A Literary History of the Dirty Jew

August 16, 2008 | , ,

Of the many insults and epithets launched at the Jews through the ages, none has quite the cultural pedigree of “dirty Jew.” Writers in many languages have seized on it again and again, mostly because it is not only harsh and hateful, but also vague. Dirtiness can refer to anything from a lack of proper hygiene to an ideological failing to a moral taint; being called “dirty” often has something to do with sex, though not always. A history of the term’s appearances in literature and film suggests not just changing perceptions of Jewishness over the years, but also a transformation in the way we talk about “dirtiness.”

At first, “dirty Jew” was, of course, a common expression of sincerest antipathy. By the late-19th century, the epithet was a common feature of anti-Semitic scandals: it was heard after the Seligman incident in the U.S., the Dreyfus Affair in France, the Kishinev Pogrom in Russia, and regularly during the rise of Nazism in Germany. The term cropped up in the popular literature of the era, too, encapsulating the abuses of repulsive villains patterned after Shakespeare’s Shylock, Marlowe’s Barrabas, and Dickens’ Fagin—though none of these classic characters are referred to in the original texts as “dirty.” In Frank Norris’s classic romance McTeague (1899), the rapacious junk dealer Zerkow is explicitly called a “dirty Jew,” as is a lustful German-Jewish madman, Jacob Meyer, in H. Rider Haggard’s thriller Benita: An Africa Romance (1906).

By that time, “dirty Jew” was such a common insult that liberals who wished to decry anti-Semitism could deploy the term as a marker of racial prejudice. In his famous “J’accuse” letter (1898), Emile Zola described Alfred Dreyfus as “a victim… of the pursuit of the ‘dirty Jews’ that dishonors our era.” In 1900, American newspapers delightedly reported that young Frenchmen like Baron Robert de Rothschild were dueling with and defeating the racists who had called them “dirty Jew”—a lapse in etiquette which the New York Times referred to as “most unkind.” Retribution was not limited to France, either: in 1907, a Los Angeles man was awarded five dollars by a judge after being called a “dirty Jew.” These developments suggest a general recognition, at least in some circles, that the term constituted unacceptable bigotry.

In the 1920s, the American literati followed up on the idea that anyone who would call somebody a “dirty Jew” must be the worst sort of cretin. In Pulitzer Prize-winner Booth Tarkington’s 1923 novel, The Midlanders, two non-Jewish brothers are distinguished by the fact that, as children, one uses the term and the other won’t. A slick short story, “Paradise Regained” by Harold Brecht, published in Harper’s in February, 1926, played a similar game. That story’s protagonist, Ralph, isn’t brave enough to defend his neighbor Sidney Cohen from local bullies, even though he realizes that “it was only by the uncertain whim of fate that he, like the little Jew, was not also banned and an outcast.” Desperate to fit in, Ralph soon beats the living hell out of the gangleader, earns the kids’ respect, and then leads the gang back to Sidney Cohen’s house, “chanting … ‘dirty Jew'” all the while. Ralph’s willingness to engage in this taunting signals his pathetic embrace, driven by his insecurity, of thuggery and proto-fascism.

Placing the words “dirty Jew” into the mouth of a right-wing villain or ignoble punk became such a cliché that some writers realized the phrase could also function sarcastically, to signal a reprobate’s reform. A Russian story by M. Artzibashef, published in English translation in 1917, and Jean Renoir’s classic film, La Grande Illusion (1937), are both set during the first World War and both end with a non-Jewish soldier “good-naturedly” (as the Artzibashef story phrases it) calling his Jewish fellow soldier a “dirty Jew.” In each of these narratives, the Jew has saved the life of his non-Jewish peer, and so when he is called “dirty,” the audience knows this is a mark not of prejudice, but of prejudice overcome. Renoir underscored the importance of the term itself when, at a screening at UCLA in the 1950s, he objected publicly, and strenuously, to the translation of “Au revoir, sale juif,” as “Goodbye, old pal” in the film’s subtitles.

Since “dirty Jew” has been used in fiction to signal both vilest anti-Semitism and its opposite, it should not be surprising that ambitious writers have exploited these words to dizzyingly ambivalent effect. James Joyce, for example, placed it into the mouth of none other than Leopold Bloom himself, which has sparked scholarly debates about whether the character Reuben J. Dodd—of whom Bloom remarks, “Now he’s really what they call a dirty Jew”—really is Jewish, and to what degree Bloom’s comment reflects his internalization of the Irish anti-Semitic prejudice that has been directed against him.

The term “dirty Jew” becomes even more confusing in the first piece of writing the great critic and novelist Leslie Fiedler contributed to Commentary, in 1947. This short story, “Dirty Ralphy,” concerns a fight that the narrator remembers having had as a child with a poor neighborhood kid, Dirty Ralphy, who called him “dirty Jew.” The twist is that years later, the narrator’s mother informs him that contrary to his recollection, Dirty Ralphy’s name was Ralph Goldenberg, and though “a little meshugga, and to begin with—illegitimate,” “he was a Jew himself.” The narrator’s memories must be garbled, she says—but are they? Is it possible that like Bloom, Dirty Ralphy, scorned by the town’s few middle-class Jews, internalized the anti-Semitism he encountered and turned it back against his coreligionists, including the narrator? Or is this a case of the conflation of two of the narrator’s revulsions—for an anti-Semite and for an abject Jew—into a single memory? Fiedler cannily leaves the questions wide open, suggesting how tricky it can be to separate the hated from the haters when it comes to ethnic prejudice.

A decade later, Norman Mailer‘s story “The Time of Her Time,” climaxed—quite literally—with the term “dirty Jew.” Mailer’s tale relates the psychosexual battle waged between the author’s alter-ego/narrator, Sergius O’Shaugnessy, and a NYU junior named Denise Gondelman. O’Shaugnessy sets it as his personal goal to help this young woman (who describes herself as being “vaginally… anaesthetized”) achieve orgasm. After much effort, the magic words that finally bring Denise to orgasm are “You dirty little Jew”: more than any of Sergius’s relentless physical gestures, these words touch her in a uniquely sensitive spot—precisely in the repressed consciousness of anti-Semitic prejudice that her intellectual tastes have been, according to Sergius, cultivated to mask. Mailer, an ambivalent Jew himself, knew that the words “dirty Jew” have the stunning power to unsettle a person’s highly defended, richly complex feelings about being Jewish—and that dirtiness, whether we like it or not, is sexy.

“Dirty Jew” remains a standard anti-Semitic taunt and subject of controversy: this past October, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to review a case in which a small-town police officer was denied compensation after a colleague called him a “dirty Jew,” which was dismissed by a lower court judge as “mere teasing.” The term can still easily be found on anti-Semitic websites and even in European soccer stadiums. But young Jewish artists, and particularly comedians, have discovered what Joyce, Fiedler, and Mailer knew: that “dirty Jew” can also complicate and lampoon racism when used ironically. In this spirit, Matt Stone and Trey Parker had Cartman call Kyle’s mom a “dirty Jew” in the first season of South Park, while, as Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen bragged about his star turns in Kazakh movies such as Dirty Jew and Dirty Jew 2.

The truth is, ever since the sexual revolution, being “dirty” hasn’t seemed like a bad thing to some people. (Just ask Christina Aguilera or the Goodie Mob.) And Jews have been willing to embrace the term, too. Back in 1980, the novelist, publisher, and theologian Arthur A. Cohen put the point this way: “The real curse in a sanitized culture … would be ‘clean Jew.’ That might be sociologically infuriating, suggesting that the Jew has nothing threatening, smelly, or marginal to offer.” Lenny Bruce would have felt the same way, and so, presumably, does Larry David. It’s not surprising, then, that in her 2005 film Jesus Is Magic, Sarah Silverman purrs, “I’m a bad Jew—I’m a dirty Jew.”

In a world where Jews can be proud of having pioneered sexual openness and freedom of speech—if it hadn’t been for Jewish lawyers, publishers, and sexologists, you wouldn’t be able to buy a novel with a four-letter word in it, kick back with Screw magazine,or solicit Dr. Ruth’s advice about that embarrassing fetish you’ve developed—Silverman shouldn’t be alone in taking pride in her dirtiness. Without denying the persistence of anti-Semitism or the painful power of a classic epithet, we shouldn’t take for granted living at a time when, as Jews, we can safely be just as dirty as we want to be.

[Originally published on JBooks.com.]