What Is This Word ‘Jew’?

In a comment to my Ongoing page, Moti Vidan wrote: I can already tell you, talking about “Jewhood”, that I’m having trouble with the term “Jew”‘ itself. It is linked to me by either a religion I have nothing to do with or by a legacy of genocide. And what is this word anyway? What’s wrong with Judeans?
To which I replied: Moti, I can sympathize: I too don’t particularly  like this word, & some of its connotations, but I don’t think we have a choice either of how any language expresses the Hebrew word “yehudi”, or of whatever “legacy” goes with that name. But I thank you for your two questions: trying to answer them has sparked me to start a new page, “What Is This Word ‘Jew’?”.

I don’t think we have a choice about what we’re called. I think it’s probably the case that we (everyone born of a Jewish mother, at least, if not necessarily everyone who has at least three Jewish grandparents) will be stuck for life with whatever name the culture we’re living in calls us: Jew, juif, Jude, yevrei, yahud, yehudi, zyd, etc. etc. — just as we’re stuck with our Jewhood, a fact of our birth, which – as the Nazis made abundantly clear – cannot be changed by acts like religious conversion or any other form of opting out. These are things beyond our choice.So: what is this word “Jew”, if we have to accept it? Ask me about a word, & it can set me going: I’m a bit of a word-freak, fascinated by words since childhood, you could call me a logophile, someone who loves words…‘Jew’ is an old English word. According to the OED (the Oxford English Dictionary), which I go to when I want to find the first chronological appearances of words in extant English texts, its first appearance (though in a different spelling) in an Old English text was in 1175. It actually stems from the Hebrew word yehudi (from “Yehudah – Judah, name of a Hebrew patriarch and the tribe descended from him”, says the OED, but this is also of course the name of the territory or kingdom of Judah). It then took form as the Aramaic yehudai, the ancient Greek ioudai, & the Latin iudaeus, which can also be translated into English as “Judean” – but when it was translated into the Old French it was abbreviated to giu , gyu , giue , earlier juieu , juiu , jueu.. . & from there it came into Old English after the Norman Conquest (1066), and later into Middle English and Modern English, still with variant spellings, until it became conventionalized as “Jew”.In English, the word ‘Judeans’ usually means the (ancient) inhabitants of “Judea”, the Latin name the Romans gave to the territory of what was then (when they arrived there) the Hasmonean-ruled kingdom of Judah (Yehudah in Hebrew) & that had been for about 450 years before that a province of two empires, the Babylonian & the Persian, called Yehud in Aramaic (the lingua franca of both empires), & before that the ancient kingdom of Judah.None of today’s Jews live in that historical time-place, although a particular collective of Jews has “returned”, colonized, occupied, & established a state in an area that now includes much of the territory of ancient Judea as well as the adjoining ancient territories of Samaria and Galilee and the Shefela (coastal plain) that the biblical narrative says were once part of the ancient kingdom of Israel, inhabited by the “ten tribes” most of whom were exiled by the Assyrians when they conquered the kingdom, quickly losing their Israelite identity. A considerable number of those Israelites , researchers today say, joined the burgeoning kingdom of Judah, then a protectorate of Babylonia, and became part of a “pan-Israelite” state – to bolster which, the core of the Hebrew “Bible”, with its “history” & its laws, was authored & complied at that time… (More on this, perhaps, some other time; but on this last point I’d like to recommend Israel Finkelstein and Noah Asher Silverman’s The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts (New York: Touchstone, 2002).

Judeans lived long ago. Most of their descendants are probably Jews, and quite a few of them might be Palestinians, or Bedouins, who are not Jews.

If I accept, tentatively, what the genetic researchers are saying (see the page on this I’ve published today, Are Jews a Race?), I could say I’m a Jew with (perhaps) partially Judean ancestry. & (perhaps), because I have blue eyes, partially Khazar ancestry. In Wikipedia>Khazars, I find:  “Khazars are described by the generality of early Arab sources as having a white complexion, blue eyes, and reddish hair.”


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