Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Beyond words

A few years back, the following clue appeared in the New York Times crossword puzzle: “Curly ethnic hairstyle, colloquially.”

The answer? “JEWFRO.”

The word made Patrick Merrell, the Times’ puzzle blogger at the time, anxious. “JEWFRO! Really? Is that something we can say?” he wrote.

Don’t worry, Mr. Merrell—most Jews that I know have embraced the word (if not the hairstyle), and this (straight-haired) Jew approves.

I suspect it’s the use of “Jew” as an adjective—a la Archie Bunker talking about “Jew lawyers”—that makes people antsy. “Jew” is already a loaded word—a perfectly appropriate noun that has, thanks to our enemies, taken on the quality of a slur. Many Jews prefer to refer to themselves as “Jewish.” Especially for an older generation, the word “Jew”—said outside the family or the synagogue—can induce a wince. Try it: “Funny, you don’t look Jewish” is a gentle punch line. “Funny, you don’t look like a Jew” sounds like dialogue from a Holocaust film.

The use of “Jew” as a pejorative even has some unintended consequences. When Jewish groups complained that Google searches for the word “Jew” were bringing up anti-Semitic sites, the company explained that the word “Jew” is “often used in an anti-Semitic context. Jewish organizations are more likely to use the word ‘Jewish’ when talking about members of their faith.”

Distinctions like these force groups like the Anti-Defamation League to police seemingly innocuous media—like crossword puzzles. Last week, the ADL complained when a syndicated crossword puzzle used “Shylock” as a clue for “JEW.” Using the name of Shakespeare’s notoriously anti-Semitic caricature as a synonym for Jew “demonstrates cultural ignorance and an extreme lack of sensitivity,” wrote ADL national director Abe Foxman. Tribune Media Services promptly apologized.

Nitpicking? I don’t think so. Perhaps, had the clue been “Shylock, for one,” they might have gotten away with it. But the one-to-one correspondence between “Shylock” and “Jew” is nothing but trouble. Were there options? How about “Hebrew,” “Semite,” or “Israelite”?

This isn’t the first time that word games crossed over into Jewish communal controversy. In 1993, a woman in Virginia complained that the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary listed words like KIKE and HEBE, and allowed JEW as a verb. The ADL took up her cause. Scrabble officials said they weren’t endorsing the words, and competitive players, including many Jews, said they would hate to lose such perfectly good letter combinations. In the end, there was a compromise: an OSPD for “recreational and school play” omits 167 offensive terms; a club and tournament version does not.

And it’s not just the ADL keeping tabs on such things. In 2009, I contributed to the world of cruciverbalism (look it up) when a New York Times crossword puzzle featured a clue reading “Night novelist.” The answer? “WIESEL.”

The puzzle thus entered the fray in a long debate about how to characterize Elie Wiesel’s book about Auschwitz. Is it a memoir? A novel? Something else? Wiesel has angrily asserted that Night “is not a novel at all,” but a “testimony” of his time in the death camp.

The distinction matters, since Holocaust deniers would like nothing better than to discredit Wiesel and dismiss his first-hand account of the Shoa as fiction.

I wrote a blog post complaining about the clue, and linked it to the Times’ Wordplay blog, where contributor Jim Horne responded a few days later:

Do clues and answers in crossword puzzles really matter? Much of the discussion here at Wordplay is because the answer is yes. I think it’s fair to say they especially matter in New York Times puzzles. Sometimes we quibble about whether the cobbler crust can be on the bottom but sometimes much more important issues are at stake.

The June 17 puzzle included this clue for 47 Across: “Night novelist.” The answer is the Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie WIESEL. Several readers objected, including professor Wiesel himself, who contacted The Times through his Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. Novel implies fiction, and for someone constantly dealing with Holocaust denial, this is understandably objectionable.

Is this an error worthy of correction? Perhaps, but the answer is not quite so simple.

Here Horne quoted the Wikipedia entry on Night, which discusses the difficulty some scholars and reviewers have in categorizing the literary genre of Night—novel? Memoir? “Nonfiction novel”?

He continues:

Still, there is accuracy and then there is avoiding unnecessary conflict. Here’s what [Times puzzle editor] Will Shortz had to say: “In retrospect, my feeling is…if Mr. Wiesel says the book is not a novel, then I respect that. I will do my best never to refer to the book as a novel again.”

Personally I thought Horne’s response was a little grudging, especially since the book has consistently been categorized as “nonfiction” on the Times’ own bestseller list. Still, I’m glad he acknowledged that even when it comes to word games, “sometimes much more important issues are at stake.”

Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.


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