Jeremy Shere: So we're going to do something a little different to begin this episode. We're going to do a pop quiz. Ready? Name at least five Jewish languages. That’s five Jewish languages. And while you're pondering, here's a little classic game show music.
And… pencils down. Okay, so what did you come up with? You probably got Hebrew and Yiddish, and maybe Ladino. But after that, it gets really hard, right? Before doing research for this episode, if I'd been asked to name any more than 3 Jewish languages, I probably would have drawn a blank. I mean, how many Jewish languages are there? Well, as it turns out, a lot more than you think.
Sarah Bunin Benor: Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Provençal, Judeo-French ...
Jeremy Shere: This is Sarah Bunin Benor, a Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.
Sarah Bunin Benor: …Judeo-Aramaic, Jewish Neo-Aramaic, Judeo-Berber…
Jeremy Shere: Those are only a few of the more than twenty languages Benor lists on her website, jewishlanguages.org. There's also Haketia, Jewish Malayalam, Jewish Aramaic, Judeo-Persian, Jewish Swedish, even Jewish English.
Now you may be thinking, “Hold on a sec, can you simply stick the word ‘Jewish’ or ‘Judeo’ in front of a language and call it a Jewish language? Is Jewish Swedish a Jewish language in the same way that Hebrew or Yiddish or Jewish languages? According to Benor ,it depends.
Sarah Bunin Benor: If you're thinking of a Jewish language as only something that is distinct enough from the language of their non-Jewish neighbors to be a mutually unintelligible — that they, the Jews and the non-Jews, can't understand each other — then perhaps we would say that Yiddish is a Jewish language, because it was spoken in a territory where Polish or Ukrainian or Belarussian was spoken.
Jeremy Shere: But most Jewish communities around the world have spoken languages that are more similar to the languages their non-Jewish neighbors speak, such as Judeo-Greek and Greek, Judeo-Italian and Italian, Judeo-Arabic and Arabic.
Sarah Bunin Benor: Each of these has differences from the non-Jewish language spoken around them…
Jeremy Shere: …especially Hebrew words and differences in pronunciation, intonation, and syntax. But the question of whether it's a separate language or not is really one of extent, rather than kind. So what makes a language a Jewish language really depends on how you define the concept of language itself.
Maybe it's more accurate to think of some Jewish languages as more like dialects or variants. It's an ongoing discussion among Jewish language scholars, and we'll return to it later in the episode.
For now, it's worth considering why this stuff matters. Why should we care about how what we're calling Jewish languages evolved throughout the Diaspora? As you'll hear from Benor and other scholars, studying Jewish languages reveals a lot about how Diaspora Jewish communities functioned as both distinctly Jewish and as part of the societies among whom they lived.
In this episode, we're going to look at three Jewish languages — Judeo-Tat, Judeo-Tajik, and Jewish English — and explore their history, their legacy, and what they mean and have meant for the Jews who speak them.
According to legend, the so-called “Mountain Jews” of Azerbaijan and the Russian Republic of Dagestan have ancient, even biblical roots.
Vitaly Shalem: So one of the traditions claims that the Mountain Jews are actually the descendants of the ten tribes exiled from the kingdom of Israel, and settled in Media in 722 before Christ.
Jeremy Shere: This is Vitaly Shalem. He was born and raised in the Eastern Caucuses, and as a scholar of Judeo-Tat, the traditional language of the Jews of that region, he says that the historical, cultural, and linguistic evidence suggests that the Mountain Jews probably came originally from Jewish communities in Persia, or modern-day Iran.
Vitaly Shalem: And at some point in its history, it relocated to the Caucuses and it was isolated in a way, not completely isolated. And then it developed as a separate community
Jeremy Shere: And as the community developed, it began to evolve a Jewish version of the local language called Tat, which is a dialect of Persian. Here's an example of what Judeo-Tat sounds like in the form of a folk song.
[clip from song]
Until the early 20th century, songs and poems composed in Judeo-Tat were not written down. But Judeo-Tat did give rise to a rich oral tradition.
Vitaly Shalem: One of the genres was mäni, songs. And the songs could be very different, going from love poetry, you know, love songs, to lullabies performed by women.
Jeremy Shere: The richest sub-genre, Shalem says, was wedding poetry,
Vitaly Shalem: There is a wide range of wedding songs. Humorous, serious, sad, because you know, the bride leaves the father's house, and then the songs can actually describe how hard it is for her to go to a different family, and so on.
Jeremy Shere: Judeo-Tat culture also developed a vibrant folklore, with stories about heroes, magical animals, and everyday people.
Vitaly Shalem: For example, the everyday tales were about a guy whose name was Shimi Darbandi…
Jeremy Shere: …who was like the Mountain Jewish version of the shlemiel in Yiddish folklore. And there were also stories about biblical figures,
Vitaly Shalem: Samson, Joseph, King Solomon, Moses…
Jeremy Shere: The first books written in Judeo-Tat were published during the first decade of the 20th century.
One was a translation of a book about Zionism originally written in Russian by the Zionist leader and writer Yosef Sapir. The first literary works published in Judeo-Tat were plays, performed by amateur theater groups. And Judeo-Tat newspapers that began to appear during the beginning of the Soviet era in the early 1920s published some modern Judeo-Tat poetry.
Vitaly Shalem: Very often the subjects of the poems were about politics, about things that are related to politics. And so, economic life and things like that, not necessarily love poetry.
Jeremy Shere: After a lull from 1940 until the early 1960s, Judeo-Tat literature had its last significant creative period.
Vitaly Shalem: Sergey Izgiyaev is the one worth mentioning, because in my opinion, he wrote the most beautiful love poetry in Judeo-Tat. And he also participated in World War II, and many poems are actually about this experience
Jeremy Shere: But Judeo-Tat had been declining as an everyday language since the rise of the Soviet regime. In the 1920s, Russian became the official language of the region, which discouraged the use of other languages, including Judeo-Tat.
Vitaly Shalem: To speak Russian without an accent was seen as a very strong advantage. And that's why I think that many parents actually preferred that the children don't speak Judeo-Tat and they don't learn Judeo-Tat, so that the Russian that they learn is better and cleaner and sounds more native.
Jeremy Shere: By the 1950s, most Mountain Jews were already bilingual and spoke Judeo-Tat as a second language, or as a sort of code when they didn't want their kids to understand what they were saying. Shalem experienced this firsthand, growing up in the region.
Vitaly Shalem: My parents, they never spoke Judeo-Tat to me. It was their secret language.
Jeremy Shere: Instead, he learned the language from his grandmother.
Vitaly Shalem: And when I spent some time with her, when I was around seven or eight years old, something like one or two months, and then I came back home, all of a sudden the secret language was not secret anymore. I could understand already what my parents were talking about.
Jeremy Shere: Some families did make a point of speaking Judeo-Tat to their kids, in a conscious effort to preserve the language. But outside the home, the vocabulary just wasn't broad enough or modern enough to compete with other languages.
Vitaly Shalem: Once you go out and you have to speak about subjects that are not just everyday life, something more complicated than just household or basic things, and then you don't have enough words. You don't have enough capability of this language that can actually serve you when you talk about these subjects.
Jeremy Shere: And so Mountain Jews naturally turned to Russian and Azerbaijani.
Today, there's only one Jewish settlement, called Qəsəbə, in the outskirts of the city of Quba in Northeastern Azerbaijan, where Judeo-Tat is spoken as an everyday language. The settlement dates back to the 18th century.
Vitaly Shalem: It doesn't have very many people that live there, but still several thousand, like three, four thousand. And in this settlement, people still speak Judeo-Tat on a daily basis, for everyday life. And the children still learn from their parents.
Jeremy Shere: But the population of Qəsəbə is declining, all but guaranteeing that the transmission of Judeo-Tat will decline too.
Judeo-Tat is designated as an endangered language. And the Judeo-Tat literary tradition has mostly petered out. Jewish writers from Azerbaijan now write mostly in Russian, Azerbaijani, or Hebrew. Some Mountain Jews or their descendants who now live in Brooklyn, Moscow, and other places have made efforts to keep Judeo-Tat going, by organizing language classes and compiling dictionaries, the best of which, according to Shalem, was published in 2010. For Shalem, who works full-time in high-tech and does scholarship in his free time, Judeo-Tat and its history are both intellectually fascinating and personally meaningful.
Vitaly Shalem: A lot of feelings of nostalgia amongst semi-speakers like me and other people, because the language still serves as an identity tool. You know, it's part of our identity. So very often, you know, you just meet somebody and a couple of words said in that language just introduce you and make you part of that person's life, because you belong to the same community.
Jeremy Shere: In 1890, Rabbi Shimon Chacham, a Bukharan Jew from Central Asia, immigrated to Jerusalem. He was part of a movement of Central Asian Jews who, like Jews from other regions of the Diaspora, wanted to establish a presence in Palestine.
Alanna Cooper: And the Jews from Central Asia had this idea to build this residential quarter there, with their own institutions, with schools there, with orphanages there, with yeshivas there.
Jeremy Shere: This is cultural anthropologist Alana Cooper, the Abba Hillel Silver Chair in Jewish Studies at Case Western Reserve University. And she says that, at the same time that some Bukharan Jews were moving to Palestine, they also felt that they needed to be able to explain who they were and what it meant to be a Bukharan Jew in modern terms.
And part of that project involved modernizing their language, a Jewish dialect of Tajik, which itself was a dialect of Persian. Here's a bit of how the language sounds in a Bukharan comedy video. We'll put a link to it on the podcast webpage.
[clip from video]
For centuries, stories and songs composed in the language had been passed down orally, and Chacham understood that modernizing the language meant standardizing its grammar and vocabulary in written form. And for Rabbi Chacham, a natural place to begin was with holy works, written in Hebrew.
Alanna Cooper: First and foremost is the Torah, the five books of the Torah, which he published in Hebrew letters in translation into their local Persian dialect.
Jeremy Shere: Chacham also translated and published “Shir Hashirim,” the Song of Songs, a holiday prayer book, and a book to be used during Passover, which included the Haggadah and the laws of the holiday.
Now, Chacham was not alone. According to Cooper, Jews from other parts of the Diaspora were also in the early stages of publishing books translated into their native Jewish languages, on both religious and secular subjects. Chacham himself translated and published a non-religious work in 1853, a novel written in Hebrew called The Love of Zion.
Alanna Cooper: Because his move was at one and the same time about asserting a clear identity among his people, to place them among the Jewish people, but also, at the same time, he was very involved in a Zionist endeavor to rebuild the land and to return to the land.
Jeremy Shere: The Bukharan Jews for whom Chacham was translating had ancient roots in Central Asia. They had lived in what are today Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, just north of Afghanistan and west of China, for a very long time. Historians aren't sure exactly how long, but Jewish settlement there might date back two thousand years. As part of her research, Cooper traveled to the area to meet with and talk to Bukharan Jews.
Alanna Cooper: Some people said to me, we've been here for ten generations. Other people said to me, we've been here for a hundred generations. In other words, they had no memory of any other Diaspora home.
Jeremy Shere: According to historians, the Jews there perhaps were among those who were exiled at the hands of the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. And over the centuries, they built a distinct diasporic Jewish civilization, which included their own language.
Bukharan and Jewish culture remained more or less intact until the early 20th century, when the new Soviet state incorporated the entire area and instituted policies to systematize the language and culture of the various ethnic groups throughout the Soviet union. But Central Asian Jews posed a problem, because they didn't know what to do with this population. The Jews in Central Asia did not speak Yiddish — it was clearly not their national language. And so the Soviets were puzzled as to what the language of Bukharan Jews should be.
Alanna Cooper: In the early to mid-1920s, there was a debate about whether or not it should be Hebrew, or if it should be a Jewish version of the mother language that they spoke, which was this variant of Persian.
Jeremy Shere: In 1926, the Soviet government published textbooks for children in this Jewish variant of Persian, using the Hebrew alphabet. But by the end of the 1920s, the Soviet policy changed, forcing all of its Central Asian republics to switch to using the Latin alphabet. And by the 1940s, this experiment in Soviet social engineering was abandoned completely. The Soviets focused instead on assimilating the current Jews and their language.
Alanna Cooper: So at that point, basically what the Soviet said was, “We don't recognize you Jews as having your own independent national culture. You don't have a national language anymore. You just speak the language of the Tajik majority amongst whom you live.”
Jeremy Shere: Soviet policy had severe consequences, not only for the future of Judeo-Tajik, but also for anyone who violated the policy by writing or teaching the language. Mordecai Batshayev was an important Bukharan Jewish poet and journalist during the 1920s and ’30s, when Judeo-Tajik was flowering. But by 1940, he'd become an enemy of the Soviet state and was thrown in prison, where he remained for several decades. In 1973, he immigrated to Israel and wrote a memoir in Judeo-Tajik titled In a Stone Sack. In his introduction to the book, Batshayev explained why he chose that title.
Alanna Cooper: “In Russian prisons, there was a special cell to punish prisoners. It was a very narrow place, too small to lie down in it. There was a small, unremovable stool made of bricks or stone. It was part of the cell’s floor. This cell resembled a sack built from bricks. The reason why I wrote that book was to show that in those years, not just a certain prison, but the whole Soviet Union was like a stone sack, and all inhabitants of the Soviet Union lived in it as prisoners.”
Jeremy Shere: When Cooper visited Bukharan synagogues in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the early 1990s, she found evidence of how Soviet policies had driven Bukharan Jewish culture, including books published in Judeo-Tajik, underground.
Alanna Cooper: In the synagogues, I would pull off a book that looks like a math book or that looked like a science book. And then I would open it up, and from the inside, there were texts that had been written prior to the 1940s, but were in hiding.
Jeremy Shere: By the 1990s, Bukharan Jews had begun to leave the Soviet Union in large numbers and immigrate to Israel and the United States. Before 1989, around 50,000 Jews lived in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. By the end of the 1990s, only a few hundred remained. And inevitably, Bukharan Jewish language and culture declined.
Alanna Cooper: There was a real nostalgia and sense of loss for what they had left behind, the culture that they had left behind.
Jeremy Shere: Around the same time, there were some efforts to revive and preserve Bukharan Jewish culture. A handful of cookbooks were published in Judeo-Tajik in Israel and New York, and attempts were made to establish a Bukharan Jewish theater. But much like how Eastern European Jews who had immigrated to the United States during the early 20th century saw little point in passing on Yiddish to their children, Bukharan Jews who arrived in Israel and the US in the 1990s had little incentive to speak Judeo-Tajik with their kids.
Alanna Cooper: The reason why is Bukharian, for those who were born in the United States or immigrated to the United States as children, is the language of the old people. It's the language of the Old Country. It's the language of grandmothers. It's out of date. It's musty.
Jeremy Shere: That could change. After all Yiddish was once considered musty and old-fashioned, but now it's made something of a comeback, if the many Yiddish language and culture courses at Jewish Studies programs are any indication. Future generations of Jews with Bukharan ancestry may seek to reclaim their heritage. Some are already making that effort. In 2012, a 20-something Bukharan Jew in New York, Imanuel Rybakov, published a textbook providing Judeo-Tajik lessons in transliterated English. A reviewer in the Bukharian Times newspaper, published in Queens, praised the book and hoped that it may help prevent Judeo-Tajik from going extinct. Here's how he put it:
Alanna Cooper: “If we, God forbid cease to know our mother tongue, then we lose part of our heritage, our culture, and ourselves in the process. Would we still be Bukharan Jews without our language? I urge all the people in our community who want to learn the language to please get this book and save our beautiful, unique language.
Jeremy Shere: Okay, so now I'm going to play you a little bit of the Jewish standup comic, Elon Gold, doing a bit about why Jews are better off without Christmas trees. Here we go.
[clip from Gold act: “I actually like Christmas — the lights, the decorations, I like going to my friends’ houses, you have a beautiful Christmas tree. But I do not have Christmas tree envy. I don’t. Who wants to schlep a tree from the woods, or even a store? And tie it to the roof of your car and bring it into the house, with the schmutz? I don’t need that.”]
Jeremy Shere: Now you got all of that, right? I mean, even though Gold used a couple of Yiddish words — schlep and schmutz — you obviously understood what he was saying. But now, listen to this clip from a lecture that Sarah Bunin Benor, whom we heard from earlier in the podcast, gave in 2018.
Sarah Bunin Benor: I heard this from a Chabad young man in Northern California. “Whenever you’re shaych then you can be an eyd; whenever you’re not, you’re not. So why does Rashi say? That’s ’cause dina d’malchusa dina. It’s because they’re — even if not dina d’malchusa dina — Rashi says later ’cause al din hu nitstavu bney noyach. The goyim are shaych to dinim; they’re not shaych to gitin. That’s why it’s good. ” [laughter]
Jeremy Shere: How much of that did you understand? Unless you've learned at a yeshiva, probably not much, right? And that's why the audience is laughing. Because even though what you and they are hearing is ostensibly English, the mix of Hebrew and Yiddish and Aramaic phrases, plus the chanting cadence, make it nearly unintelligible. Which prompts Benor to pose a question.
Sarah Bunin Benor: Is that English?
Jeremy Shere: Well, is it? For Benor, the answer is…kind of. But more accurately, both clips you've just heard are what Benor calls Jewish English.
Sarah Bunin Benor: Jewish English is the way that Jews speak English. And it could be as similar to the language of their non-Jewish neighbors as possible, except perhaps with the use of one or two Hebrew or Yiddish words…
Jeremy Shere: …like the comedy bit…
Sarah Bunin Benor: …or it could be so different that it's very hard to understand and need subtitles in a movie…
Jeremy Shere: …like the other clip.
Now, you may be asking yourself, does using words like schmutz or schlep in an otherwise perfectly normal English sentence render it a Jewish language, in the same way that, say, Hebrew is a Jewish language? And the answer is no, of course not, but it is similar to speaking Judeo-Tajik, and actually most of the other Jewish languages Benor mentioned earlier. Because like Jewish English, the extent to which those languages or dialects or whatever you want to call them constitute something distinctly Jewish is, as Benor said earlier, a matter of degree. Here's another example:
Sarah Bunin Benor: You might say, “the gabbai wants to know who's hagbah and galilah.”
Jeremy Shere: Which means, in plain English, that the person organizing the synagogue service wants to know who's lifting and dressing the Torah scroll.
Sarah Bunin Benor: That sentence is something you would hear in a synagogue or a minyan.
Jeremy Shere: And if you spent much time in a synagogue, you probably understand that sentence. But if you haven't, then the sentence is probably as mysterious as if it had been uttered in Greek or Chinese.
And now, this phenomenon isn't peculiar to Jewish English. Depending on where you are and who you're talking to, varieties of, say, African American vernacular or Appalachian English, and even Southern California surfer dialect, may sound kind of like foreign languages.
Plus, Jews in other English-speaking countries have evolved their own Jewish English dialects. In South Africa, for example, the word kugel does refer to a casserole made with eggs and noodles and other ingredients…
Sarah Bunin Benor: …but it's also used as the South African equivalent of JAP, Jewish American Princess. “Oh, she's such a kugel.”
Jeremy Shere: Another example is the word yok
Sarah Bunin Benor: Used in England and South Africa, I think, to refer to a non-Jew…
Jeremy Shere: …and especially to a rowdy non-Jewish hooligan. It may come from Yiddish, but some people think that it's from the word goy said backwards.
Sarah Bunin Benor: And so then it becomes yog, and then it gets de-voiced to yok.
Jeremy Shere: Jewish English can manifest in more subtle ways, too. In a survey of non-New Yorkers, Benor found that Jews were more likely than non-Jews to use New York Jewish inflections and phrases in their speech, things like saying “harrible” instead of “horrible,” or “standing on line” instead of “standing in line.” And another distinctly Jewish feature is this sort of click sound that comes from modern Hebrew…
Sarah Bunin Benor: …which might be hard to hear on a podcast. But here it goes: “We were walking around and [click] — it doesn't matter.” Do you hear that click now?
Jeremy Shere: Part of what's so interesting about Jewish English is that it exists at all. Because for most early 20th century Jewish immigrants and their children, speaking Yiddish, or “talking Jewish,” was seen as an impediment to assimilation and success. But because many third-generation American Jews feel secure in their identity as Americans, some make a point of maintaining a distinctive Jewish identity, which includes how they talk.
Sarah Bunin Benor: And so I think the history of Jewish English is one of both assimilation to American society and distinctiveness, both intentional and not, through the use of Yiddish and Hebrew and other distinctive features.
Jeremy Shere: So I have something to confess. When we first discussed doing an episode about Jewish languages, my associate producer, Jen Richler, and I were a little skeptical. I mean beyond Yiddish and maybe Ladino, how much was there really to say about a bunch of languages and dialects that most people had never heard of?
But we were wrong. We didn't know what we didn't know. And so I'm really glad that we pressed on. In fact, to use a little Jewish English, it would have been a real shanda not to. Because as I hope you've learned from this episode — and as we've certainly learned from putting it together — Yiddish and Hebrew are only the tip of the proverbial Jewish language iceberg.
And in this episode, we've only really scratched the surface. The long list of other Jewish languages and dialects, including Haketia, Jewish Russian, Judeo-Georgian, Judeo-Portuguese, Judeo-Provençal, Jewish Malayalam, and many more represent not only linguistic traditions, but entire Jewish cultures that date back, in some cases, to antiquity.
In Jewish Studies and in the Jewish world, generally the intense focus on Eastern European Jewish civilization and its destruction, and the rebirth of Hebrew and the modern Jewish state, can sometimes obscure the richness of the broader Jewish Diaspora. Exploring a wider range of Jewish languages and dialects, many of which are endangered, is a great way to begin to sample that richness.
Fortunately, scholars such as Shalem, Cooper, and others have focused their efforts on studying these languages and capturing their histories and the cultures they give voice to. And a handful of organizations, including the Endangered Language Alliance in New York and Mother Tongue in Israel, record people who speak a variety of Jewish languages. Benor’s website, jewishlanguages.org, is also a great way to begin exploring.
We'll put links to those resources on the podcast website. And now, we could think of no better way to end this episode than to leave you with a little sampling of some of these Jewish languages in all their beauty.
Sarah Bunin Benor
Sarah Bunin Benor, PhD, is Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University in Linguistics in 2004. Her recent books include Languages in Jewish Communities, Past and Present (De Gruyter Mouton, 2018) and Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps (Rutgers University Press, 2020). She is founding co-editor of the Journal of Jewish Languages and creator of the Jewish Language Website and the Jewish English Lexicon. Her current projects analyze Hebrew use at Jewish supplementary schools and the names American Jews give their children and their pets.
Alanna Cooper, PhD, is a cultural anthropologist. She serves as the Abba Hillel Silver Chair in Jewish Studies at Case Western Reserve University. Her first book Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism was published with Indiana University Press in 2013. Her current book project, Preserving and Disposing of the Sacred: America’s Jewish Congregations, examines the ways communities acquire, use, maintain and deaccession their material possessions.
A graduate of Tel Aviv University, VItaly Shalem is a computational linguist and NLP specialist currently serving as a Principal Language Engineer at Cerence, Inc. in Belgium. Born in the Northern Caucasus region of Russia, Vitaly is native to the Judeo-Tat (Juhuri) speaking community and identifies himself as a semi-speaker of the language. In his free time, he is an independent scholar and expert on Judeo-Tat.
Jeremy Shere, PhD
Jeremy Shere, PhD, is a podcast producer based in Bloomington, Indiana. Jeremy earned his doctorate in English Literature and Jewish Studies from Indiana University. He is currently the producer of the Frankely Judaic podcast for the Jewish Studies program at the University of Michigan.
Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD
Producers: Avishay Artsy and Erin Phillips