Sitting on a train approaching Manchester, England, recently, my friend Arron and I leafed through a copy of MetroNews — Britain’s biggest free paper — and came across an article about recent violence in Jerusalem caused by the latest settlement controversy.
I began to read the article aloud, nonchalantly voicing the words “Israel” and “Palestinians” as they passed by in the sentence.
“Sshhh,” Arron whispered. “Try not to say that around here.”
Growing up, Arron explained, he and his Jewish friends learned from a young age to avoid saying words like “Jew” and “Israel” in public. It was a precaution against the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that continues to pervade Europe.
Instead, they created a secret, coded language. Jew became “wej” (its backwards cousin). “Eretz” (a Hebrew nom de plume for Israel meaning “land”) became the code word for the Jewish state or random Yiddish words. “We’re walking through a wej neighborhood,” Arron and his friends would say to each other.
One of many definitions of wej, according to UrbanDictionary.com, an online dictionary for slang and often-derogatory terms, is “the polite way of saying Jew in public without others knowing.” In France, a similar type of term, “feuj,” is also used colloquially to replace the word Jew — but this time, usually insultingly. From the French dialect similar to Pig Latin called the Verlan, feuj is simply the syllabic inversion of the French word for Jew, “juif.”
My language faux pas were by no means limited to the train ride into Manchester. Walking through the streets in London, in Liverpool, in Leeds — I breached the language barrier.
In London, I had just visited some of my British colleagues at The Jewish Chronicle office — which is, in fact, a veritable fortress against terrorism — and I was eager to discuss this with Arron. But I quickly learned from him that this too was off limits for conversation, at least on the street.
Local rabbis play down the “wej,” “Eretz” business, viewing the phrases more as forms of ethnic group dialect than paranoia.
“There’s a ‘Jewish British’ just as there’s a ‘Jewish American,’ in terms of speech. One of the things that has been fun in my 12 years here is learning all of the British expressions,” said Rabbi Mark Winer, the senior rabbi at West London Synagogue — Britain’s largest liberal shul.
Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, an associate rabbi at West London, agreed, noting that use of the term wej “is more of a northern [England] phenomenon than a London one.” She added, “I think it was more about being cliquey than fear of anti-Semitism — often people using such words would be in the cinema in a kipa with their Kosher l’Pesach crisps and Coke.”
Nevertheless, the rabbis feel that British Jews do take certain precautions that Americans wouldn’t even consider.
“British Jews on the whole are more paranoid than American Jews, and more fearful of anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Winer said. “It’s nowhere near what it is in France or Germany. But it’s more than it is in America.”
To illustrate the point, the rabbi added, “In my neighborhood, where I live and work, I don’t wear a kipa. I just wouldn’t think it would be a safe thing to do.”
The threats against Jews, Rabbi Winer said, come from three segments of British society: the right-wing British National Party, the intellectually anti-Semitic ultra-left-wing groups, and Islamic fundamentalist groups. The latter, the rabbi says, pose a threat of violence.
“Everyone’s afraid of that — including the Muslims,” he said. “On the other hand, my synagogue is right in the middle of Arab London, and we have wonderful working relationships with the Arabs, and they actually protect the synagogue.”
Anti-Semitism (or paranoia) or not, I certainly felt pressured to watch my very American tongue.
Wandering in the alleyways of Liverpool, Arron and I stumbled upon a quirky second-hand bookshop — the Radical and Community Bookstore — and decided to explore. Inside, we found a special section dedicated to pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel magazines, books and leaflets.
Fuming, I said to Arron, I’m going to go talk to the manager and give her my two cents on these issues.
“No, please don’t,” he said. “That’s probably not a good idea.”
I was probably bluffing, anyway, but the fear that this wasn’t “a good idea” just didn’t sit right with me, a born-and-bred New York-area Jew, accustomed to speaking my mind about Jews and Israel, no matter how contentious the topic.
But now I know — England, for all its Hyde Park soapboxes and Prime Minister’s Questions and Oxford debating societies — is certainly not New York when it comes to a certain kind of free speech. So the next time I’m there, I think I’ll be biting my tongue and sticking to wej.
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