How do we recognize and respond to the power of our words?

From the first chapter of Genesis (“God said, ‘Let there be light!'”) to the nine little aramaic words that create a newly-married couple, Jewish tradition is full of examples of the power of words to create and change reality.  To form connections or create distance. To harm or to heal.

In contemporary American culture, from the locker room to the school hallway to the halls of congress to their twitter feeds, teenage boys see and feel the tension between the need for self-expression, and the desire to create communities of inclusion.

This session will allow teen boys to explore the limits – and ramifications – of the words they choose to embrace, or refrain from using.


  • For guys to explore and consider the evolving use of particular words in American culture
  • For guys to become aware of the impact their words have on others
  • For guys to learn the value Jewish tradition places on the spoken word

Physical Activities

#1 Play Taboo

This classic Hasbro game (apparently there’s a Jewish version, too) forces the boys to feel the frustration of being limited in their choice of words. Break into teams, and rotate who gets to watch the clock and use the buzzer.

Debrief Questions:

  • What was it like to have certain choices taken away?
  • What was it like to be forced to be creative and come up with a new way of describing something?
  • How did it feel to buzz someone for using a “forbidden” word?
  • Was it fun to “censor” someone from the other side? Why?

#2 Silent Introductions

Everyone finds a partner, and takes takes turns telling their partner a few important biographical details about themselves (plays tennis, hates pizza, just got into accelerated math, etc). The twist – neither person can speak (noises & pantomimes are allowed)! The biographer can take notes, and then when the whole group gets back together, everyone shares their partner’s “biography,” as best they can, and their subject can correct and explain what their non-verbal cues really meant.

#3 Object formation (adapted from

Divide boys into pairs. Give them each a unique phrase that they need to somehow create with their bodies without talking. They should hold their position until you give them the OK for the next item. Good starter “tasks” include: fork and knife, peanut butter and jelly, bee and flower, train and station but have fun coming up with your own!

Insider Tips:

  • Keep them focused on their own creations rather than looking around at what others are doing.
  • After getting a few under their belt, ask each pair to find another pair to work with and give them larger cues (i.e., “group of puppies,” “table and chairs,” “automobile and garage”). Put them in one big group and do the same (i.e., “muffins and tin,” “high school theater production,” “nursery school classroom”).

Cognitive Activities


#1 What makes words harmful?

Lenny Bruce:

Jay Smooth:

Ninja Say What:

Like a Girl:

#2 What’s in a Name?

 Spanish Village May Change “Jew Killer” Name

The village of Castrillo Matajudios in northern Spain will gather its 60 families at a town hall meeting next week to discuss and vote on whether to change the village’s name. Mayor Lorenzo Rodriguez, who submitted the proposal, suggested changing the village’s name to Castrillo Mota de Judios, which means “Castrillo Jews’ Hill.” He said this was the village’s original name, but it was changed during the Spanish Inquisition.

In parts of Spain, and especially in the north, locals use the term “killing Jews” (matar Judios) to describe the traditional drinking of lemonade spiked with alcohol at festivals held in city squares at Easter, or drinking in general. Leon will hold its “matar Judios” fiesta on Good Friday, April 18, where organizers estimate 40,000 gallons of lemonade will be sold.

The name goes back to medieval times, when converted Jews would sometimes be publicly executed in show trials at around Easter. “Regrettably, this type of expression exists in Spain in ceremonies and parties,” said a spokesperson from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, but added that “the people saying it are mostly unaware of the history. It is a complicated issue that is ingrained in local culture.” Given the popularity of the expression, “it is impossible to forbid this language” in that context, she added.

Last month, Ramon Benavides, the president of a local associations of hoteliers, told the news agency EFE: “When ’killing Jews,’ it’s best to take it slow and keep track of how much you drink to avoid excesses and its consequences the next day.”      – (JTA, April 11th, 2014)

For the full article: Click Here

Here, it’s the Redskins. Across the pond, it’s the Yids.

Even as National Football League football fans in the United States have been debating whether the Washington, D.C., team should change its ethnically charged name, football fans in the United Kingdom — where football means soccer — have been having a similarly heated conversation. But over there, the provocative moniker under national discussion — which has reached the highest levels of government — is not the team’s official name, but its nickname: North London’s Tottenham Hotspurs are called the “Yids” by fan and foe alike.

“You’ve got Native Americans campaigning against what they see as an appropriation of their culture that is insulting to them,” said Jonathan Wilson, a Jewish and British-born writer who describes his lifelong love of the Spurs in a recently published memoir, “Kick and Run.” “And you’ve got part of the Jewish community complaining about the ‘Yid’ chant.’”

The first to apply “Yids” to the Spurs were opposing fans hurling the word as an epithet, said Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, the U.K.’s oldest and largest Jewish newspaper, and a Spurs season ticketholder.

“It emanates from the fact that Tottenham is known for various reasons for being a Jewish team,” Pollard said. “People would yell ‘Yids’ at Tottenham, so they turned it around and used it as a badge of honor.”
“Yids” became Hotspur’s established, albeit unofficial, nickname in the late 1970s, Wilson said.

-Helen Chernikoff, The Jewish Week, November 13th, 2013

For the full article: Click Here

#3 Debate

Label one side of the room, “Never appropriate” and the other side, “Completely useable.” Have participants stand closer to one side or the other for the following terms. For each word, have the boys place themselves along the spectrum three separate times:  first if the word is said by an outsider to an outsider, second if it’s spoken by an outsider to an insider, and finally if it’s used by an insider to another insider:

  • Kike
  • Homo
  • Nigger
  • Bitch
  • Retard
  • Faggot
  • Ho
  • Lame
  • Gay
  • Slut
  • Rag-head


Jewish Texts

Text #1

“Death and life are in the power of language, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”

– Prov. 18:21

What is the meaning of: Death and life are in the power (lit: “the hand”) of language (lit: “the tongue”)?  Does the tongue have ‘a hand’? It tells you that just as the hand can kill, so can the tongue.

– B. Talmud Arachin 15b</block quote>
Questions for these texts:

Text #2

Do you agree with these texts?
How can the “tongue” kill?

Each one of God’s statements during Creation is the soul and life-force of the thing that was created with it.

–  Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821), Nefesh haChaim 3:11

Questions for this text:

Text #3

And The Eternal God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky and brought them to the human to see what he would call them; and whatever the human called each living creature, that would be its name. And the human gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts.

– Genesis 2:19-20

Then God asked him, “And you, what shall be your name?” He answered, “Adam.” God persisted,” Why?” And he explained, “Because I have been created from the ground.” The Holy One, blessed be God, asked him, “And I, what is My name?” Adam replied, “Adonai.” “Why?” “Because you are master (Adon) over all created beings.” Therefore it is written, “I am Adonai, that is My name.” , which means, “That is the name by which Adam called Me; it is the name that I have accepted for Myself.”

– Numbers Rabbah 19:3

Questions for these texts:

What is the power of a name?
Does a nickname have the same power?

Emotive Activities

Consider the following questions:

  1. How does your choice of words change, depending on whom you’re with?
  2. What were you concerned about? Why?
  3. Think about a time when someone else’s words deeply affected you.
  4. Was it a hurtful experience? An inspiring life-changing one? Why?

Answer one of these questions with a partner or in the group.

Closing Ritual


What does it mean to have our words really heard? To have others recognize us by our true names? In Hebrew, “Dibarti” means, “I have spoken,” and “Shamati” means, “I have heard.” Sitting in a circle, have each boy say their full name (including middle name!). Then they say, “Dibarti” and everyone answers “Shamati.” Alternatively, you could invite each boy to share a nickname that expresses who they really are, and then follow with Dibarti/Shamati.