A Shonda for the Vays Menschen

I've seen some stuff, you know?

I’ve seen some stuff, you know?

It’s all true, anyway. An African cab driver really did ask me if I was raped, and a bitter, critical, English professor really did tell me that there was no way that could ever happen when I tried to tell the story in an undergraduate fiction writing workshop. I suppose that’s a big difference between fiction and non-fiction. Readers just won’t accept certain types of events in fiction: you can’t write too many tragedies into a story, or too many coincidences, even though strings of tragedies and coincidences of course happen in real life.

We’re used to reading clean dialog, too, and heaven knows people don’t really speak the way their words appear in books. People say “um” and “ah” and “like,” and they stutters and repeat themselves in a way that would be utterly annoying to read. Fiction isn’t like life, after all. Fiction wraps up. There are metaphors and meanings. Life is messy and crises don’t always happen for a reason, and people don’t always learn from them.

A “shonda for the goyim” is a Yiddish sentiment, which expresses that a Jewish person has done something shameful in the sight of non-Jews, which will then reflect badly on all Jews, because anti-Semitism. I’ve since been told that black people would say, “a scandal for white people,” or something to that effect. I had mixed feelings about having an entire panel depend on a phrase in a foreign language, but that’s really what was going on in my head, too, and I think it reflects an important parallel, the kind of point upon which fiction depends, but which life often fails to deliver.

When I was looking up how to say “white people” in Yiddish for the title (I hope vays menschen is correct; I known “menschen” is “people” and if “vays” is pronounced like the German word “weiss”  then it makes sense) I came across a couple articles asking if the Yiddish word “schvartze” was considered racist. Schvartze is the word that some elderly Jews used to refer to black people, and let me tell you, it’s racist as hell. At least it was when my late grandmother said it, usually in the context of, “Lock the doors, there’s schvartze everywhere.” And that’s what I was taught about black people as a child.

I could pretend otherwise, but it’s the truth, and that’s what fiction and nonfiction have to have in common.

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