First Thing’s First: What’s a Goy?

goyfromillinois By Lisa Rimmert, Director of Marketing

Before I post about anything else, I want to first address the name of this column: “Goy From Illinois.” Before I came to work for the Mizel Museum, I didn’t know the word “goy.” I can’t remember how I learned it, but it’s likely that I first saw it in this really cute book called “Yiddish with Dick and Jane.” It contains a story of Dick and Jane, with many Yiddish words throughout the story and defined in the glossary. We’ll have to learn about Yiddish together later, but for now, let’s concentrate on one word: “goy.”

According to Wikipedia, “goy” is the Hebrew biblical term for a “nation.” In Yiddish, it is a term that means gentile or non-Jew. (We’ll have to talk later about what it means to be Jewish, too. See? This stuff is complicated!) When I was talking to people about using the word “goy” in my column title, I was warned that it might be seen as provocative… that some readers may view the word as a pejorative, used to put people down or “other” them. After a lot of thought and discussion, I decided to use it for the following reasons:

We goyim are not a marginalized group.
I definitely don’t condone, or see the merit in, using potentially pejorative words to describe persecuted, oppressed or marginalized groups. But that’s not what “goy” has ever done. It’s been used to poke fun at (and sure, at times, to disparage) people in a powerful group. I’m fine with that. As a comedian, I have given a lot of thought to what is okay – and not okay – to make fun of. This stand-up bit by Aamer Rahman does a really nice job of addressing this topic. Bottom line: It’s hard to cross a line in poking fun at a group of people who have always been in the role of oppressors, not oppressed.

I’m calling myself a goy.
I think the word use could be seen as problematic if someone else assigned it to me, but that’s not what happened. I chose the title of this column, because it perfectly portrays what I hope this column will be: a cheeky and light hearted set of blog posts written from a non-Jewish perspective by an author who is new to both Jewish culture and Colorado. If the word “goy” conjures in some readers’ minds an image of someone naïve or ignorant to the intricacies of Jewish culture and history, all the better to describe this column.

It rhymes!
How could I resist?

What do you think? Did you pause when you read the word “goy” in this column title? Why or why not? How does the usage you’re familiar with affect the meaning you derive? If people give meaning to words, does that mean people have the power to change their meaning? Let’s discuss.

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