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Long Live Jewish English!

It is good and healthy for a community to have an insider language like ‘Yeshivish’

by
Eliezer Lawrence
August 03, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

“I can tell she was speaking English, but I have no idea what she said,” said my friend Mike, a broad-shouldered Catholic man of German and Italian stock. It was 2010, he was visiting me at college, and he had accompanied me to the Orthodox minyan. In the sermon, my fellow student had, while speaking mostly standard English, used terms like “Sefer Bereshis,” for the Book of Genesis, and “Avrohom Avinu,” for the patriarch Abraham. It was terminology no non-Jew could be expected to know; indeed, these are words few nonobservant Jews in America could use fluently.

I wasn’t embarrassed by Mike’s noncomprehension; I actually found his confusion gratifying. There was something mystical about the notion of “in-speak,” the existence of a world-within-a-world. My ability to show Mike how I and other observant Jews lived natively made me especially proud on that day. I certainly didn’t want to exclude Mike. On the contrary, I was glad to include him in an experience of authenticity.

Mike and I had met in high school, where we bonded over our devotion to our respective faiths and our passion for singing. As one of the few observant Jews in this suburban public high school, I found myself needing to translate ideas and concepts of faith and culture—and I wanted to. I wanted to be a bridge between two worlds. That project was, at times, complicated by my inclination to say things like “baruch Hashem,” in response to good news, the insertion of “davka” as a point of emphasis, or “shkoyach” as an expression of praise or gratitude. While, to my delight, my closest friends did catch on, and would even throw in a “baruch Hashem at the appropriate moment, my desire for uninhibited expression interfered with my ability to be understood by the greater non-Jewish world.

And yet, I would not have traded that authentic expression for anything. Nor would I today. My Jewish culture, experience, and faith cannot adequately be expressed in the imperial language of the majority-Christian population of Anglo North America or in the non-Jewish majority languages of other countries. Jews across continents and societies have persisted in our ability to maintain thick Jewish cultural identities not by blending in, but by inflecting local languages with uniquely Jewish grammar and smatterings of previous Jewish languages, to create Jewish fusion languages. In the United States, this linguistic phenomenon is known academically as Judeo-English, and to many of its most devout speakers as “Yeshivish.” As an observant Jew living as a minority, I am committed to speaking English Jewishly, and I refuse to apologize, or change. Judeo-English is not going anywhere, and no matter what its critics say, it shouldn’t. There are over a million speakers of Judeo-English in America, and it is a mode of discourse as central to our community as, say, Black English is to many Black Americans.

And while at times Judeo-English separates me from my friends and fellow citizens, that’s OK—we have history on our side! The underpinnings of Yeshivish started over 2,500 years ago, with the Jewish form of Aramaic called Targumic, the catchall for the language of the Talmud, Aramaic sections of the Bible, and select Jewish prayers such as the Kaddish. Targumic was the Jewish people’s first fusion language, and it formed as a direct result of the conquest of the Levant, and the subsequent diaspora of Jews from the Hebrew-speaking Land of Israel. Judeo-Aramaic developed to be distinct, lexicologically and grammatically, from that of its standard non-Jewish counterpart, Imperial Aramaic. When Jewish elites returned from Babylonia, their Jewish versions of Aramaic dominated among the upper class of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. This Aramaic, which already had unique Hebrew loan words, concepts, and grammar, was eventually reinfused into what remained of spoken and written Hebrew; this is the Hebrew of the Mishna (circa 200 CE). Over time, as the Jews were dispersed, this Hebrew and Aramaic fusion, known as “leshon hakodesh,” the holy language, accompanied emigrants and exiles to the various diaspora Jewish communities and fed into various subsequent Judeo languages, like Judeo-Greek (Yavanic), Judeo-Arabic (Yahudic), and Judeo-Spanish (Ladino)—the list could go on.

While most Jews have been severed from this linguistic tradition, in many segments of Orthodox and Orthodox-adjacent communities this millennia-old phenomenon lives on, in all the richness of its linguistic predecessors. When half of the world’s Yiddish-speakers ended up in America and the greater English-speaking-world, the leshon hakodesh element transported by Yiddish, along with Yiddish’s unique cultural expression, mixed with the preexisting Jewish cultures and took root, forming the Jewish English that my friend Mike found so difficult to comprehend. Today, Yeshivish is the English you hear in Haredi communities like those of Monsey, New York, and Lakewood, New Jersey. A lighter variant (the one I speak) is spoken in modern Orthodox enclaves like Teaneck, New Jersey, and Riverdale, New York.

Like many sociolects of minority communities, Judeo-English exists on a spectrum, and the term “Judeo-English” need not be confined to the description of only observant Ashkenazi Jews. Linguist Sarah Bunin Benor has created a lexicological database of Judeo-English. This highly organized, detailed database includes entries not only on the speech of the New York area’s Orthodox community but on usages in communities ranging from “Jews who attend or work at a Jewish overnight summer camp” to “Jews with recent ancestry in Syria.” That is to say, while Judeo-English might be most structurally and grammatically complex in a Lakewood yeshiva, idiolectical forms of Jewish English are being spoken at Camp Ramah and in local Jewish Federation buildings across North America by involved, but decidedly non-Orthodox, Jews.

It is good and healthy for a community to have an insider language. In-speak forges group identity and serves to protect and reinforce essential cultural markers and knowledge. So what should that in-speak be for American Jews? Not, despite what some may wish, modern Hebrew. I say that as a passionate speaker and teacher of Hebrew and as a graduate student studying Hebrew-language pedagogy and acquisition. The truth is, one can only have native fluency in a language in which one can truly experience all facets of life—even the most mundane of transactions. Children born to Israelis living in America who grow up speaking Hebrew as a heritage language may have passing Israeli accents, but they are not native Hebrew speakers. Can they open a checking account in Hebrew? Can they write a persuasive essay in Hebrew? Can they comment in Hebrew on racial inequality? Perhaps some can, to an extent, but the fact that they (and the rest of North American Jewry) are not living in an environment of total language immersion precludes the majority from attaining native proficiency if they are to remain outside of Israel.

However, since North American Jews overwhelmingly speak English natively, they may more realistically attain deeper Jewish literacy and engagement by speaking the Jewish version of English, which contains the extensive and necessary lexicon of religious concepts, cultural thought, and leshon hakodesh to lead a sustainable Jewish life. The richness and complexity of Judeo-English expression is no different from the uniquely Jewish languages spoken throughout the millennia, whether by the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic masters of Eastern Europe, the Ladino-speaking Sephardic sages of Turkey, or the Targumic-speaking communities of Northern Iraq and Kurdistan. These communities persisted not because they spoke Hebrew, but because they spoke a native language that, nonetheless, contained the essential liturgical lexicon.

Jewish continuity is best served by accepting the reality of diaspora, in which Jewish literacy and identity persists when in conversation with, yet distinct from, the discourse of the non-Jewish culture; this allows for both a cultural and locational sense of nativeness—natively Jewish and natively English-speaking. While Judeo-English itself is by no means a replacement for classical Hebrew literacy, nor is it necessarily a basis for strong connection with modern Israel and Israelis (which is desirable), these Jewish English dialects do represent a living, breathing North American Judaism that should be appreciated in its own right. Judeo-English as a whole, like the Jewish fusion languages of the past, is an expression of Jews living and communicating natively, without compromise.

The case for Jewish English is, of course, not without its challenges, especially for Jews aspiring to get access to the cultural and religious life of observant Judaism. Being unfamiliar with the “lingo” can leave people feeling excluded. Thus, speakers of Judeo-English must recognize this fact as a call to action to be more sensitive and patient as they engage the uninitiated; without compromising our linguistic integrity, Judeo-English-speaking communities must embrace radical kindness and welcome, inspiring those who seek entry to ask questions, take risks, and to learn through exposure. When someone shows up at the Shabbat table who does not know what “this week’s sedra” is, the hosts must include an appositive “Torah portion,” so that everyone at the table can follow along. At the same time, standard-English-speaking Jews who wish to access traditional community and spiritual life must answer this ancestral call while working through potential feelings of exclusion. Both sides must endure a little discomfort—as any good host or guest is willing to do.

This balance, and the ability to code-switch to the standard dialect, is, thankfully, already a widely documented and often conscious choice among speakers of minority dialects such as Spanglish or Black English; the deliberate “neutralization” of the nonstandard components of a dialect when the need arises also has a well-rooted tradition within Jewish-language history. Among Yiddish speakers of the 19th and 20th centuries for example, if one felt the need to sound more non-Jewish, one spoke daytchmerish, literally “more German-like.” This phenomenon can similarly be observed among speakers of Judeo-English; we are constantly adjusting and adapting our expression to our surroundings. When the Hasidic storekeeper at a Judaica shop welcomes a young woman wearing a yarmulke into his store, he will surely point her to his large selection of “tallitot,” the modern Hebrew-adjacent plural for “tallit” often used among affiliated progressive Jews, as opposed to tallesim,” the Yiddish-derived plural used among many yeshiva-educated Ashkenazi Jews, which the shop owner would undoubtedly use when conversing with his fellow Hasidim.

And if someone else, perhaps without any identifiable sign of religion, were to enter the same shop to ask for a “Jewish scarf” to wear to his nephew’s bar mitzvah, the shopkeeper might reply, “Certainly, the ‘prayer shawls’ are over there.” But the path forward requires an additional step—unabashed teaching. “The Jewish scarves? Yes, we call them tallesim, some call them tallitot, and they are over there! Come, let me show you. You know, tallesim are traditionally much larger than scarves; here, I’ll show you some different sizes. You see these fringes at the corners? They are called tztitzis or tzitzit and they are not just for decoration … “

We need to be open about our dialect, acknowledge that we speak one, and discuss it with pride. Yeshivish represents a rich, vibrant, unique cultural flourishing, and a proudly lived identity in a multimillennia chain of Jewish linguistic expression, since the first diaspora. For example, while in standard English “to bench” means to take a sports player out of a game, in Judeo-English “to bentch” means to recite the grace or blessing after meals. This word entered the Judeo-English lexicon by way of Yiddish, but its Jewish origins predate Yiddish. "Bentch,” in fact, comes from the Latin word benedictiō (we may know the English gloss “benediction”). This word, among other Latin-derived Yiddish and Judeo-English words, was brought to Loter—the French-German borderlands, and a cradle of Yiddish—by Jews who migrated through Loez, Southern France, and Northern Italy. The preservation of this Judaized Latin word in Judeo-English is a transformative journey through time.

If, in the service of being seemingly less exclusionary, we simply said “to say grace,” we would uproot a millennium of oral transmission—and lose accuracy. Back in high school, if Mike were to see me whispering to myself after I ate lunch, I might have struggled to describe exactly what I was engaged in. While the English words “blessing” and “grace” are not necessarily timebound—a key concept in Halacha, Jewish law—“bracha” and “bentching” are; in the context of eating, a “bracha” is the blessing one makes prior to consumption, where as “bentching” or making a “bracha achrona" is specifically bound to the grace after the meal. It actually means what I want it to say, and I should have been happy to teach Mike that. We all need to teach each other more, not say less.

Eliezer Lawrence is a rabbi , mohel, and Jewish educator who studies Hebrew language acquisition.

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