Nearby Café Home > Politics > Café Op-Ed > Current Café Op-Ed

to op-ed archives


What's in a Name?
Jews and Judeans, Staten Islanders and New Yorkers
by John J. Hayes
(March 2005)


Imagine, if you will, this question on a reading comprehension test:

John and Kevin wanted to go to New York City for the day, so they asked their mothers for permission. Their mothers said they could go to the city but they should be back from New York before dinner. Which of the following is true?

    a) John and Kevin live in New York City.
    b) John and Kevin live outside New York City.
    c) More information is needed.
    d) None of the above.

Now, I suspect that any reasonable person reading this question would conclude that John and Kevin live outside New York City. The logic is almost irrefutable. The only problem is that when this event occurred, as it did many times in the 1960s and 1970s, both John and Kevin lived in New York City. Indeed, they were life-long New Yorkers, as were their parents.

For reasons explained below, therefore, the correct answer is "c."

Until the 1890s "New York City" only meant Manhattan and part of the Bronx. But then Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island and the rest of the Bronx were incorporated into the city as well. Thus New York City has its famous five boroughs.

However, language keeps its own pace. So all those people who grew up on Staten Island -- including, for instance, my grandfather, who was born in 1873 -- did not instantly change the way they spoke. And, of course, they passed their usage on to their descendants. For them, and subsequently their children and grandchildren, "going to New York" or "going to the city" and even "going to New York City" meant going to Manhattan. Even today my father-in-law will refer to Manhattan as "New York." I myself probably use that particular locution on occasion. In fact, for a period in my life, I consciously had to say "Manhattan" although I was going to say New York. Old linguistic habits die hard. This old usage is fading now, but for most residents of New York City the phrase "going to the city" still means traveling to Manhattan.

When I was growing up in Staten Island (pronounced "StatNiland"), if we said someone was from New York, other Staten Islanders (and, I'm told, Brooklynites too) would understand this to mean, given the context, that that person was from Manhattan (pronounced "Manha'an" -- imagine a stereotypical cockney pronunciation of the t's). But just to make matters a little more complicated, I do not think we would have said the person was a New Yorker, unless we were generalizing beyond Manhattan. I mean, after all, we were all New Yorkers. But a person from Manhattan came from New York to Staten Island.

In those days, if I were speaking to someone from outside of New York State or New York City, I might have said something like "Oh, some kids came from New York and beat up me and my friends." A non-New Yorker might rightfully be puzzled and ask, "But don't you live in New York?" I would probably have replied, "Yes, I do, but I meant they came from the city." This might elicit, "But I thought you lived in New York City." My response? "No, I live on Staten Island." Which could only result in an exasperated "But isn't Staten Island part of New York City -- and, by the way, who's on third?"

It gets even better.

When people from Brooklyn and Queens say they are going to Long Island for the weekend, consulting a map will do you no good. It will only confuse you. The map shows that Brooklyn and Queens are on Long Island! What New Yorkers mean by "Long Island" is that part of Long Island comprising the counties of Nassau and Suffolk, not Brooklyn and Queens. This can lead to the perplexity of schoolchildren and adults when they learn that the "Battle of Long Island" in the Revolutionary War actually took place in Brooklyn Heights.

But if a New Yorker should say to you "I'm going back to the Island," be careful. A speaker is from Nassau and Suffolk means Long Island. If the speaker, like this writer, is from the County of Richmond, he or she means Staten Island.

Speaking of Long Island, we can even get more subtle. Those of us from New York City will refer to ourselves as New Yorkers, even when speaking with residents of, say, the city of Buffalo (in upstate New York). Now, if I said "I am from New York" to someone from Buffalo they would know I mean the City of New York as opposed to the City of Buffalo. That should make sense to anyone. But "New Yorker" is a little more complicated. Still, a "New Yorker" from upstate would know that someone from New York City might call themselves a New Yorker in the same way people from Buffalo or Albany call themselves whatever it is they call themselves.

I remember meeting a New Yorker from near the Canadian border who, upon hearing that some of us at a meeting came from New York City, wanted to know if we carried knives because he'd heard that "New Yorkers carry knives." He, a New Yorker (meaning "a person from New York State") could quite easily use the phrase "New Yorker" to mean "a person from New York City."

Where does Long Island come into this? When someone from Long Island -- by which I mean the two counties on Long Island that are not part of New York City -- identifies him- or herself as a New Yorker, it is often used with the same weight of meaning as when used by an actual resident of the five boroughs New York City. "New Yorker" in this sense carries with it a whole mythos and self-image that is irrelevant for this essay, except to say that it probably includes the characteristic of not knowing what New Yorkers from Buffalo or Albany call themselves.

So a response to our upstate friend could very well have been an ironic "Yep, we New Yorkers all carry knives," except that the person saying it was from Long Island, meaning Nassau or Suffolk. And we would all have understood. On the other hand, someone who said "Well, I'm from Rochester" -- another upstate New York city -- "and I don't carry a knife" would have been regarded as either new to the State, or a smart-alecky pedant. Thus "New Yorker" may in some contexts mean "someone from New York City, Nassau or Suffolk." This definition may even include parts of Westchester County like Yonkers, which borders the Bronx. Much farther north, however, and people don't claim to be New Yorkers in that sense. (Unless of course their ancestors grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan.)

Had enough? What can I say? Language is complicated. Yet New Yorkers can make these distinctions unconsciously. But how to translate this into another language? Indeed, it actually has to be translated into English! Do I translate the exact phrase "from New York" or "New Yorker" literally into another language, or should I substitute something else, so that our upstate friend's statement would read in translation something like: "I hear you New York City and Long Island guys all carry knives?" That would actually convey the information contained in the phrase "New Yorkers carry knives," spoken by that man, in that place, at that time, to those particular people. To render "New Yorker" as "New Yorker" is actually a mistranslation!

It's complicated, it's entertaining, and perhaps you will be able now to more fully deconstruct the lyric of "New York State of Mind" by that New Yorker from Long Island, Billy Joel. But it also bears upon a deadly serious question of biblical translation.

Which brings us to the New Testament.

For now I'll just focus on one passage, which, if I may speak as a New Yorker, is one of those passages whose translation makes you want to run, hide, slap a yellow star on your sleeve and join the Irgun. It is probably the earliest writing in the New Testament:

"For you, my brothers, have modelled yourselves on the the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judaea, in that you have suffered the same treatment from you own countrymen as they have had from the Jews, who put the Lord Jesus to death, and the prophets, too, and persecuted us also . . . " (1 Th 2:14 NJB)

Now, the Greek word translated Judaea is "Ioudaia"; the word translated "Jews" is "Ioudaion." Why then -- since Paul was talking about treatment by one's countrymen -- is Ioudaion not translated as, for instance, "Judeans" or even "fellow Judeans?" I am not a biblical scholar, nor an expert in New Testament Greek, but as a New Yorker from Staten Island, I think somebody's missing something.

Let's try this out for size:

"For you, my brothers, have modelled yourselves on the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in New York, in that you have suffered the same treatment from your own fellow citizens as they had from the people of New York (or "the New Yorkers"), who put the Lord Jesus to death and the prophets, too, and persecuted us also."

Depending on when and by whom this was written, it could mean that the people of New York State put Jesus to death, but it could also mean that the people of New York City put Jesus to death. If written by a Staten Islander or Brooklynite of a certain age, it could refer solely to Manhattan churches and the people of Manhattan.

St. Paul identified himself as a Jew, but he was not of the tribe of Judah, he was a Benjaminite (read "Staten Islander"); Jesus was a Jew, of the tribe of Judah living in Galilee (read "family originally from New York City but now living in upstate New York"); the apostles were Galilean Jews (read "upstate New Yorkers"); and the earliest disciples were Jews from in and around Jerusalem (read "Long Islanders and people from New York City, maybe even Yonkers").

So what did Paul mean when he said the "Ioudaion" put the Lord to death? Given his reference to Ioudaia, could the Ioudaion simply be the people of Judea? Given that he was of the tribe of Benjamin, could he have referring to members of the tribe of Judah (he has some biblical support there)? Given that the earliest leaders of the Church were from Galilee (remember how Peter was challenge because of his "upstate" accent), could he have meant the residents of Judea in and around Jerusalem? Is there a possibility that even members of the tribe of Judah who lived outside the walls of Jerusalem, even if they were legally in the City's jurisdiction, but living in Judaea, referred to the residents of Jerusalem as Ioudaion, the way we residents of this part of New York City used to say "from New York" to mean Manhattanites?

I don't know. As I said, I am no Greek scholar. Yet I can't help feeling that this insistence on translating every reference to a resident of Judaea, or the tribe of Judah, or an inhabitant of Jerusalem or a Galilean with roots in Judah or Judaea, by the same word "Jews" may be superficially accurate while leaving out a lot of relevant information that the writers of the original meant to convey and simultaneously adding non-intended misinformation.

Take the New York City draft riots of 1863, for instance. A report in 1863 that New Yorkers lynched their fellow New Yorkers would be true. But some precision is missing, and depending on who wrote it this could be a very factual, narrow report or a harangue implicating people hundreds of miles away from the events. Would even contemporaries, without more information, be able to make that distinction?

If a report said "residents of New York City lynched other residents of New York City" it would be more precise but only if written before the other boroughs became part of New York. Thus, a report written less than forty years after the event that said "Residents of New York City lynched their fellow residents" would in some sense be true, but it would now be almost as overbroad and misinformative as the report in 1863 that only mention "New Yorkers."

Suppose that in the 1930s a New Yorker living in California said in a newspaper interview, in reference to those events, "people from New York were lynching blacks in the street." If that interviewee were an octogenarian Staten Islander she or he could either be referring only to the people of Manhattan, or -- since Staten Island had its share of draft rioters -- might be including all residents of the present New York City. She or he would probably not be including residents of Buffalo. But would the California reporter even realize there was a distinction to be made?

That hypothetical octogenarian sounds a lot like the Beloved Disciple who, as a friend of the high priest, probably lived in or around Jerusalem, and who later gave us the Fourth Gospel. Through translation it now stands asthe most anti-semitic sounding of the gospels. And as a New Yorker, as a person from New York, as a resident of New York City, I imagine the Beloved Disciple would have no trouble calling himself a Jew. But when he used the words now translated in each instance as "the Jews," maybe he did not realize that those who took down his words -- or the later readers thereof in translation -- wouldn't understand that when he spoke about the kids from New York who beat up him and his friends, he didn't mean that he wasn't a New Yorker himself who lived in New York when all this happened. And he certainly didn't mean that kids from Long Island or Albany were involved.

"New Yorker" still undergoes change. I get the feeling that ever since New York City was attacked in 2001, even the use of that phrase -- and the pride and mythos with which we New Yorkers (as in residents of New York City, Long Island and parts of Westchester) imbue it -- has been extended to the rest of this large state. When people in the rest of the world, or even more distant parts of the U.S. hear "New Yorker," they probably think resident of New York City. This is fine. It has been pointed out that the quintessential New Yorker that the world has received from Hollywood is probably a Brooklynite. I've been happy to ride on all those coattails of character when I call myself a New Yorker, but there are, unfortunately, some muttered resentments that people upstate really don't get it -- about the World Trade Center attack, I mean. (Hey, I remember when we "went to New York" as kids, this time without asking permission, to sneak into the WTC construction site).

So, in a single lifetime, "New York" and "New Yorker" have undergone some noticeable change in meaning to people in New York (State and City). Now thanks to a disaster, the name is a source of contention. In a little more than a century its meaning to the rest of the world (thanks to shifting borders and Hollywood) has also undergone a substantial change. When you read about Thoreau's time in New York, for instance, remember it was his time on Staten Island, not in New York City.

How then can we even start from a presumption that the word now translated as "Jew"even meant the same thing to the Octogenarian Jew (from either Jerusalem or Galilee), who may have been speaking a second language, remembering events circa 30 A.D, as it did to the people writing down his words circa 90 A.D.? And did it have the same meaning as it did when used by a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin writing circa 50 A.D? Did it have the same meaning to writers and readers before and after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.?

Two hundred years from now, looking at texts, will anyone know that the phrase "New Yorker" just doesn't necessarily apply to all New Yorkers now living or to our descendants?

Why do we insist on translating a single Greek word into the same single English word? It is not as if we are translating poetry and need a monosyllable to keep the meter. Indeed the same Greek word, when used as a proper name, gets translated "Judah," "Judas," or "Jude," depending on the context. It is often said that the reason for the different translations is that these are the English names most familiar to readers. I hope that's not the reason for translating every instance of the same Greek word referring to a group of people as "Jews." That would be like saying we want to make the readings easier on the night of the pogrom.



Copyright © 2005 by John J. Hayes. For reprint permission, or to contact the author, click here.

Note: Café editorials reflect the opinions of their authors: the Café's management and staff, and invited guests. They are not necessarily endorsed by any or all of those who provide the content for our various newsletters.

back to top
to op-ed archives