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Every Language Is a Jewish Language

Lex Rofeberg
November 1, 2017

by Lex Rofeberg

RAFI ELLENSON BEGAN his provocative and thoughtful article in this publication, “Hebrew as the Language of the Progressive Jewish Future,” with this statement: “In learning Yiddish, the language of our past, we should not neglect the language of our future: Modern Hebrew.”

Counterintuitively for many of us who associate Modern Hebrew with the state of Israel and its government, he presents in the remainder of his piece a plea that we find ways to radicalize modern Hebrew. We should, he argues, utilize it to fight against those (especially right-wing Israeli leaders) who regularly weaponize it against Palestinians under occupation, among others.

The main audience towards whom he addresses his piece appears to be the small, but quite significant, group of American Jews that has latched onto Yiddish in recent decades as a language with a proud radical history, and who may believe that claiming (or reclaiming) Yiddish would be a more successful strategy for those looking to work for social justice through a Jewish lens.

I read this essay with interest, but also with more than a small dose of confusion. I certainly could weigh in with some thoughts on each “side” of the question, but that’s not my instinct. Because here’s the thing: for the vast majority of American Jews, the debate between modern Hebrew and Yiddish is entirely alien to them. They may know the word “b’seder” from their Birthright trip, and they might have been called a “schmendrick” by a family member when doing something silly (okay maybe that’s just me?). But in day to day life, neither language really has much of an impact for the vast majority of American Jews.

Additionally, there is a questionable assumption inherent to Ellenson’s first sentence: specifically, that Yiddish was the Jewish language of any particular moment. For Jews outside of Europe, Yiddish did not manifest as a part of their lives, and for those descended from them, Yiddish was never part of their families’ “we” or “our.” Ellenson alludes to Ladino, and I would add Judeo-Arabic among others, as languages that were distinctly Jewish at a variety of historical moments, complicating any claim that one language was ever the language of all Jews.

Here’s what’s clearly true; in a wide variety of Jewish times and places, individual Jewish people and collective Jewish groups have felt the need to use certain languages in order to be perceived as Jewishly authentic. The problem with that phenomenon is that it sets an unrealistic and exclusive standard for being “genuinely” Jewish that boxes out the majority of the American Jewish population, who, for the most part, do not (and probably will not) speak either Yiddish or modern Hebrew. As a result, a small minority with economic and geographic access to Jewish education drives Jewish life, implying or stating explicitly that those who lack the knowledge also lack the permission and ability to lead, contribute to, change, or re-invent legitimate manifestations of Jewish culture and religion.

DESPITE THE FACT that Yiddish was never truly universal, people still use it to prove their Jewish street cred all the time. In my own upbringing (in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, far from the lower East Side), rabbis mentioned their “bubbes” in sermons, who probably “plotzed” over all the “mishuganna” antics said rabbis got up to as young’uns. Congregants greeted each other on Yom Kippur with “gut yuntif,” and most would have had little idea what I was talking about if I said “g’mar chatimah tovah.” The Jewish word for family was “mishpucheh” – not the Hebrew “mishpachah.” The “mamaloshen” was everywhere, despite the fact that few mamas (or papas) in Milwaukee could actually speak a full sentence of it.

People used Hebrew to claim authenticity as well. Calling characters from the Bible “Ya’akov” instead of Jacob, or “Chava” instead of Eve, was a subtle way to demonstrate one’s knowledge of Jewish text without saying, “Look at me, I’m a scholar!” Eliminating transliteration from important prayers, in Sunday school (and from entire prayer books), was a way to ensure that Jewish people knew that the Hebrew was “the real thing,” and every translation was, at best, an imitation -- an imitation that could never hope to reach the holy heights of “lashon hakodesh,” which only existed for those fortunate individuals who were educated “correctly”.

To “sound Jewish,” in Milwaukee, and in hundreds of other Jewish communities around the United States, was never to speak our own first languages. It was to speak the native tongues of our grandparents or ancestors. Jewish authenticity belonged to our predecessors – not to us. To gain access to it, we had to speak not as ourselves, but as others.

This phenomenon strikes me as deeply tragic. The whole idea that there is one (or two, or four) authentic Jewish languages that we must learn, separate from our own, means that Judaism must be inaccessible to the vast majority of Jews, who will not be able to set aside the necessary time and effort required to learn a language that is not their first. It means that “authentic” Judaism will be held, in America, by a lucky, privileged, few, and not by all Jews. Some may argue, in response, that Judaism is not merely about meeting people where they are, but also about obligations that transcend the expectations of mainstream culture. However, I question the wisdom of prioritizing language fluency as one such obligation, as attaining such fluency may require hundreds of hours of learning and immersion, which could instead be devoted to a wide range of other Jewish practices and rituals, be they religious, secular, or both.

Whatever language you speak is a Jewish language. This is particularly true now, but it has been true for millennia. The Kaddish was written in Aramaic, not Hebrew, so that people could remember their loved ones in a language they actually knew. Jewish prayers (not mere “prayers by Jews”) have been uttered in languages ranging from Arabic and French to Russian and Luganda. It would take a far longer essay to fully articulate why, despite the rich corpus of Hebrew texts that make up the Bible and centuries of Jewish teachings since, our impulse to preserve them must be equalled by our commitment to creations of our own, in whatever language. But suffice to say, despite the love I feel (deep, genuine, emotional love) for Torah, Talmud, Hasidic texts, and more in their original languages, I have come to recognize that an absolute commitment to their conservation at all costs can and does minimize the chance that we can craft new Torahs and Talmuds that will invigorate and inspire our community in the future.

Judaism isn’t a set of past-tense teachings written by ancestors and received by us passively. If it’s worth anything, it’s because we, in every generation and language, re-create it in our image.

I will not mourn the Tower of Babel in 2017. It’s time for the authentic languages of Judaism to be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore. B’ezrat Hashem, with God’s help, and inShaAllah, maybe we yidden will recognize that no single language can truly be the language of our future. Every language should be.

Lex Rofeberg lives in Providence, Rhode Island, serves as Strategic Initiatives Coordinator for the Institute For the Next Jewish Future, and co-hosts its Judaism Unbound podcast. He is in his second year of rabbinical school through ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. He is a cohost of the podcast, Judaism Unbound.