Putting aside fears of anti-Semitism to reclaim an old label

First published on jew-ish.com

It was a pretty normal Wednesday evening in early December. I had picked up copy of The Stranger right by Fuel on 19th — a coffee shop conveniently located near my overpriced two-room Capitol Hill apartment. After lighting candles with friends for the second night of Hanukkah, I looked through my new copy of that week’s Stranger. I admit, I was specifically looking to see if the upcoming Golem concert, dubbed “The 8” and to be held at the Crocodile Cafe (z”l), was going to be written up by “Seattle’s only newspaper.” The event seemed possibly hip enough.

I love reading The Stranger. It is one of the only solid places for local news, laughs, music info, and, occasionally, a good controversy. I love a good controversy. I imagine I am not alone in wanting to read The Stranger just to see what they will say next. It challenges me, makes me think, provides good stimulus for conversation, and helps me grow a thicker skin at times.

When I turned to “The Stranger Suggests” page of that week’s copy, I was thrilled. A Jewish concert at the Crocodile was indeed what The Stranger suggested for that Saturday night! I had never felt more vindicated as a young Jew in Seattle. But as my eyes continued across the line, my heart sank. The schmo who did the write-up for the Golem show labeled the event as “kike rock.”

Reading the rest of the blurb I was amused. The Stranger called out Taglit-birthright israel, a co-sponsor for the event, as a “creepy Zionist youth organization” and talked more of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players than the up-and-coming gypsy Yiddish punk band Golem, who would inspire energetic, hora-style circle dancing at the Crocodile later that week.

But kike? Can they print that? Apparently, yes. I immediately looked at the name of the author. Jonathan Zwickel. Sounds Jewish, I thought. He must be to use that word. But what if he’s not? Without knowing much about the origin or history of that word, it sparked a guttural reaction that lit up all the fear of anti-Semitism I like to think I am beyond. I pictured my grandmother having a k’nipshin.

Over the next few days I talked to friends (both Jewish and not), posted the write up on my Facebook page asking for comments, and wrote a short e-mail questioning the use of the word to its author, Zwickel. It seems that most people I talked to were offended, if not outraged, but took it for The Stranger, well, being The Stranger.

But is there something to this? In my dialogue with Zwickel, we did not agree on whether or not it is okay to use the word kike (or other pejorative words aimed at ethnicities and peoples) even when it comes from the mouth (or pen) of which he/she has aimed. We did, however, both express a deep passion for the ownership and reclamation of our heritage.

While some go to yeshiva and learn traditions and texts that have been traded in for assimilation and nationalism, others learn Yiddish and Ladino. Still others radicalize to find their Jewish roots (as old as idol-smashing Abraham) in anti-establishment activism, via music, art, humor, philosophy, history, and, in this case, language. Where is your reclamation happening? Without it, we are dead or dying — this Zwickel and I fully agreed upon, and for it, I can greatly respect his crusade.

My process led to learning the origin of the word kike. It was as simple as one, two, Wikipedia. Turns out, though it is today considered a derogatory term for Jews, its origin may be something to celebrate. The word kike comes from the Yiddish word kikel, which means circle.

See, the Jews who came to Ellis Island in the early 1900s, most, but not all of whom were Yiddish speaking, did not know the Roman-English alphabet. Being thus unable to sign their names on the immigration papers, they were asked to mark an “x” in the signature field. However, the Jews chose to make circles instead, as they saw the “x” as a symbol of religious persecution in its resemblance of the Christian cross. The word kike, in my mind, thus signifies the spiritual resistance of the Jewish immigrants in maintaining their identity rather than bowing down to what they saw as Christian powers. According to Wikipedia, the term was at first used as an endearing term for an idiosyncratic (to the non-Jews working on Ellis Island) action.

Only later, just like the words Jew, Heeb, Yid, and others that have since been reclaimed, was the term used to conjure hate and breed oppression and death.

Whether we reclaim the word kike has since become moot in my exploration. I was, like many of us Heebs sometimes are, subverted from my path of personal reclamation and ownership because of a fear — a deeply rooted, understandable yet worth-getting-over fear — of anti-Semitism. In Zwickel’s own quest for ownership, he briefly and unintentionally pushed mine off course. The key to the furthering of both our journeys was the dialogue his words ensued.

A friend said to me when we spoke of the write up, “I just hope I don’t catch non-Jew hipsters using the word ‘kike’ because they saw it in The Stranger.”

I agree with this, but I also hope that we would speak up from a place of pride and knowledge, wherever we are on our own personal quest for it, if and when we do come across the word again.

Read the public dialogue happening since Zwickel’s write up on Line Out called “Full Keikel” (Full Circle) at http://lineout.thestranger.com/2007/12/full_keikel