Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another


Note: That’s Not Schmutz

It’s just Ash Wednesday

Print Email
Priest applying sacramental schmutz.(Wikipedia)

You’re going to be walking around today, at work or on the street or whatever, and you’re going to see people with some schmutz on their foreheads. It will be jarring, and your first instinct, of course, will be to tell them that they have some schmutz on their foreheads; secondarily, you may regret this person is not a close family member, making it inappropriate to grab him, lick the side of your thumb, and rub that schmutz off his forehead. Even after you pass him, you’ll probably continue to think about this schmutz—so dirty! so schmutzy!—for the rest of the day, or at least for a couple more minutes. That is, until you see the next person with some schmutz on her forehead.

So here’s the thing to remember: They want the schmutz there. These people are Christians, probably mostly Catholics, observing Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent (which is sort of like their counting of the Omer) and kicks off the countdown to Easter. Of course, schmutz is still schmutz, whether the person with it wants it there or not. But this is America, and differences are to be respected. Just be glad it’s not you with some schmutz on your forehead.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

I think this is one of the nicest religious traditions there is, particularly in New York City, where people are ordinarily so anonymous.

Steve Stein says:

This schmutz I understand. I even sort of understand the Hindu tilak (dot). But I noticed that my neighbor had a red vertical line down the middle of his forehead one day a few weeks back – I asked about it and he said “it’s a Hindu thing”. But it’s not any Hindu thing I had ever heard of. More to discover!

Jordan says:

If we Jews had a custom of putting ashes on our faces, and a non-Jewish blogger repeatedly called our ashes “shmutz”, I think we (and you) would be pretty offended.

Jillian says:

You must be reading my mind! I have a friend who actually did that (to a friend not a stranger) and every Ash Wednesday I’m reminded of her story. I guess there’s a little Jewish grandmother inside all of us.

elliot cohen says:

Please try to refrain from being overly adolescently snarky about a tradition that is practiced by over a billion of our friends and neighbors. It’s not good or funny.

Chana Batya says:

I agree with Jordan, Gillian and Elliot. This column is offensive. Ash Wednesday begins Lent which is a serious period in the Christian year, and we should respect it. By the way, way way back when Christians were persecuted by the Romans, wearing a sign of being Christian could get you killed, so wearing the ashes is a very strong symbol to them, that they are not only taking on the sacrifice that Jesus did during his 40 days of fasting, but they are willing to be marked as his followers. If you remember when Jewish men tried to cover or undo their circumcision to avoid being identified as such, then, well, all I can say is, please do not make fun of our Christian neighbors.

Good for anyone who, by placing ash on their forehead, is unafraid to proclaim their faith. That is the message I’d prefer to glean from today.

The purpose of the ashes is to remind humanity “dust you are and to dust you will return”. We must concentrate on God and not on things of this earth.

susan says:

This is beyond offensive. It is childish and obnoxious, and I can’t imagine why Tablet’s editors thought it was appropriate to publish.

R. Miller says:

Agree to all of the comments above . . .all Tablet had to say was “if you see one of your neighbors or someone on the street with a black mark on their forehead, here is the story behind it” and then make a reference to a symbol that jews also revere. . . But once again they (Tablet) wanted to create a buzz. . . My Father used to use schmutz all of the time but would have never used it in the way it was today. . .

Jerry Shapiro says:

Does The Tablet print crap like this for a reason? And if it’s to create a “buzz,” well I guess the seven or eight people who read this publication have been suitably buzzed.

Lloyd Gordon says:

My vote: This column is adolescent, stupid and offensive.

Paul Vincent says:

Some idiot thinks he’s being funny here.

Cheryl says:

Incredibly offensive, to say the least. Hey, how about those funny beanies Jews wear on their heads? Or those weird banana curls down the sides of their faces? What’s with the heavy black coats, even in summer? And that flat, cardboard-like stuff that they eat for a week every year?

Just be glad it’s not YOU with the crazy food laws and costumes. Oh, yeah — that’ll sit REAL well.

Martin Haber says:

Mr Tracy,

This piece that you wrote about Ash Wednesday is “shmutz”.
I’m Jewish, and its sarcastic and belittling tone offends ME; I can only imagine how a Catholic reader would feel.
Yiddishisms can be hilarious and even enlightening, but your usage is plain nasty.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Note: That’s Not Schmutz

It’s just Ash Wednesday

More on Tablet:

Rediscovering the First Woman Rabbi

By Laura Geller — Ordained in 1935, Regina Jonas died at Auschwitz. Now, she’s being honored.