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Yiddish, Ladino and Jewish English: Do American Jews Speak a Jewish Language?

Sarah BenorFilmed at Limmud New York

With the exceptions of Yiddish and Ladino, Jews have tended to pick up the local language after a migration and distinguished themselves through the use of Hebrew words and other unique features, yielding languages like Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-French, and Judeo-Malayalam. American Jews have continued this tradition, using hundreds of Hebrew and Yiddish words and other features that distinguish them from their non-Jewish neighbours and from other Jews. In contrast to some critics’ view of American Jews as the first Diaspora community without a Jewish language, this talk makes the case for “Jewish English,” one of several 21st-century Jewish languages.

Sarah Bunin Benor is Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (Los Angeles campus) and Adjunct Associate Professor in the University of Southern California Linguistics Department. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University in Linguistics in 2004. She is the author of Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism (Rutgers University Press, 2012), as well as many articles about Jewish languages, linguistics, Yiddish, and American Jews. Dr. Benor is founding editor of the Journal of Jewish Languages (Brill), the Jewish Language Research Website, and the Jewish English Lexicon.

How many of you have heard of a language called Yiddish? Ok, it looks like almost everyone raised their hand. How many of you have heard of a language called Ladino? Again, almost everyone has raised their hand. How many of you have heard of a language called Judeo- Malayalam? Nobody. Well, I was the same way. When I was in college I had only heard of Yiddish and Ladino as the two diaspora Jewish languages and one day I was sitting in the library reading an assignment for a class on romance languages when I saw mentions of two additional Jewish languages, Judeo- Italian and Judeo-Portuguese and I was blown away. I closed the book and I said, “This is what I want to do with my life, I want to study Jewish languages.” So I started to do some reading and learned that when the Jews left the land of Israel they went to North Africa, Europe, Asia and even Southern India where Judeo-Malayalam is spoken and they picked up the local languages but they Judeofied them, they spoke Jewish versions, Judeo-French, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Tadjik, Judeo-Persian, etc, etc. Wherever they lived they spoke a Jewish version of the local language and Yiddish and Ladino were actually exceptions in the history of the diaspora because they were maintained for centuries away from their lands of origin. As I continued to do this reading I realised that there was also a trend in the research on Jewish languages that understood that this is the end of a long lasting phenomenon. A linguist wrote; “Widespread shifts to non-Jewish languages throughout the world and to revived spoken Hebrew in Israel are now resulting in the obsolescence of contemporary Jewish languages and putting an end to 2600 years of Jewish language creation.” (Linguist Paul Wexler, 1981). Similarly Leon Wieseltier wrote: The American Jewish community is the first great community in the history of our people that believes that it can receive, develop and perpetuate the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language.” Cultural critic Leon Wieseltier, 2011. Now this made me sad, this notion that we are not continuing the long lasting history of our people and it also just didn’t seem quite right to me because I went to Columbia University where there are a lot of Orthodox students and I was observing the students around me speaking what didn’t quite sound like English, here’s an example; this was from a roommate of mine, a modern orthodox woman “We do all that shtick (routines) to be mesameach (entertain) the chatan (groom) and kalah (bride)”– orthodox student- Columbia University, 1996. Now, is this an English sentence? People who don’t know the Yiddish words, the Hebrew words; and even this what’s called a periphrastic construction to be mesameach somebody, wouldn’t understand this sentence, so I say it’s not just English, it’s Jewish English. Here’s another one, I heard this from a Chabad young man in Northern California; “Whenever you’re shaych (connected) then you can be an eyd (witness) whenever you’re not, you’re not. So why does Rashi (11th Century rabbinic commentator say). That’s cause dina d’malchusa dina (the law of the land is the law). It’s because they’re even if not dina d’malchusa dina. Rashi says later cause al din hu nitstabu bney noyach (all children of Noah are commanded to follow this law). The Goyim (non-Jews) are shaych (connected) to dinim (laws) they’re not shaych (connected) to gitin (laws of divorce). That’s why it’s good.” (Chabad teenager studying Gemara, 1998.) Is that English? Again, it’s Jewish English, not only do we have Yiddish words, Hebrew words, Aramaic phrases but we also have the chanting intonation and have the release of word final t and the de-voicing of final d, the goot instead of good. So now you might be saying, “Well, this is just an Orthodox thing, it’s just Orthodox Jews who speak Jewish English and the rest of us just speak English.” Well here’s something I saw written by a Reform Rabbi, she wrote; “L’shem chinuch (for the sake of education) I am leading a “mock” Seder tomorrow for our Basic Judaism class… I am wondering if anyone out there has already created…an “essence of” Haggadah that is more explanatory than halachic…Thanks in advance for anything you might send my way. I’ll teach it all b’shem omro/omrah (in the name of its speaker)!” (An NY Reform Rabbi writing to a pluralistic Jewish professional email list, 2012.) So, again filled with Hebrew words even though it’s an English sentence and my daughter brought home this newsletter form her conservative Jewish day school in Los Angeles; “Kitah Alef (first grade) finished the letter het this wek….we enjoyed singing Hannukah songs with Morah (teacher) Debby and reciting brachot (blessings) when lighting the candles. 1c LOVES parashat ha-shavua (portion of the week)!!! They are always so curious to know what will happen next in the Torah. Teacher in a Conservative Jewish Day School, Los Angelse, 2011. So now you might be thinking “well, this is just a religious thing, it’s just in educational settings.” Well, here’s another one from an educational setting but from a secular Jewish community called the Sholem community in Los Angeles “A shout-out from Vov (six) class lerer (teacher) Mike to anyone who has a copy of Maus”. Sholem (peace) Community email blast, 2010. So again, they’re using vov and lerer, they’re using instead of Hebrew words this time they’re using Yiddish words to distinguish themselves from other Jews and from other Americans. So we see that this is a very common phenomenon; Jews of diverse backgrounds speak and write English with distinctive features, especially words from Hebrew and Yiddish. We use language to show others not only that we’re Jews but also that we’re a certain type of Jews. So, whether we are Ashkenazi or Sephardi, queer or southern or Eco- Jews or all of the above, we use language to show that we are connected with certain communities, not only the words that we use but even the types of letters that we use to show who we are. Now, of course it’s not just language that we use to do this, it’s also music and dance and food and clothing and so many other things. But I personally like to focus on language because it’s ubiquitous, you can’t get away from it, whenever you open your mouth or even when you choose to remain silent, you are using language to show that you align with some people and distinguish yourself from others. So, with this in mind I decided to do a little bit more research about whether Jews do actually speak a Jewish language and so I looked at a number of other diaspora Jewish languages throughout history and I wanted to see how American Jewish English compares to those. Like other Jewish languages we have a non-Jewish base language in this case English, we have a Hebrew and Aramaic component, we have influences from a previous Jewish language, in this case for the most part, Yiddish and we have a number of other distinctive features including distinctive ways of pronouncing vowels, especially some Orthodox communities and now when anyone tells you that you interrupt too much just tell them, “I’m not interrupting, I’m overlapping.” We do have other distinctive features in our discourse style. In addition, there is another feature common among Jewish languages around the world that American Jews do not share and that is a Hebrew writing system. Jewish languages throughout history have written their language in Hebrew letters for example, this is a translation of Bereishit the beginning of the Torah into Judeo-Persian on the right and this is a translation into Aramaic and judeo-arabic, all using Hebrew letters. This one is Yiddish all in Hebrew letters. We don’t do this in English, we don’t’ write “my name is” with a mem and two yuds right, we don’t do that in English but we do sometimes write English and insert Hebrew words into the English, especially in educational settings but also sometimes, especially in the Orthodox world, in signs, in notes and that kind of thing. We also do this when we want to show our political orientation; if we have an Obama bumper sticker or a Romney button we are showing that we are Obama supporters or Romney supporters, but we’re also showing that we are learned Jews. When we want to show our college colours, that one says Michigan, when we want to show that we are sports fans; whether you’re a Yankees fan or a Mets fan there’s always a Hebrew shirt or hat for you. So, now some people say that because contemporary Jews don’t write their languages in Hebrew letters, then their languages don’t count as Jewish languages. And some say that and because Jewish English is not as distinct as Yiddish and ladino, it doesn’t count as a Jewish language and my response to that is that we need a new understanding of Jewish languages. My understanding is that Jews tend to speak the local languages with the selective use of a repertoire of distinctive features and Yiddish and ladino are exceptions in Jewish linguistic history of Jewish languages because they were maintained for centuries away from their lands of origin. So with this new understanding we can talk about a continuum of linguistic distinctiveness. Some Jewish languages are very, very similar to the local non-Jewish languages, some are extremely distinct and some are in the middle. So where do American Jews fall on this continuum? All over it. On the least distinct side we have many secular Jews who speak English exactly like their non-Jewish friends and neighbours with maybe the addition of few Yiddish words here and there like bris, yurtzheit candle, that kind of thing. And then we have religious non- Orthodox Jews who do speak English just like this non-Jewish friends and neighbours but also throw in many Hebrew and Yiddish words, especially in in group settings and then we have Orthodox Jews who use a number of Yiddish and Hebrew words and also grammatical influences from Yiddish and distinctive ways of pronouncing vowels and consonants and other distinctive features. And finally, akin to Yiddish and ladino in Slvick and Balkan lands, we have Hasidic Yiddish, which is maintained as a very separate language from the English language of the majority of Americans. So my answer is yes, American Jews do speak a Jewish Language and Jews around the world also speak contemporary Jewish languages throughout Europe; Latin America and the former British Empire. So my message to you is that language connects us to other Jews; our local Jewish community our world Jewish community and our historical Jewish community and as you continue throughout this conference and other Jewish events I want you to keep your ear out for how American Jews speak Jewish English and how they do this in a way that presents them, not only as Jews but also as certain types of Jews and my assignment for you is to go to my website The Jewish English Lexicon and see a database of Hebrew and Yiddish and Ladino and other distinctive words that American Jews use and also to add to it, to edit the entries that are there, it’s a Wikipedia style site and you can see a lot of these words and who uses them, whether they’re used by camp Jews or organisational Jews or Orthodox Jews or Sephardic Jews, all different types of Jews. And I hope that this talk has given you a new perspective on Jewish languages and shown that American Jews, do in fact, have a lot in common with our ancestors throughout history. Thank you

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