Dear Jews Who May Have Been Sitting Near Me And My Friends In Connecticut College’s Harris Dining Hall Fall Semester, 1989
Dear Jews who may have been sitting near me and my friends in Connecticut College’s Harris dining hall fall semester, 1989,
Sorry for making anti-Semitic slurs.
It was an honest mistake. As a group, we would never have wanted to say anything to offend anyone along racial or ethnic lines. But that fall, we’d taken to using an expression without knowing its etymology. And if you knew this expression’s etymology, and if you were Jewish, and happened to be sitting near us in Harris dining hall, where we ate most of our meals, because it was attached to the complex of dorms where we all lived, the Plex, and if you heard us using this expression, which you probably would have, because we used it frequently for a while there, and were the type of college freshman and sophomores who spoke loudly, I think, each of us trying to say something funnier than what had just been said beforehand, and often needing to fairly shout to be heard above the din of uproarious laughter at the table, because we did always find ourselves to be very, very funny, you might have been offended. In fact, if you knew the etymology of the expression, you might have been offended even if you were not Jewish.
The expression is “jay,” used as a verb, meaning to steal or cheat or otherwise unethically beat someone out of something. To “screw someone over” is probably the most accurate definition. It was usually used in the past tense, “jayed,” as in, “Five dollars for a bagel with cream cheese?! Oh, man, you got jayed!” Or, in the context of a college dining hall, where the food comes free with tuition: Matt gets up to get a bagel from the bagel station. Todd asks him to get him a bagel. Matt returns with an everything bagel for himself and a cinnamon raisin bagel for Todd.
Todd: “Cinnamon raisin? [Sarcastically] Thanks a lot.”
Matt: “Sorry, dude. [Smugly spreads cream cheese on his everything bagel.] That was the only one left.”
Group: [Uproarious laughter]
Me: “Ha, Todd, he totally jayed you!”
You can see why we had to speak so loudly.
Oddly, we were a predominantly Jewish bunch. Matt’s last name is Coen. Todd’s is Schwartz. Mine, in case you’ve ever wondered, is an acronym, originally Hebrew, that stands for “Ben Rabbi Yitzok” (or “Yisrael” — my grandfather’s genealogical research found evidence for both.) Steve Arnoff, another Jew, was often at our table, too. Mike Brockhaus, Carter Beal, and Will Noonan made up the rest of the core group. They’re not Jews, but I can vouch for their enlightened views on the subject.
The expression came to us through Carter, I think. This would make sense, because Carter grew up in Minnesota, where there are fewer Jews than say, New York City, or Westchester, or Yisrael. When I think back to hearing the expression for the first time, I hear it in Carter’s voice — which has traces of the hard-bite Minnesotan accent I knew best before meeting him from Replacements records, like the part at the end of “Treatment Bound” on the Hootenany album, after the song has sort of fallen apart and the music has stopped and Tommy Stinson laughs and asks, “What were the chords to that one part?” and his older brother Bob, sounding very drunk (as was his wont), says, “Fucked ’em up…” The Replacements were my favorite group in the world at that time of my life, and I remember really liking the way it sounded when Carter said “jayed,” and half-consciously emulating his pronunciation, putting a more nasal stress on the “A” than I would have in New Jersey.
Which is not to blame Carter, or Minnesota. But just to say I can imagine how widespread usage of a Jewish slur could go on more easily in a place where there are not so many Jews. Surely, much of the usage was innocent. Lots of people in lots of places use lots of expressions without knowing all the attendant connotations. That’s how it works when you learn new slang. You hear it, you hear it again, you just pick it up. You might ponder the derivation, but if you don’t know it for sure, it’s not going to stop you from saying it.
So one day, we’re sitting at lunch in Harris and someone says someone got jayed, and Matt sort of stiffens up and says, “You guys realize you’re making an anti-Semitic slur every time you say that word, right?”
“I don’t think it’s really cool to be saying ‘jayed’ all the time,” he said. “It’s totally anti-Semitic.”
“It is?” I said.
“What did you think the ‘J’ stood for?”
I looked around. We all had dumb looks on our faces. “I thought it meant, like, ‘jacked,’” I said. That’s what I did think. “Like, robbed. Like car-jacking.”
I looked at Carter.
“That’s what I thought, too,” he said. “Or ‘jerked.’ Like, ‘Don’t me jerk me around.’”
I think someone even said they thought it was a reference to the bird, because blue jays were known to steal food from other birds or something. They are aggressive birds, blue jays.
“Nope.” Matt had apparently been told differently. This was maybe soon after Thanksgiving. Maybe he’d gone home, recently, to Rhode Island. Maybe he’d gone with his family to Friday night services at his synagogue. Maybe he’d said ‘jayed’ to some people there and they’d told him. Maybe it was the rabbi himself. I don’t remember exactly, but he’d been told. “Every time you say, ‘jayed,’ you’re saying, ‘Jewed.’ Like, to ‘jew someone down’ on a business deal. It’s like ‘shyster.’”
It made sense. Certainly, I was aware of the stereotypes surrounding Jewish business practices. I had heard the expression ‘to Jew someone down’ before. While Jews are notoriously paranoid about this kind of stuff — there’s that famous scene from Annie Hall, when Woody Allen tells Tony Roberts the story about hearing the words “did you” as “Jew” — this actually seemed legit. Without any evidence more persuasive than, “I just figured…” in support of the more innocent explanations, I was inclined to believe Matt was right. That is how we used it, like, “ripped off.”
It was quiet for a while, while we thought. I looked around, noticed the tables nearby, filled with our classmates — people we didn’t know very well, people who didn’t know us very well, people of undetermined ethnic origin. There were no yarmulkes in sight. Just as there were none at our table.
“We’re idiots,” Todd said, breaking into a self-effacing smile, and soon we got back to loud laughter and talking.
We were. But we stopped saying ‘jayed’ after that.