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Slips of the Tongue

What the use of Yiddish phrases can tell us about contemporary American Jewry

Ari M. Brostoff
November 18, 2009
(Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine)
(Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine)

The results are in: the words “shpiel” and “klutz” have been thoroughly absorbed into the American vernacular, while “mensch” and “kvetch” remain primarily in the linguistic domain of Jews. A third of Jewish Americans who did not grow up in New York have nonetheless been told that they sound like they’re from that city. Sixty-eight percent of Reform Jews pronounce the word for the annual Jewish harvest festival “soo-COAT,” as Israelis do, while only 34 percent use the Yiddish pronunciation “SUK-kiss”; among the ultra-Orthodox, those numbers are basically reversed. And gay non-Jews use more Yiddish than straight non-Jews, though gay Jews and straight Jews use about the same amount.

These are just a few findings of the Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity, the results of which were published online late last month by linguist Sarah Bunin Benor and sociologist Steven M. Cohen. (The researchers will be giving a webinar on their study tonight; they’re also publishing a more academic version of their report in a linguistics journal later this year.) Dozens of surveys about American Jews have come out the past few decades—most famously, perhaps, the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey that caused alarm in some quarters with its claim that 52 percent of Jews were intermarried—but this is a rare one that shows rather than tells. Instead of asking respondents how religious they are or whether their grandchildren will be Jewish, Benor and Cohen asked questions like, “When you say ‘Mary’ and ‘merry’ in regular speech, do they sound the same or different?” and “How do you refer to the Jewish skullcap?” By hitting the question of Jewish identity at a slant rather than head-on, the researchers have come up with an unusually nuanced portrait of contemporary American Jews.

“Patterns of language use can tell us things about identities and communities that might not even be known to the actors themselves,” said Cohen, who has been conducting Jewish identity surveys of the more direct variety for some four decades. “There are things we can see through the side door that we can’t see through the front door.”

Benor and Cohen’s survey technique, like the questions they asked, was untraditional. Instead of using a random survey sample, they employed a “snowball technique,” emailing the survey to 600 friends in July 2008 and asking respondents to forward it in turn. They make clear in the introduction to their report that this approach has both its advantages and its drawbacks. On the one hand, 41,696 people completed the survey just in the first few weeks of its life on the internet. (You can still take the survey online, though only data from those first 41,696 respondents has already been analyzed.) By contrast, the National Jewish Population Survey, conducted every 10 years by United Jewish Communities (the umbrella group of local Jewish Federations), has a sample size of about 5,000. On the other hand, Benor and Cohen acknowledge, “we know it over-represents Jews with strong Jewish engagement and social ties”—the kind of people most likely to take such a survey of their own volition.

As Benor expected from her previous scholarship (like Cohen, she teaches at Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s seminary, which sponsored the survey), the data suggests that for the most part, American Jews across the religious spectrum draw from the same “repertoire” of distinctive speech elements—that is, they are English speakers who use varying amounts of Yiddish or Hebrew phrasing and grammar to distinguish themselves both from non-Jews and from Jews elsewhere on the spectrum. With the exception of those ultra-Orthodox Jews who use Yiddish as their primary language, Benor said, American Jews fall somewhere on this “continuum of distinctiveness” rather than being separable into different dialect groups.

“My favorite example is ‘gmar cha-tee-MAH to-VAH,’” she said, enunciating each syllable of the traditional Yom Kippur greeting: in English, “may you be inscribed in the book of life.” “That’s the most modern Hebrew pronunciation you can get. Then there’s ‘gmar cha-TEE-mah TO-vah,’ ‘gmar cha-SEE-mah TO-vah,’ and then ‘gmar ch’SEE-mah TOY-vah.” For those in the know, each pronunciation signifies a different spot on the religious continuum: a non-Orthodox Jew would probably use the modern Hebrew pronunciation; as you move along the spectrum of observance, the greeting becomes more Yiddish-inflected.

One of the key findings of the survey was what Benor and Cohen call “the growth of linguistic distinctiveness among the Orthodox.” Distinctive strains of Yiddish-inflected English are not only still in everyday use among younger generations of Orthodox American Jews, their prevalence is growing. Take the phrase, “She’s staying by us,” which borrows a Yiddish grammatical construction to mean, “She’s staying at our place.” Fifty-three percent of Orthodox Jews who took the survey use the phrase (versus 21 percent of non-Orthodox Jews). But a full three quarters of Orthodox Jews between the ages of 18 and 24 use it, compared to 12 percent of Orthodox respondents 75 or older. According to the report, “such words and phrases are so important for Orthodox identity that many baalei teshuva (newly Orthodox Jews) make a conscious effort to incorporate them into their speech, even when some people consider them to be incorrect English.” Observant Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews—whose ancestors never spoke Yiddish in the first place—have adopted Yiddish religious terminology as well.

Benor attributes this to the fact that Orthodox communities have in general become more conservative, politically and culturally, in recent years. “Part of that shift to the right is a linguistic shift: some Jews who used to use less distinct English are now incorporating more Yiddishisms into their English,” she said.

In non-Orthodox Jewish communities, two trends are happening concurrently, the survey found: as members of an older generation die and takes certain language patterns with them, younger Jews are using more Yiddish and Hebrew than before (and certainly more than their more assimilationist parents’ generation did). But the words disappearing and those reappearing aren’t necessarily the same words. Though Jews (and non-Jews) of all ages still say “shmutz” and “mazel tov,” seniors are more likely than their grandchildren to use Yiddishisms like “haimish” (homey), “macher” (big shot), “nu?” (so?), “naches” (pride), and “bashert” (predestined). Where the younger generation is overtaking their grandparents is with religious terminology—Yiddish words like “shul,” “daven,” and “bentch” (for the blessing after meals).

“You see more Jews now identifying as a religious rather than as an ethnic group,” Benor said. “Those Yiddish words that are increasing [in use] have to do with religious life.” Thus, the phenomenon one survey respondent reported: “When I was growing up, I called it Temple. When my children went to Day School, I called it synagogue. I now call it shul. I am not sure why.”

Though Jews across the religious spectrum said they would be likely to consider Hebrew names for their children, baby names are “an important resource for Jews to indicate intra-Jewish differences.” Less observant Jews, they found, are most likely to prefer anglicized biblical names, like Jacob, Ethan, Hannah, or Abigail. Modern Orthodox Jews were most likely to choose modern Hebrew names, like Ezra, Ari, Talia, or Eliana, often substituting them for the equivalent Yiddish names of deceased relatives (so, for example, they might name a daughter Tova, meaning “good” in Hebrew, after a grandmother named Gittel). For the most part, only ultra-Orthodox Jews said they would consider giving a child a Yiddish name like Moyshe, Mendy, or Basya. In one of the survey’s least surprising findings, only two percent of Jews said they’d consider naming their baby Christopher.

Marissa Brostoff, a doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, is a former staff writer at Tablet and the Forward.

Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.