he first time I was called a "Jew" with malicious intent was September 1958 in the playground of Belmont Hills Elementary School in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I was 8 years old, and until that time had been living in New York City, where everyone I encountered was Jewish.
Whoever called me a "Jew" didn't accompany the word with a shove or punch, but the way it was barked contained enough implicit violence to make it clear that it was a bad thing. I simply didn't know how to respond. I was the new kid in the class, bewildered by the provincial environment.
After a few months, I had managed to blend in, so the next time someone spewed "Jew" at me, I was still surprised. It was not like I wore a yarmulke. I had just been typed, and there was no getting away from that. Before too long, I learned I was also a "mockey" and a "kike." And with the help of the adults in my world, I learned the boys calling me names were "Wops," "Dagos" and "Micks."
About twice a year, the name-calling "Jew!" "Wop!" "Kike!" "Dago!" would lead to little-boy fisticuffs.
It wasn't simply Jew-hatred being expressed in these outbursts, but envy and fear of any people who were different — and wealthier. Whatever the reason, being regularly called a Jew — and the threat of violence that hovered in the air with it — continued to add to my sense of who I was. Anti-Semitism helped define my identity as much as going to Hebrew school and the rituals of religion.
The "J"-word has a unique ability to shape a person's sense of himself, in large part because it has carried different meanings down the millennia.
At first, Jews weren't called Jews at all. In the Torah, Jews are usually called the children of Israel; in the book of Exodus, we are called Hebrews. The precise origin of the word Hebrew is unknown. In the language spoken by Abraham, eber means "other side of the river." It is possible that the word comes from that root.
The other side of the river is a perfect metaphor for where the monotheistic tribe descended from Abraham stood in relation to the polytheistic idol-worshippers around the Middle East. There is also a tribe called the "Habiru" mentioned in ancient cuneiform texts who apparently did battle in Canaan.
By and large, the word "Jew" is notable by its absence in the Old Testament. The New Testament makes plentiful use of the word, and defined it as a term of abuse for the best part of 1,800 years.
When Jews were finally "emancipated" — granted civil rights and let out of the ghetto during the French Revolution and Napoleonic conquests — a new era in the life of the community in Europe began. Throughout the 19th century, "Israelite," "Hebrew" or "follower of Moses" supplanted Jew as the way outsiders referred to the community if they wanted to be polite and correct. It was a process analogous to the way "black" and then "African-American" or "person of color" replaced Negro in polite discourse after the civil rights era.
Not every Jewish person went along with such semantics. In 1832, a magazine appeared in Germany that left no doubt who it was for and what it was about. It was called Der Jude: The Jew. The editor was Gabriel Riesser, a lawyer by training, but prohibited from practicing because he was Jewish. Many ambitious members of the community had converted to Christianity to get around the restriction.
In naming his journal, Riesser was waving a red flag to his own rapidly assimilating community. That community — not two decades out of the ghetto — felt that "Jew" was only used by Judeophobes and self-haters, never in polite society.
Passing through Krakow on my way to Auschwitz to cover ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the camp's liberation, I saw the word "Jude" in an ugly grafitti. Seeing it written out was no different than having it shouted at me. Yet this time, I felt neither confusion nor bemusement. I felt rather proud. That's right, Jew, and we're still here.
Michael Goldfarb is the London-based author of Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews From the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance. He will be speaking at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen on Monday, Nov. 8.