Warning – Don’t Let Them Jew You Down!

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I was brought up Jewish. In New York, being Jewish is a cultural thing. When people ask me about being Jewish I say, “I know the foods—give me a bagel with a schmear or a piece of chocolate babka cake and I’m happy.” I haven’t been exposed to much anti-Semitism in New York or in North Carolina for that matter. But twice in my life, I’ve received the warning—don’t let them Jew you down!

I’ll explain what happened the first time in a moment. But the second time is freshest in my mind because it was said to me just last week. And I was very surprised. Not shocked, and not even offended. It’s just not something you expect to hear—especially during a business call.

My organization is sponsoring a conference in Austin next month. The conference Chair has been negotiating with a local rancher who runs a business in which he brings Longhorn steers and miniature burros to events and corporate functions. He’s scheduled to bring three of his animals to an event at the conference where guests may have their photo taken sitting in the saddle of a Longhorn or miniature burro. Not my thing, but whatever. I phoned the rancher as a follow up, to put an agreement in place and to pay his fees.

When I finally connected with him, I went over the specs the Chair forwarded to me. We discussed date, time, place and fees—at which point he told me he usually gets paid a whole lot more. He went on to name drop the famous movies his animals have appeared in. Then I commented about the long email trail of negotiations between him and the Chair, and he exclaimed, “Yeah! He really Jewed me down!” And it’s beside the point—but the Chair is not Jewish and doesn’t have a Jewish last name.

I’ll admit I’m not the most normal person, because as stunned as I was, I found his comment hysterical. The way it just rolled off his tongue hit me in the funny bone. I could tell he had no idea he was saying something offensive. And he certainly had no way of knowing I’m Jewish. So we just continued to discuss final details and agreed to wrap up the contract over email within the next few days.

Going back to the first time I heard the expression—or I should say the first time I was exposed to the expression (since it went right over my head)—I was on a road trip with Mr. Groovy and his sister. Our car broke down in Virginia and we needed a hotel room for the evening. As we were checking into a Hampton Inn we asked the hotel clerk if there was a Jeep dealership in town. He said there was, in fact, right near the hotel. “But don’t let them Jew you down,” he warned us.  But I didn’t hear him.

When we returned to the parking lock to retrieve our belongings, my sister-in-law kept shouting my name and flailing her arms at me until finally I begged her, “WHAT did I do?” I thought maybe I had toilet paper hanging out of my pants since I made a quick trip to the restroom. “You’re not angry?” she asked me. “About what?” I answered. And then she told me about the remark the clerk made, and I replied that I thought he had said, “Don’t let them jerk you around!” Then I burst out laughing because the clerk had used the phrase incorrectly. If the dealership were to “Jew us down,” that would have been in our favor! No, he should have said, “Don’t let them Jew you up” to imply that they would jack up the prices.

But what most surprised me was that this came out of the mouth of a black man from Wyandanch, NY (Long Island), now living in Virginia—we chatted while we were checking in and he told us he was originally from New York. New Yorkers usually have a pretty good sensibility when it comes to Jewish people. It’s not like they’re alien in New York and one would expect Jews to have horns! So how did “Don’t let them Jew you down” get into his vernacular?

I think I know.

During a debate about a bill on price controls in 2013, Rep. Dennis Johnson of Oklahoma broke out the phrase “Jew me down ” on the state house floor. When he was approached at the podium with a note pointing out his transgression, he read it and asked, “Did I?” And then he said, “I apologize to the Jews. They’re good small businessmen as well.” He knew he had said something wrong but he wasn’t exactly sure why it was wrong. 

He later explained that the comment was not made intentionally and “it just came out of one of the wrinkles in my brain.” He expanded on his apology the next day in writing and acknowledged that his comment was “a serious offense.” He promised never to do it again.

The thing that strikes me about his apology is his reference to the comment coming out of the wrinkles in his brain. That rings true to me. I mean really, do any of us know the reason we say half the things we say? Like “Burro Man” and the hotel clerk, I honestly don’t believe he meant to offend anyone.

This got me thinking, though—what expressions do we use that might be offensive, that we don’t even know are offensive? I did a little searching and came up with an extensive list. Here’s just a sample:

  • Gypped
  • Indian Giver
  • Chinks
  • Hooligans
  • Sold Down the River

OK, I surely know why the word Chinks is offensive. But I don’t even think Johnny Boy had a clue what an insensitive, bigoted clod he was being when he said it in Mean Streets. Check out this clip of him asking Charlie for five bucks to get Chinese food. (If you don’t like profanity skip to minute 4:10 near the end).

And what about Indian Giver? Did I know the term had negative connotations when I accused a friend of being one when I was a teenager? She gave me a beautiful blouse she hated, but when she saw it looked good on me she wanted it back. No, I had no clue I was slighting Native Americans. Never mind that many would argue the term first referred to a bartering system practiced among Native Americans that was later misinterpreted by Europeans.

What about gypped? Have you ever bought a fountain soda for $6 bucks at the movie theater that wasn’t even filled to the brim? And you thought to yourself, “Man I got gypped!” Did you know you possessed bigoted thoughts?  I bet you didn’t know that the word “gyp” refers to the supposedly thieving nature of gypsies.

And did your grandma ever chase away one of your trouble-making boyhood friends and call him a hooligan? Did grandma intend to slight all descendants of Irish background? Have a look at the lyrics of the song “The Hooligans,” performed by two Irish comedians in 1891 at the Theatre Royal Hull in the UK:

Oh, The Hooligans! Oh, the Hooligans!
Always on the riot,
Cannot keep them quiet,

Oh, The Hooligans! Oh, the Hooligans!
They are the boys,
To make a noise,
In our backyard.

And lastly, we come to the expression, “sold down the river.” Have you ever used that phrase to describe how someone betrayed you? Maybe I’m dense or maybe my grade school education was worse than I thought, but I didn’t know the phrase refers to the slave trade that existed in Kentucky. Since Louisville slaves were treated better than those in more rural Kentucky, the threat of being sold down the river was a serious one. It implied that a slave would be sent to the lower Mississippi, and subject to harsh conditions, at best.

But this is the question. Can we find it in our hearts to forgive people for bigoted or racist comments? Do we accept that sometimes these remarks are based on ignorance, and not hatred or malice? Back in 2013, many folks wouldn’t let go of Rep. Dennis Johnson’s “Jew me down” remark. The press certainly wouldn’t— publications ranging from Tulsa World to New York Magazine all had something to say. But ironically, it was the Anti-Defamation League (a nonprofit agency formed to combat Anti-Semitism) that said it best. After the ADL’s Community Director for the Oklahoma region, Roberta Clark, spoke with Rep. Johnson on the phone, the ADL put out a statement:

“After corresponding with Representative Johnson and having several conversations with him, I am satisfied that he deeply regrets his words and that he is sincere when he says that he did not mean to use hurtful language,” Ms. Clark said. “While we understand that many people were upset with his behavior, we are disappointed that some chose to respond by leaving hateful voicemails and e-mail messages to his office. We accept his apology, and we hope that Mr. Johnson will make good on his commitment to learn from this experience and speak out against anti-Semitism and bigotry in the future.”

If the ADL can find it in its heart to get over this comment, I think I can too.


Afterthoughts

Tell me—do you think you’ve been guilty at some time in your life of saying something bigoted?

Maybe you made a comment you weren’t aware was bigoted until years later?

Maybe you made an offhand remark you thought was funny or cute, only to realize later it was racist or anti-Semitic?

If someone directed a bigoted remark towards you that you thought was idiotic, but not meant with malice—could you forgive?

 

 

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27 Comments

  1. When we lived in Germany, I studied European Jewish history during the middle ages (super useful, I know), but it was fascinating. Especially in Germany, the area was broken into dozens and dozens of kingdoms, and the kings would invite entire communities of Jews to move into their kingdom. The provided free land just outside of town so the Jews could maintain their religous requirements (many of the structures are still there. They promoted this because the Jews could handle )the usury (loaning with interest), and trade through the middle east. But then if there was civil unrest and riots, who’s house are you going to ransack and burn down? The guy who holds all the banknotes. It’s a fascinating history. From how it all started, and the trajectory that was set leading to genocide 500 years later.

  2. I’m half native american and I have always found the term indian giver hilariously inaccurate. We sure as heck didn’t give away our land, and unfortunately no one is about to give it back (despite the Supreme courts recognition that the US violated it’s own treaty). But I don’t find it offensive. I think most of the racism towards native americans is mostly honest critic of the brokenness of the reservation culture. It’s difficult to unscramble a person’s race from dysfunctional cultural norms. And our current reservation system feeds those negative cultural norms. But that is above my pay grade. =)

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I agree with you about the reservation system being sad. There’s a huge amount of diabetes from all the fry bread and a lot of alcoholism, isn’t there?

      I guess it’s natural that some negative stereotypes developed around Jews and money when they/we have had a history of being moneylenders and bankers. But to me there’s a difference between someone being hateful and someone being ignorant. That’s why the “Jew you down” comment didn’t anger me – it was just a bit shocking to hear it roll off the guy’s tongue without him having a clue that it might be offensive.

  3. This is such a tricky topic, as from previous comments it’s quite common to have Absolutely No Idea we’re saying anything offensive. I’m grateful for anyone who gently corrects me and sorry for anyone I’ve hurt.

    Another category that hasn’t yet been mentioned here is body size. While weight is arguably changeable–unlike ethnicity–both weight and height out of the normal range are referred to by horrible names and comments that are just as hurtful. And we haven’t even started on terms for people with disabilities.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      You’re so right Julie. As you said, people may not even realize they’re being offensive. Like if you say something to a six-foot tall girl about her height – to you it might be interesting or unusual, in a positive way. To her, it might be annoying, and the 20th time she’s heard something about her height that day. And body shape/size/weight can be such a sensitive topic. You can ruin someone’s year with just an innocent comment. Growing up with red hair and freckles- oh don’t even get my started. I heard “Carrot top” or “Can I connect the freckles” or even “Who has red hair in your family. You’re mother and father look so different” (implying my mother did it with the milk man or something). You know when I was writing this post it didn’t dawn on me that “gypped” was such a negative term. Thanks for making me think, Julie, and hopefully be a more thoughtful person in the future.

  4. Alaska49

    When I was in 7th grade, I was writing a paper about a trip to Mexico and asked my teacher how to spell, “jewed”. He asked me to tell him what I was writing about. I told him I was writing about going to an outdoor market and bargaining, I remember telling him, “You know, I jewed the price down a few pesos.” He let me know it was not a good expression to use and was about Jews with a capital J. Ooops, I just thought it meant to be a good bargainer.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      That’s exactly what it means to many people, Alaska49, which is why I didn’t take great offense to it – I wouldn’t have thought too much of using the term “gypped” before I wrote this post. It’s interesting to research the history of some of these offensive terms. Some may have evolved into a slur of some sort, but originally pertained to something innocuous. Although it’s pretty safe to say that “jewed down” was always meant as a slur given the stereotype of Jews being cheap and always seeking a bargain.

      P.S. Your teacher handled the situation very wisely. It sounds like he taught you a lesson without being too harsh about it.

  5. I live and grew up in Georgia. I’ve heard plenty of racial slurs bandied about in my time. I remember one instance when I was waiting to play with a neighborhood friend who was from Egypt. While I was waiting for him to finish eating dinner so we could play, I waited at his neighbor’s house, a white boy who was much older than us. He was outside his garage cleaning fish he and his dad caught at their rural farm earlier in the day. This wasn’t a normal circumstance in our urban neighborhood, so I went over to watch him gut and clean the fish. He looked at me sideways and asked, “Why do play with that Jew-boy?”

    I was struck with silence. First, my friend wasn’t Jewish. He was Christian. Second, I’d never (until that point) heard anyone criticize a Jewish person (I actually had plenty of Jewish friends).

    Another situation that I feel worth mentioning here is reverse discrimination. When I was in my early 20s, I worked in a large city as an EMT. My partner and I picked up an elderly black woman to transport her from the hospital to her house. I rode in the back of the ambulance and needed to ask her questions in order to fill out the paperwork to submit to her insurer. She was ornery during the ride and kept interrupting me, calling me Cracker and Honky and a whole host of other colorful names for white people. To this day, I don’t hold any ill will toward the woman because I know that during her years living in the south was not a hostile environment to black people (well, to any people other than whites anyway). I just found it interesting to see what it must be like to try on her shoes for a little bit.

    This was an intriguing and eye-opening post. Thank you for it.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Both situations you describe had to be unnerving! And kudos to you for having so much empathy for the elderly black woman.

      I also had some experience with reverse discrimination in my 20s. Nothing nearly as harsh as being called a Cracker or a Honky. But even so, it was very alienating. A good friend and I were accepted into a program called All City High School Chorus in New York. App. 95% of the members then were black or Latin. The Jewish girl with her Italian friend from Brooklyn stuck out like sore thumbs. No one called us names but the girls, especially, were very cold to us. I guess it didn’t help matters that my friend and I were very outgoing and the boys took to us. At one point, the most handsome guy (who was black) in the entire chorus, whom all the girls swooned over, made it obvious he liked me. There was another girl (who was black) who obviously liked him and he chose to hang out with me on breaks, etc. Her circle of girl friends were not too kind to us and we often heard them commenting behind our backs about how we should stick to our own kind.

  6. I tend to slip using generic but on the vulgar side sayings under this situation like “screwed”. Being deeply in corporate prison during the 1990s when diversity was top of the corp priority list (only below executive level) any infraction by anyone in the 40K employee pool meant mandatory diversity class under threat of dismissal if missed. I recall while in a management meeting a director level male speaker used the term “Rule Of Thumb”. A female engineer took complete offense then and there, left the room after scolding the room and filed a formal gender based complaint. During my subsequent mandatory 8 hrs of diversity training we were told it was a legal term in Victorian times regarding the thickness of a stick that a husband could use on his wife to discipline her. I learned a lot in those mandatory classes. Lets just say that the terms you have pointed out and hundreds of others have been long gone from my vocabulary and causes a cringe when heard anywhere. I don’t know how true half the stuff I was told was but I do tell this story whenever I hear “the rule of thumb” mentioned. Strangely nobody else seems to know.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Hey Tommy, I’d never heard that about the rule of thumb. Mr. Groovy says that’s urban legend (but what does he know). I just can’t believe diversity training was required over that comment. Ridiculous. Was the female engineer really that offended? What happened in her marriage? Freud would probably have a field day with her… I guess the “Jewed down” comment was just so startling because you would assume one would really have to be an idiot not to get that it was offensive. And yet, this fellow I was speaking to clearly had no clue. What can you do. I try not to take these things too personally. (Now, if he had called me a “dirty Jew” I would have put my boxing gloves on and demanded he step outside.)

      • Hey Mrs. Groovy, She was divorced. I think she made being offended part of her job duties. She also took exception during another meeting when a female management speaker kept saying “you guys”. As I said I don’t know how true half of what I was taught was but there was always a caveat in those mandatory classes that regardless of what is said or the intentions, it is the feelings of the offended that matters.

  7. There are so many phrases that are in the common vernacular that are rooted in isms. Particularly ableism. The more I learn, the more careful I am with words. I try to say exactly what I mean, and not use sloppy shorthand. I would not want to unintentionally offend.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I know. Words can just roll off your tongue and you can’t take them back. Thanks for commenting, ZJ.

  8. The weird thing is, I know all these terms and am not from around here. I learned all my English from TV (american media to be exact). I still hear some of these terms but don’t feel like educating the over 70 year ones.

    Now that we’re on the subject can we tackle some of the other ones: Dutch Oven, Going Dutch and last but not least Dutch treat. Ironically, did you know that a party where you bring you’re own food, in the Netherlands, is called an American party 😉

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I love that – a party where you bring your own food, in the Netherlands, is called an American party. Have you ever heard the expression “Pardon my French”? Some people say that before they utter a curse word. Mr. G has read somewhere that in France, they say “Pardon my English” but I haven’t found confirmation of that.

  9. I cringe at some of the things my younger self said and thought, particularly about sexual orientation. I was horribly ignorant. It was only when a brave friend came out to me that I realized it didn’t matter, he was still my friend and I still wanted him to find love and happiness and thought he deserved it…And so did everyone else.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      That’s interesting, Emily. The situation hit home and a friend helped you change your point of view. We all have things to cringe about from our younger days. I suppose youth can sometimes be a partial excuse for bad behavior or thoughts. Adults should know better. At least we hope they/we do.

  10. As you touch on, “If someone directed a bigoted remark towards you that you thought was idiotic, but not meant with malice—could you forgive?” my approach – and as a black man I constantly have to try and gauge intent – is to first judge if they are aware they are being offensive and any malice was intended. If not, I take the dialogue route to see if we can both get to a better place.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I think the intent is important, James. What’s also important to me is whether the person appears to be open-minded and reasonable, and also what my relationship is to him or her. I know having a dialogue with the cowboy would have no impact on him. I also know I’ll never be dealing with him again after this conference.

  11. You have thick skin Mr.Groovy as I would have found it in poor taste and lectured them. I’m part Hispanic my dad is Costa Rican and my mom is Russian. My stepdad was American (deceased in 2014).

    Once in awhile I’ll hear things that are snotty about both Hispanics and Russians. Though in my case a lot of people aren’t sure what to think as that is such an unusual mix.

  12. Having grown up in NE Philadelphia, which at the time was a predominantly Jewish area, I didn’t realize that the world wasn’t Jewish. When I went away to school in Maine, I discovered something that was very surprising. One day, one of my “friends” said to me, “You’re a nice guy for a Jew”. I was shocked and I said to him, “You know that’s an insult, don’t you? What you’re saying to me is that Jews aren’t nice and I’m the exception.” He didn’t get it and I suddenly realized that kind of comment was probably based on his total inexperience and ignorance in dealing with anyone who wasn’t quite like himself. When I think back on it now, when we live in an area that lacks diversity, we all may be guilty of those kind of comments due to ignorance. Where I live now in NJ, I get the chance to meet all kinds of people and I don’t think I’m guilty of making comments about anyone who I don’t know much about. Hopefully our nation is more diverse than ever and that’s a good thing.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I can just imagine how shocked you were, Gary. The immediate area I grew up in was predominantly Jewish. All through grade school most of the kids were too. But in junior high and high school that all changed. Then I got very involved in community theater and most of the others in the troupe were Irish Catholic. I recall hanging out with them in their predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood, which was adjacent to mine. A Jewish friend of mine joined the group with me and we were accepted when we visited, but she wasn’t taking any chances. She used to hide her chai necklace under her blouse.

  13. I have to work with my students a lot on “gypped”. That goes right over their heads as to why it is offensive. They’ve just simply learned the phrase, not the context or the background. Not related to finance, but I also spend A LOT of effort campaigning against the R-word. Kiddos are great about it once they understand why it’s insensitive. But a lot of these words are so ingrained in the way society speaks, it takes some time to spread awareness.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      If you can get students to break the habit, or at least develop an awareness, there’s a chance they won’t use the language as adults. I’m sure some of it is learned from the parents. Or maybe the kids have picked it up elsewhere but the parents don’t correct them.

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