Race and Ethnicity

On Jewish Vulgarity With John Murray Cuddihy’s ‘The Ordeal of Civility’

Tablet begins a three-part look at the once-vibrant Jewish trait of not caring what the goyim think


David Mikics
December 13, 2022

The charge that Jews are vulgar now seems almost quaint, since antisemites have heavier weapons in their repertoire, like calling Jews settler colonialists, white racist warmongers, and bloodsucking masters of Hollywood and the entire universe alike. Yet Jewish lack of manners was once taken seriously both by Jews and by their gentile neighbors and competitors. The vulgar, unmannerly Jew was a countercultural force, and not just a reason for shame and repression.

It took a lapsed Irish Catholic CUNY sociologist named John Murray Cuddihy to make the case for Jewish vulgarity, in his book The Ordeal of Civility, published in 1974. The Ordeal of Civility, which is something of a cult classic, is long out of print. In its time the book was notorious: Here was a non-Jew talking about vulgar Jews, as if this were a real thing. Clapping the lid over such a shonda was the primary task of some reviewers, who hinted that Cuddihy must be an antisemite.

It is bad manners to talk about Jewish bad manners the way Cuddihy did— and even more so today than 50 years ago. But his book made a powerful case that Cuddihy did not see vulgarity as a flaw but instead as a weapon Jews used to disrupt gentile society—for which he admired them. Jews deployed their rudeness to make a principled argument against the goyim (a word Cuddihy didn’t shy away from), who were cultural prisoners of a hypocritical code that swept unruly emotions under the rug and leaned on polite euphemism to conceal the vampiric nature of capitalist exploitation. The grand Marxist and Freudian theories about the human condition have a crude Jewish impulse at their core, Cuddihy argued, which makes them more, not less, compelling.


Categories: Race and Ethnicity

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