Sista Shiksa | Is Shiksa a Bad Word?

Who is Sista Shiksa?

I am a non-Jewish Italian woman of 33 years.  I am the product of two Catholic parents, both born in Italy, giving me first generation Canadian status.   I was raised in a relatively strict Italian household.   My upbringing as a young Italian girl is probably best summed up by Tony Soprano in the response he gave to his daughter Meadow when she dared to discuss sex at the breakfast table, “Out there it’s the 1990s, in this house it’s 1954.”

Growing up in an Italian family had its fair share of idiosyncrasies.  Despite these, Italians and Jews share a heck of a lot in common. Take for example a love of good food, the importance of family, and a steadfast connection to our historical culture.

And then there’s the movies.  I’ve noticed a trend among Jewish men characterized by a fascination with Italian mob movies. Why do they seem obsessed by The Godfather? Why do so many reference Tony Montana as he bursts from his office wielding an M16 assault rifle with an M203 grenade launcher attachment, yelling “Say hello to my little friend!” Strange how the Jewish people have survived so much, yet are occasionally dogged by an unfair reputation for being more concerned with books than with barbells. While us Italians are not always fond of the mafia stereotype, its portrayal in popular media appears to strike a resonant chord with Jewish males. And hey, there’s nothing I like more than kneeling down and kissing my boyfriend’s ring as if he were the Don.

Ok, so Jews may say matzo and we may say meat, but as far as I can tell, historically speaking, both cultures have balls.  In fact, I believe that the similarities between the Jewish and Italian cultures are remarkable and that compatibility is high. So when I met and fell in love with a Jewish man, it was a smooth transition – our historical and cultural baggage turned out to be a near-matching set.

In Sista Shiksa, I’ll share my experiences of navigating through the traditional Jewish laws and customs, from making my first batch of knishes to attempting to follow the siddur in synagogue. In this installment, I address a question that is clearly relevant to a woman in my dating predicament:

Is Shiksa a Bad Word?

The word shiksa is etymologically partly derived from the Hebrew term שקץ, שכץ sheketz, which means “abomination”, “impure,” or “object of loathing”, depending on the translator.

Several dictionaries define “shiksa” as a disparaging and offensive term applied to a non-Jewish girl or woman.

The word (written “siksa”, pronounced “shiksa”) in Polish culture is a popular pejorative (but often teasing or affectionate) word for an immature young girl or teenager. It means “pisspants” and is roughly equivalent to the English terms “snot-nosed brat”, “little squirt”, or “kid”. It is a conflation between the Hebrew term and usage of the Polish word “sikać” (“to urinate”).

This term shiksa, which so far is not sounding like something any nice Jewish girl or boy should utter, also refers to a gentile woman who might be a temptation to Jewish men.  The term deriving from something “unclean and dirty” was applied to gentiles who do other things “inimical to Jewish interests” – such as dating and marrying Jewish men. So yes, early on, the word shiksa had a negative connotation and was meant disparagingly.

This can all be traced back to the simple rule of matrilineality, the system by which lineage (i.e. Jewishness) is traced through the mother. Many Jewish men will not marry outside the Jewish faith because Jewish law dictates that their offspring would no longer retain their ethnic identity – that is, they would no longer be considered Jewish.

According to some in depth research on Ask Yahoo,  “This doctrine of matrilineal descent has been part of Judaism since at least the second century C.E. (common era), when it was codified into the Talmud, the body of religious writings that supplement the Jewish holy book of the Torah. The Talmud expands on the Torah passages of Deuteronomy 7, which oppose intermarriage by Jews. This verse states that the child of a Jewish woman and a non-Jewish man will be Jewish.  Other Torah verses admonish Jewish men from taking non-Jewish wives because their children will not be Jewish.

Why and how matrilineal descent evolved is unclear. Other aspects of lineage, such as one’s affiliation with the Jewish tribes, are traced through the father. And in the Hebrew Bible, paternal lineage often plays a more important role. Scholars have suggested various reasons for the use of maternal lineage in determining Jewish status.

For one, a child’s mother is always known, while the father couldn’t be positively identified before modern technology. Also, the Jewish people suffered a long history of oppression, during which Jewish women were sometimes raped by their oppressors. Instead of casting out the woman and the child born of the rape, the Jewish community took them in by considering the child to be Jewish.”

This seemingly simple Jewish law (whose rationale remains somewhat murky) spawns a division between Jewish and non-Jewish (shiksa) women – a little like kosher and treif. Much like the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden, however, the shiksa (along with eating bacon and cheeseburgers) appears to remain somewhat alluring to Jewish men. Go figure.

Today the word shiksa has a more light-hearted and positive association for some.  Considered as a satirical and colloquial term, Gen Xers use it in a playful way. Like when George Costanza teases Elaine about her “shiks-appeal”.  She is a gentile femme fatale — a seductress who charms her Jewish lovers in mysterious ways.  On the other hand, maybe this s-word is a little like the n-word. Perhaps it can be deeply offensive. Or, maybe it’s all about how you say it and to whom.

We shiksas cannot change how we were born – nor would this one ever want to. At the same time, those of us in relationships with Jewish men (and their faith) can take pride in learning about Jewish customs, and, should we feel so moved, try practicing and celebrating them.

Some people remain uncomfortable with the term shiksa and this is understandable. Are you a so-called shiksa? Are you going out with one? What’s your take on the s-word? What are some of the challenges or funny moments you’ve faced hanging out with the J-club?

Sista Shiksa would love to hear from you about the ups and downs of shiksa-dom.