Perhaps faygele has had trouble shedding its old-world roots because it is armed with such an impressively loaded and complicated history. The diminutive of the Yiddish fogel, meaning bird, faygele is derived from the German word for bird, vogel. According to Miriam Hoffman, professor of Yiddish Language at Columbia University, Jewish mothers in Eastern Europe would use faygele as a “cute little pet name” for their children, a term that, oddly, doubled as a playful name for their little boys’ penises.
Faygele served still other purposes. Gennady Estraikh, professor of Yiddish Studies at New York University, says it was used in Eastern Europe as a checkmark in a list, explaining that a check mark calls to mind the gentle, airborne feel of a little bird. Estraikh says that faygele was also used to describe over-dressed women. “These were women who dressed much like the stereotypical gay male,” he says, musing, “perhaps there was a connection.” And like a linguistic colonialist, faygele even entered the exclusive sphere of children’s names. Hoffman says faygele was popular as a [little] girl’s name in Eastern Europe but never, she says, embraced as a boy’s name, since the word’s homosexual implications were already starting to emerge.
But it wasn’t until faygele was thrown into the rough hands of New York Jewish teenagers at the turn of the 20th century that faygele become the derogatory term for homosexual or effeminate males. In Russia, the word for homosexual was homoseksualist, but that was “too long and technical to make for a good homophobic slur,” Hoffman says. Faygele, which rolls off the tongue like a sweeter, gentler version of faggot, made a convenient replacement.
In the New England gay magazine, In Newsweekly, writer Larry La Founatin-Stokes notes that the bird-gay connection has been cropping up in languages throughout history. In Cuba, the word for little bird, pajarito, is commonly used to describe effeminate males and, in Puerto Rico, the word for duck, pato, is synonymous with America’s faggot. In England, “duckie” is a common derogatory term for gay males.
Despite faygele’s adopted American definition, it’s clear that the word is still searching for a linguistic home. According to Catherine Madsen of the Yiddish Book Center, the term seems to be shuttling back and forth, like a refugee, between the new and old worlds, sometimes used playfully and, at other times, spoken with a breath of malice. Leo Rosten, author of The Joys of Yiddish, describes how faygele can even be used as an aid in inner-Jewish gossip. “Jews use faygele as their own discreet way of describing a homosexual-especially where they might be overheard,” Rosten says.
In recent decades, faygele has sprung from the confines of the sneering Hebrew school and made its way into popular American culture. In the 1993 film Robin Hood: Men in Tights, when Rabbi Tuckerman (Mel Brooks) is confronted by Robin and his “men in tights,” Brooks flaps his hand suggestively and asks, “Faygeles?” In a TBS airing of the movie, however, faygele was blipped out while the more repugnant “schmuck” was uttered loud and clear-firm evidence that America was not yet ready for the word.
Hollywood took another shot at the word in the 2002 episode of Will and Grace entitled “Faygele Attraction,” in which one of Will’s admirers (Michael Douglas) poses as a detective to get closer to Will during the faux investigation of Will’s missing laptop. Faygele’s more recent cameo came in the 2004 teen-pleaser Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, in which Harold and Kumar’s Jewish friend, Rosenberg, mocks the protagonists’ air-tight bond by calling Kumar a faygele.
But it has been the gay crowd, not the Hollywood media hounds, who have done the most to push faygele into the public eye. They have reclaimed faygele as their own in much the way gays previously salvaged the word “queer.” In a Village Voice article, Lorin Sklamberg, the openly gay lead singer of The Klezmatics, says that gays are open to the word faygele simply because it does not sound as harsh or mean-spirited as similar appellations. “It’s kind of a sweet word that is never said with much rancor,” he said.
He further explained that gays have always been attracted to the “outsider” status of Yiddish culture, finding comfort in its language and music.
Perhaps the single most dramatic move in the faygele revival was made in 1973 by the leader of Seattle’s gay civil rights movement, who laid claim to the word faygele, in the most literal sense, by legally changing his name from John Singer to Faygel BenMiriam. In more recent years, two Washington, DC gay bars have established a popular game show, “Faygele Feud,” emceed by Esther Goldberg, a Jewish drag queen with rhinestone glasses and a shock of red hair.
Faygele might be the latest in “drag queen catcalls” but it doesn’t seem quite ready for its new role.
Even when shouted across a gay club, the word still comes off like an affectionate jingle trying to find its way back to everything it has left behind.
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[ Here ] are some of the super articles in the current issue (now beside my bed)
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Yay ~ A comic combining two of my faves ~ The Smother Brothers and things Jewish
Disregarding the fact that the B.C. comic frequently is xian proslethyzic... um, is that even a word?