily from it.
In Israel, where there are not that many non-Jewish women around to apply it to, “shiksa” is now used pretty much exclusively by the ultra-Orthodox to describe/insult a non-religious Jewish woman. Two Israeli comedians (in Haredi costume) satirized this last year in a song. The chorus, roughly translated:
How are you dressing?
I am a healthy man — how are you not embarrassed?
Ya shikse, ya shikse
Immodesty detracts from honor
Your visible elbow is distracting me from studying
Linguistic appropriation is never clean, especially with a word as nuanced as “shiksa.” No matter the language she’s moving into, one or more of the shiksa’s connotations — sexuality, prohibition, non-Jewish, pejorative — will always be lost in transition.
The Polish sziksa, for example, is a young, immature girl, sort of like “twerp” or “pisher,” but exclusively female. Of the credible etymological explanations, my favorite — if, like nearly all etymological explanations, unverifiable — is that the Polish word sikac (shee-kotz), to piss, is phonologically similar enough to shiksa to induce a semantic transference. (The phenomenon, properly called semantic association, is thought to at least partially explain why so many sn words — snore, snort, snooze, sneeze, sniffle, snout, snot — are nose-related.)
The closest English translation to the German schickse would be “floozy”: a woman who has the bearings and overall decorum of a prostitute without being an actual prostitute. The sexual and pejorative connotation survived; the Jewish one did not. In Poland and Germany, calling someone a schickse/sziksa isn’t very nice, but it is certainly no hate crime.
The shiksa, then, must be examined within the context of whatever language she’s appearing in, which brings us to 19th-century Britain.
While Yiddish in England never did enjoy a genuine cultural legitimacy — Eastern European immigrants were encouraged in that very British way to quickly assimilate — it nevertheless stuck around in the tenements and on the streets, influencing criminal slang far more than it did proper English. Yiddish loanwords almost never show up in British newspapers or official documents, but they abound in other accounts of sleazier provenance. In his London Labour and the London Poor, a magnificently weird voyeuristic/sympathetic study of London’s lower societies, Henry Mayhew records:
The encouragement to the “gonaff” (a Hebrew word signifying a young thief, probably learnt from the Jew “fences” in the neighbourhood) consists in laughing at and applauding his dexterity in thieving.
East End Underworld, a biography of crime lord Arthur Harding, records how, à la The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, gangs used Yiddish words like spieler, shundrick (pimp), and zoineh (prostitute).
And “shiksa,” as the kind of word that could be very attractive to the riffraff, was appended and begot “shakester” and “shickster,” terms that initially denoted a lower-class woman. John Camden Hotten, in his 1865 The Slang Dictionary, defined a shakester or shickster as “a female. Amongst costermongers this term is invariably applied to ladies, or the wives of tradesmen and females, generally of the classes immediately above them.” A story in an 1850 issue of Punch magazine (founded, interestingly, by that same Henry Mayhew) contained the line, “Oh, blow that, you old shikster.”
But there’s a pejorative gravity pulling shiksa/shakester/shickster down, making her progressively less and less ladylike. An 1890 slang dictionary defines shiksa as of “a certain class of the demi-monde.” And the 1904 Slang and its Analogues, Past and Present calls the shickster “a woman of shady antecedents.” In the early 1880s, novelist George Alfred Townsend wrote, in The Entailed Hat, “My wife will be a shakester in diamonds!” In other instances her antecedents are shady enough that she’s pretty much a prostitute.
At this point Jews were using “shiksa” to connote the servants, the ones who did not have the luxury of being observant. Wrote Israel Zangwill, a noted playwright and author, in his Children of the Ghetto (1892): “We must keep a Shiksah to attend the Shabbos fire.” (This, incidentally, is the OED’s first shiksa citation.) Arthur Bimstead, best known for a popular sporting column written under the penname Pitcher, leverages the shiksa in Houndsditch Day by Day (1899), a collection of vicious satires of East End London Jews:
Ve vhas all down to Prighton for a bigdure sale an’ Aaron kep’ on a-runnin’ into the telygraph office efery five minutes, ‘nd says, “Ish dere a delegram for me?” “No, Mr Motzaberger,” says the schveet young shiksa.
To appreciate the weirdness and import of Houndsditch, you have to understand that it was written for a non-Jewish audience that likely had no familiarity with its Yiddishisms and Jewish references. As it happens, Bimstead was almost certainly Jewish (he was married in the London Synagogue, which did not permit intermarriage), but he poses as a Gentile in his mesmerizing “Forewords,” which I quote at length because it’s so good:
It occurs to me that the Child of Israel who reads these pages may perchance take offence where none is meant. To provide against this harrowing possibility, I hasten to avow that my stories are no vulgar satires, conceived in a spirit of Christian intolerance, on a people whose commercial shrewdness and yard-wide thrift have always enabled them to get the better of their Gentile competitors, and who, rightly or wrongly, believe themselves to be the salt of the earth. Being neither Christian nor Jew, I am inspired neither by love nor hatred; as for the purity of my literary style — should that at times put my subjects in too strong a light — why, I learnt it […] mostly from costermongers and skittle-sharps.
This is about as far as shiksa and her variations got in popular British culture before dropping off. “Shakester,” “shickster,” and variations thereof have been obsolete for at least 60 years. And if “shiksa” is used at all by today’s British Jewry, it’s in reference to the help and is derogatory; non-Jews would very likely not recognize the word. Indeed, contemporary British slang dictionaries define “shiksa” as an American idiom.
Early 20th century Jewish Americans, especially those in New York, more often than not spoke Yiddish, or had parents who did; they were largely the children or grandchildren of immigrants whose Yiddish they integrated and toyed with and manipulated and exported. (The most prominent of these linguistic offspring, Jewish-English, is considered by some to be a dialect in its own right.)
Most of the Yiddish words adopted into English (or at least the type of English that New Yorkers and seemingly everyone on TV speak) — like “schmuck,” “tush,” “schtick,” “schvitz,” “nosh,” “chutzpah,” “macher,” and the names of foods like “knish” and “latke” — aren’t particularly morally nuanced, and their definitions transferred wholesale. But “shiksa,” given its pedigree, couldn’t very well be used by non-Jews in its traditional meaning. It just wouldn’t make any sense. (Which is true of epithets in general: by the time the intended target uses the word in self-reference, it’s a different word.)
Given the Jew’s overrepresentation in American culture, the shiksa was of course a popular theme: Abie’s Irish Rose, about an intermarriage, was a Broadway hit in the 1920s. But the word itself, until at least the 1960s, remained a straightforward pejorative. Jack Robin’s mother in The Jazz Singer, mourns, “Maybe he’s fallen in love with a shiksa!” and his father disowns him. The (third-person omniscient) narrator of Edna Ferber’s Cimarron describes the reaction of Sol Levy, the only Jew for miles and miles, when a pack of young girls tease him: “His deep-sunk eyes looked at them. Schicksas.” It’s not attraction or pity Sol is feeling, but resigned disgust. Myron Brinig’s Singermann, another book featuring Jews in middle of nowhere: “You go with the shiksas, you waste yourself on them and then what will happen to you? I’ll throw you out from the store!”
If the word seems to have developed a sting that wasn’t there before, it isn’t because the meaning has changed, but because the context, or, more precisely, the audience has: it’s still a semi-nasty word spoken by Jews to Jews, but now other people are listening in. A Billboard review of a 1948 play celebrating the just-founded state of Israel made this point: “[Her] comment at the end, ‘not bad for a shiksa,’ detracted from the solemnity of the number besides being in poor taste.”
Slowly the Jew-Gentile fault line was shifting away from a religious-based binary and towards characteristics, or types. Lenny Bruce (born Leonard Alfred Schneider), had a famous routine in which he sorted out what’s Jewish and what’s Goyish:
Kool-Aid: Goyish. Instant potatoes: scary Goyish. All Drake's cakes are Goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very Goyish. Black cherry soda's very Jewish. Macaroons are very Jewish — very Jewish cake. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime Jell-o is Goyish. Lime soda is very Goyish. Underwear is definitely Goyish. Balls are Goyish. Titties are Jewish. Mouths are Jewish.
The underlying conceit is that it is no longer religion or even ethnicity that separates Jews and Gentiles, which raises the question: if the new Jewish/Goyish model is essentially descriptive, how, then, do we describe the new American shiksa?
The inter-religious romance has long been a fixture in Jewish-American fiction (and elsewhere — cf. Daniel Deronda). Frederic Cople Jaher, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has written about “the dichotomous stereotypes of the shiksa and the meanings of interfaith infatuations” in the work of seemingly every 20th-century Jew of literary note.
Still, in order for “shiksa” to move beyond what was essentially highbrow jargon — the word appears once in The New York Times pre-1962 — it needed the seismic influence of Philip Roth, who more than any other individual was responsible for taking “shiksa” from the overwrought living rooms of Jewish immigrants to the American mainstream.
It didn’t happen right away: Roth’s first full-length work, Letting Go, only hinted at his shiksa obsession, and when the word does pop up — mostly in phrases like “shikse pussy” — it’s nearly always the non-Jewish love interest self-referencing and not, as would later become something of a Roth signature, a Jewish male commenting/lamenting/panting. (An aside: in 1963, a year after Letting Go was published, Mary McCarthy, who wasn’t Jewish but might as well have been, uncannily echoed this theme in The Group: “He worships me because I’m a goy.”)
It’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) that blew everything up. The book — Alexander Portnoy’s book-length monologue to his therapist — orbits around his obsession, loathing, and attempted conquest of pussy, usually of the non-Jewish variety, what he refers to as “shikse cunt,” and his beyond-Oedipal relationship with his mother. Portnoy’s Complaint was and remains the sacred text for shiksas, Jewish boys, and whatever it is that’s going on between them; it defined the modern Jewish boy’s relationship to his penis and all the nonkosher places he might stick it, just as it allowed everybody else an uncomfortably close-up view of what’s really going on in suburban New Jersey.
Roth’s shiksa is the shiksa-seductress, but as approached through the associative prism of psychoanalysis — and to Portnoy’s Jewish id she represents much more than transcendental sex. “So don’t tell me we’re Americans just like they are,” Portnoy says. “America is a shikse nestling under your arm whispering love love love!” (The domestic shiksa is here too, but she is explicitly disavowed: “The cleaning lady is obviously a shikse, but she doesn’t count because she’s black.”)
To Portnoy, shiksas are not desirable simply because they are desirable, but because they are totally unlike the Jewish girls his parents insist on. Roth very astutely moves the prohibition/allure of the shiksa from the institutional (legal/religious/cultural) to a much more local and psychologically fraught authority: parental. This is no longer just about assimilation, it’s about longing and belonging, about being everything your parents are not, about not being your parents. “My own father — fucked shikses?” Portnoy asks. “I can no more imagine him knocking over a gas station.”
Portnoy and his parents are not at all religious but are nonetheless thoroughly and unmistakably Jewish in the neurotic sense. Marry a shiksa, give your mother a heart attack. It’s all extremely Freudian, which is part of the reason the therapy conceit in Portnoy’s Complaint works as well as it does. The stakes, the growth, the obstacles, the violence, everything, is cast in psychological terms: the shiksa prohibition is maintained and enforced not by God but by your mother. A shiksa conquest is therefore independence; she is the ultimate trophy of a hard-earned self-identity.
Roth’s influence was enormous, particularly in “very Jewish” writers like Woody Allen (whom you can so easily imagine as a character in a Roth novel). Annie Hall, which co-writer Marshall Brickman had suggested titling Me and My Goy, is, like much of Roth’s work, an exploration of the shiksa-as-assimilation. At the Hall family Easter dinner — where those around the table don’t interrupt, politely praise the ham, talk about picture frames and boat basins; in short, do not at all act like they are at a Jewish family dinner — Alvy Singer (Allen) might as well be a hasid. Annie represents everything Alvy is not.
But the best shiksa film of this era is not Annie Hall — not because it’s not great, but because its shiksa-ness is, as the film winds down, increasingly incidental — but The Heartbreak Kid (1972). Written by Neil Simon and directed by Elaine May, this film is to the commitment-phobic what Jaws is to the hydrophobic. It tells the tale of Lenny Cantrow on his conventional honeymoon with his conventional Jewish bride. With his wife in the hotel nursing a sunburn, Lenny falls instantly for a blonde Midwestern temptress named Kelly, played by Cybill Shepherd as the ultimate shiksa goddess. What Lenny finds most alluring about Kelly is plainly that she is nothing like his wife, who adores and annoys him to no end. The movie has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with its subtext: the insatiable desire for something you are not supposed to have.
While the shiksa has come a long way from her shtetl days, so, of course, has the Jew; the two move in sync. By the 1980s, what I’ll call the Allenesque Jew/Shiksa split was entrenched: Jewish = nonathletic, brainy, neurotic, pasty, dark-haired, profoundly unhealthy parental relationship, usually from the New York area; shiksa = healthy, Waspy, carefree, blonde, supportive (if judgmental) parents, from the Midwest or from a home that might as well be in the Midwest. The Jew is still Jewish, and the shiksa is still non-, but the designation has more to do with geography than religion. (It’s worth noting that Neil Simon, Elaine May, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, and Philip Roth are all born in East Coast cities between the years 1925 and 1935.)
Just as Manhattan becomes the city of the Jew, so does the lobster become the go-to food that Jews associate with the non-Jew. Metaphorically significant in The Heartbreak Kid (Lenny breaks up with Lila at a restaurant famous for their lobster, which they’ve never eaten before), Annie Hall (that famous lobster scene), and Portnoy’s Complaint (where it’s the ultimate culinary taboo, the gustatory parallel to shiksas), lobster is something your parents, no matter how treif their kitchen, would never eat. And the shiksa is someone your parents, no matter how secular, will always disapprove of.
The shiksa’s prohibition/allure, then, is fractured along generational lines — the parents discriminate, the son guiltily lusts — and the pejorative is diffused, less personal, and a lot more nuanced. A shiksa is still, to be sure, a pejorative, but all of a sudden it’s also sort of a compliment: you’re worth the guilt.
Nuance, though, constantly shifts. Over the last cultural generation or two the shiksa became commonplace — somewhere between Portnoy’s Complaint and The Counterlife Roth stopped italicizing the word — and at the same time lost most of its frisson. The shiksa, in other words, went mainstream.
On TV, shiksas are everywhere. 3rd Rock from the Sun gives us “blonde shiksa goddesses” who emasculate (alien) men. Howard, from The Big Bang Theory, explains: “A shiksa goddess isn't an actual goddess. And we don't pray to them. We prey on them.” The O.C. more or less revolves around shiksas, Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) is called a shiksa, and The Nanny says things like “Jewish guilt doesn’t work on shiksas.” The gentile Dr. House, after mistreating a tall blonde woman (Candice Bergen, again) who turns out to be his Jewish girlfriend’s mom, asks: “You couldn't have mentioned she's a shiksa?” Seinfeld famously explored Elaine’s “shiksa appeal.” Charlotte of Sex and the City, in a surprisingly hardy plot line, dates and eventually marries Harry Goldblatt, who calls her his “shiksa goddess.”
What’s noteworthy here, aside from the fact that Candice Bergen is apparently the archetypal shiksa, is that what was arguably the shiksa’s essence, namely prohibition, is gone. The shiksa who fascinated and tormented Alexander Portnoy, who tempted you and horrified your mother, has been psychologically deflated to the point of a simulacrum.
The id-tormenting shiksa-temptress has largely been displaced by the beautiful non-Jewish woman who can now be desired guilt free. (Except in the Orthodox/Traditional Jewish communities, where there is still enough disapproval to psychologically fuel an old fashioned shiksa.) “Shiksa” without taboo is toothless; she’s now nothing more than a grab bag of descriptions — a stereotype. (Hence television’s embrace.)
In film today the contemporary Jew is represented more by Judd Apatow than Woody Allen. Instead of neurotic, he is pathetic; the woman isn’t his romantic foil but his saving grace. He is funny, smart, not particularly good-looking, overall solid husband material, and is Jewish in the least offensive and most incidental way possible. (Nearly everyone in the Apatow circle — Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Apatow himself, Adam Sandler, Evan Goldberg — is cut of the same secular Jewish cloth.) For these characters, Jews who have nothing particular to assimilate from, the shiksa needn’t represent anything beyond her particular non-Jewish traits.
Here I submit Laurie Graff’s 2009 novel Shiksa Syndrome, a collection of wooden clichés of interest to us only because one of those clichés happens to be “shiksa.” The story follows hyper-Jewish NYC-born-and-raised Aimee Albert as she is mistaken for a shiksa by a cute Jewish boy, and for the rest of the book is forced into a series of charades to keep the romance alive.
Graff’s protagonist is not merely a shiksa-cliché but is actively pretending to be one: it’s a cliché as conceived by a cliché. Aimee Albert poses/passes as a shiksa by: straightening her hair; dying her hair; wearing contact lenses; applying makeup properly; drinking copiously; drinking cocktails; not drinking wine; dressing slutty; pretending to be from Scranton; not eating much; not having blintzes, lox, regular butter, or bagels in her kitchen; only buying retail; only speaking when spoken to; being a moron; being sexually frigid; pretending to be a former head cheerleader; eating lobster; pretending to know how to ski; and saying and actually meaning "nothing" when asked what’s wrong.
Dismissable though it may be, Shiksa Syndrome does hint at an ongoing concern with defining some sort of intangible “shiksaness.” To riff off Lenny Bruce, Natalie Portman is not a shiksa. Angelina Jolie is a shiksa. Tina Fey is a shiksa, but pretends not to be. Scarlett Johansson (whose mother is Jewish) is totally a shiksa. Gwyneth Paltrow, despite her yichus, is a little bit shiksa. Sarah Silverman isn’t a shiksa, but she’s not quite a non-shiksa either. Mila Kunis can’t seem to make up her mind whether she’s a shiksa or not. Asking if Israeli model Bar Refaeli is a shiksa breaks the machine.
Et cetera. The point of all this is that the pejorative of shiksa has been hollowed out: “shiksa” today is used as often as not in winking self-reference. Drew Barrymore, wife of Will Kopelman, recently called herself a shiksa on national television. “The Shiksa” is a popular cooking blog authored by a convert. Shiksa, by Christine Benvenuto, is a book about the difficulties of intermarried and converted wives and girlfriends. Boy Vey!: The Shiksa’s Guide to Dating Jewish Men is exactly what you fear it is.
If the shiksa is the one chasing Jewish men, and not the other way around, then the shiksa has defeated her own purpose, has run her course. Jewish men need a new romantic aspiration. In The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin submits a candidate. “I'm developing an algorithm to define the connection between Jewish guys and Asian girls,” says one Jewish nerd to another in the 2010 film. “I don't think it's that complicated,” the second Jewish nerd answers. “They're hot, they're smart, they're not Jewish and they can't dance.”
The question, then, isn’t whether shiksa is a pejorative; it’s whether she’s even relevant. As a mere aesthetic description, “shiksa” delivers none of the thrill of the forbidden, is no longer the go-to object of lust, is someone your mother would just as likely approve of as not. It may be that she’s become perfectly harmless, despite what the Toronto Police would have you think.
The author would like to thank Josh Lambert, Michael Wex, Lotte Thaa, Anna Rozalska, Guila Benchimol, and Benjamin Vos for their research assistance.