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by  |  16-Jan-2020 14:07

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 , 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.

The Yiddish word—which derives from edel, or noble—referred to “a quality of gentleness, almost softness,” says Boyarin.

Yet this “ideal Jewish male femme” was also the pinnacle of manliness, a sexual force to be reckoned with. Other cultures twisted the feminized edelkayt into something negative.

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 — other Jewish terms for non-Jews, of varying nastiness — “shiksa” has been acculturated, appropriated, bent, misshapen, retrofitted, loved and reviled, but rarely understood.

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