Jewfish has been the colloquial name for the goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara) for quite some time. Is it still being used? Is this naming a bit out of step with our politically correct times? Do you think that the term is offensive? Have we ‘evolved’ into such a sensitive society that we have lost sight of what is truly important?
Where did the term jewfish come from?
There are a number of theories out there on the origin of this name, some are benign and others offensive. Let’s look, as we must, for the proper context….
This grouper’s common name is quite apt. This species can reach lengths of up to 2.5m and weigh as much as 360kg! It is not surprising that it may be perceived that it was named after a giant. (Goliath was a giant Philistine warrior in the bible story, David and Goliath.) Dr Joe Nelson, chair of the Names of Fishes Committee (USA), made special mention that the grouper was named goliath, meaning large and not Goliath after the Philistine. Was the fish inadvertently connected to Judaism when it was first named?
The Atlantic goliath grouper can be found in the eastern Atlantic Ocean from the Congo to Senegal. In the Americas its range is generally more southerly and extends from Florida Keys, the Bahamas, most of the Caribbean and the majority of the Brazilian coastline. Its location may have more to do with the next theory. This one also stems from a physical attribute of the fish. The goliath grouper has a huge mouth, and the theory goes that it was called “jawfish”. Through southern accents the word morphed into “jewfish”. So it is more a question of semantics than Semitics?
One theory that sits at the far left of the spectrum is that back in the 1800s, goliath groupers, were thought of as trash fish, and a certain sector of society declared it was only fit for Jews. This pretty nasty theory is at odds with the writings of famed explorer, William Dampier (after whom the Dampier Strait in Indonesia was named). In his book A New Voyage Round the World (1697), Dampier shares his journey to Jamaica. Here he encountered the ‘jewfish’. Jamaican Jews claimed the Epinephelus itajara to be the grandest kosher fish. It was proclaimed the grandest for it’s obvious size and it met Levitical Kosher law of being a clean fish by having, scales that are visible with the naked eye and fins. So if this theory is to be believed the name comes from it being a highly prized kosher fish. Nothing negative about that, although the term ‘kosherfish’ would likely not offend to the same extent as ‘jewfish’. There is something unsettling about the juxtaposition of a sacred belief system and the word fish appearing in the same term.
‘Impact’ of change?
The Maryland-based American Fisheries Society received some complaints about the name since the 1960s. This organisation’s Committee on Names of Fishes is the USA’s arbiter of names of fishes. This small group of seven, announced in 2001 that although there was no evidence that the name jewfish is being used offensively, it will nonetheless now be officially known as goliath grouper.
The reactions of prominent members of the Jewish Florida community may surprise many. Quoth Art Teitelbaum of the Anti-Defamation League, “Stereotypes about Jews have resulted in everything from murder to social discrimination. [But] in my experience, the jewfish has never been an energizing factor.” Rabbi Bruce Diamond, a Jewish leader in Fort Myers, “I tell you, in the universe of things that need to change, the name of a big grouper is low on the list. . . . I appreciate their political correctness, but people should think about getting migrant laborers a few more pennies for their tomatoes, do something good for the world. And you got that from the rabbi’s mouth.”
Some may think that the decision by the American Fisheries Society will result in the eventual decline of the term ‘jewfish’. This is unlikely, as the Miami Herald noted, at least nine islands or bodies of water are named after the jewfish. These include Jewfish Point in Los Angeles, Jewfish Creek in the Florida Keys and Jewfish Creek bridge (connecting Florida city and Key Largo). Renaming them would involve actions by state legislatures whom surely have more important concerns to occupy their time. The names of these places will on their own, keep the name jewfish ‘alive’, well at least in the State of Florida.
Perhaps the lesson here should be taken from the Jewish community. Be aware and considerate of sensitive issues however focus on what is important in life. Give your time and energy to things that are truly important and focus where change can have a positive impact on issues that really matter.
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