The Power of a Single Word

Self-portrait: Sally Wiener Grotta, storytellerFor years now, whenever I’ve spoken at book clubs, I’ve told my audiences, “The book you read is not the book I wrote.” That’s because reading is a participatory experience. We bring our personal histories, prejudices, expectations, hopes and concerns to our interpretations of what we see on the page. That, in turn, can color the narrative and dialog, often making our reading of a book uniquely our own.

I’ve understood that concept for so long that I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was blindsided by a friend’s adverse reaction to a word I had written. I consider the word in and of itself a neutral description. But as far as she was concerned, it was a highly charged, derogatory expression.

The occasion was the monthly meeting of my Philadelphia writing critique group. All members are professional writers whom I respect and trust, and whose skill as writers and editors I admire. Over the years, we have learned to rely on each other’s insights and feedback. While we don’t always agree, we are whetting stones for each other, helping to hone our stories and books, a good number of which have gone on to be published.

On the “chopping block” for this session was the third chapter of my current work-in-progress, Women of a New Moon.

Women of a New Moon is a novel about a woman’s Torah study group. We learn about the six modern women of the group – their personalities, histories, crises and story arcs – through the filter of their monthly discussions of women of the Bible (such as Eve & Lilith, Sarah & Hagar, Miriam, etc.). At the beginning of the book, they are what I call “intimate strangers,” because they know each other only through frequent but superficial schmoozing at synagogue events. Five of the women are Jewish by birth; the sixth (Dorothy) is married to a Jewish man.

Chapter Three is told from the point of view of Chavah, so that we experience the women’s interactions and their discussion of the matriarch Rebekah from her perspective. A few times during the chapter, Chavah refers to Dorothy as “gentile” (in her mind, not aloud) to distinguish who she’s thinking about. (As a point of writing style, we see her use “gentile”, when she has recently used the woman’s name. Like most authors, I don’t like frequently repeating a name – or when I can help it, a word.)

For example, as the leader of the study group for that month, it’s Chavah’s responsibility to ask individuals to read portions of the text under discussion. So we have the following lines:

“…Chavah asked, ‘Dorothy, would you care to read?’
“The gentile woman quickly found the correct page in her small black King James Bible…”

 

I was surprised when one of the members of my critique group told me that she became more and more angry at Chavah every time the woman used “gentile,” and that she had ended up hating the character. In her criticism, she said that it was not only a derogatory term, but racist.

I didn’t bother to point out that “racist” wouldn’t be the correct term here, because I was more concerned at how upset she was about the use of the word “gentile.” Clearly she felt that the word meant much more than the literal definition of “stranger” or “not of my/our people.”

In terms of character development, it was the right word for Chavah to use when she thought about Dorothy, particularly because it’s so revealing about Chavah. In Chavah’s eyes, calling Dorothy a gentile is a distinction, like the difference between Gucci and Ferragamo silk scarves. (She has no Gucci scarves.) Labels are integral to the self-protective barricades she has built against a world filled with people who confuse her. While she eventually will come to understand how much Dorothy has in common with her, more so than the other women in the group, she will also continue to think of Dorothy as a gentile, an other, and someone who confounds her.

But I was worried. Was I being insensitive or naïve about the general public’s perception of the word “gentile”? Is it a trigger word that evokes automatic negative reactions? By using it, was I taking a chance that it would be like putting a neon light in the middle of a garden, pulling so much of my readers’ attention to it that the single word could outweigh everything else I was trying to achieve with the chapter?

I decided I needed a general, overall viewpoint of how the word is understood beyond my personal experience of it. So, I posted the following on Facebook:

“A question for my non-Jewish friends. When you hear a Jew describe another person as a gentile, do you take it as an insult?”

The last time I looked, the post had 198 comments, which I believe makes it one of my more active posts. About 195 my Facebook friends indicated that they consider the word “gentile” neutral in and of itself. The largest number were quite succinct, with comments like “No”, “Nope”, “Not at all.” The majority of those who wrote more than a few words stated that they felt it was descriptive rather than insulting. Some went on to say that while they didn’t consider it insulting it would depend on how it was used. A few pointed out that it created barriers, “othering” people with an unnecessary label.

Interestingly, a handful compared it to the use of the word “Jew.” One summed up the idea behind these comments with an example from her many years of teaching: “[E]very year I had students complain about my bigotry because I referred to the Jews in our study of Hebrew lit and the Bible. They thought that because they use ‘Jew’ as an insult, that’s what it was. I should have said, ‘Jewish people,’ they said.” In other words, “Jew” (or “gentile”) weighs in as an insult for those individuals who know it only in those terms.

I was particularly pleased that my critique partner who had initially reacted to “gentile” so strongly also commented on the Facebook post, saying she was learning a lot from reading the thread. I took that to mean that she was rethinking her initial reaction. Even so, in my edits of the chapter, I was careful to make sure that the manner in which Chavah used the word would help readers better understand her and not lead them to misjudge her. Not that I can guarantee that any reader will see my characters as I believe I am writing them.

Words have power to influence, insult, inform, or inflame. But they are also magical in allowing us to be inside another’s mind, live for a short while in their shoes, experience what is beyond our reach or what might be as close as a heartbeat if only we would seek it. As a writer, I can spend hours searching for the right word to best color a moment or a scene. And yet, I might write other words, such as “gentile,” with no second thought. Luckily, I have my critique partners to help keep me mindful of the impact of even those words that I might take for granted. And when uncertain, I can always ask the Facebook hive mind. Such is the power of a single word.

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