Instead of explaining an antisemitic k-word before my son is ready, I’m choosing to emphasize another one — kindness
Last week, NBA star Meyers Leonard was fined and suspended for including the term kike (Oh, how I hate writing that word) in a string of expletives while playing a video game live on social media.
The word came up again this week in my home, where my first grader was practicing the letter K in his handwriting homework — capital Ks, lowercase ks, words that start with K such as kangaroo, kite and kindness.
Thankfully, he uses a pencil for this exercise — one with a good eraser. As he practiced writing “Kite,” he accidentally made the T a K. Oops.
Given the news, I could not help but chuckle. “Why are you laughing, Mom?” he asked. This time, the “oops” was on me. I was not prepared to teach my 6-year-old about antisemitic slurs. I cowardly changed the subject, and he corrected the mistake. Later, when he wasn’t looking, I went over it again with an eraser for good measure.
If I had tried to explain, my son undoubtedly would have asked about its meaning or origin. Frankly, we don’t know the answer.
There are theories, of course. The one I like most is that of Philip Cowen, editor of “The American Hebrew.” He suggests that it comes from the Yiddish word kikel, or circle, because Jewish immigrants arriving to the U.S. through Ellis Island, such as my great-great-grandparents, signed their entry forms with a circle instead of an X. Inspectors dubbed these immigrants kikels and the term shortened as time wore on.
I realized I might have missed a chance to turn my son’s innocent mistake into a teaching moment – before he learns from someone whose intentions are not so kind that kike is a word used by people who hate us.
Regardless of where the word came from, the problem is where it ended up — the American vernacular. Or should I say the “vernacuslur” — a special category of American parlance that includes racist, profane and painful terms.
That’s why when Leonard said he did not know the word’s history or how much it offends the Jewish community, I believed him. To be clear, I didn’t excuse him. I believed him. The slur has become ingrained in our everyday language. That’s the very definition of vernacular. But words do matter and plenty of people do know the meaning of kike, which is why they use it.
Case in point, Leonard is not the only one who has been in hot water recently for uttering the term. Last month, a Lowell, Massachusetts school board member used the slur during a live television interview, referring to school budgets.
“We lost the kike, oh, I mean, the Jewish guy,” he said, referring to the school district’s former Chief Financial Officer. “I hate to say it, but that’s what people used to say behind his back,” he added. Needless to say, he later resigned amid the backlash.
The word also has come up in some of my recent interviews.
Debra Messing recalled elementary school classmates scowling at her when a boy got sent to the principal’s office for calling her a kike. When white supremacists found out filmmaker Daniel Lombroso was Jewish, they began throwing around the slur along with Nazi salutes.
Both stories got me thinking. Is this how I want my children to learn the word — in this kind of context instead of at our kitchen table? I realized I might have missed a chance to turn my son’s innocent mistake into a teaching moment — before he learns from someone whose intentions are not so kind that kike is a word used by people who hate us.
As the prospect of saying those words to my son sank in — people hate us for being Jewish — I decided to wait. In the 21st century, I have the freedom to decide when my children learn these terms and what they mean, at least more freedom than my great-great-grandparents on whom prejudice was imposed.
But as sources of antisemitism — white supremacy, anti-Zionism, religious extremism and the Wild West of social media — continue to expand and grow, that freedom is slipping away, much like my 6-year-old’s innocence.
Still, for the time being, we will embrace and emphasize another K-word in my son’s handwriting assignment — kindness. It just seems like an easier and more constructive concept for him to comprehend. He wrote the word five times in a row and never made a mistake.
A version of this piece originally aired March 18 on People of the Pod, a podcast about global affairs through a Jewish lens by American Jewish Committee. In the same episode, co-host Seffi Kogen interviewed Haviv Rettig Gur, senior political analyst for The Times of Israel. Listen here.