preserving Jewish languages in Brooklyn

In my last post I wrote about the presence of Yiddish in Brooklyn, but Yiddish is by no means the only Jewish language spoken here.  So while we’re on the topic I’d like to talk a little bit about the phenomenon of Jewish languages in general, as well as a few that have found a home in this city.

Let’s start with a little history first.  Hebrew ceased to be the vernacular of the Jewish people around 200 BCE, first giving way to Aramaic and later to various other languages as Jewish communities spread throughout the world in diaspora.  Here in New York, Yiddish is indeed the most well-known example of these diasporic languages.  Jews in Germany around the 9th century spoke varieties of Middle High German but were literate in Hebrew and Aramaic, a source of many loanwords.  As time progressed, many of these communities migrated to Eastern Europe.  Over the centuries the variety of German that they continued to speak became heavily influenced by slavic languages, resulting in what we know today as modern Yiddish.  But what about communities in other parts of the world?  What did the Jews end up speaking in the Middle East, Spain, North Africa or even India?


The Jews from Spain spoke Judeo-Spanish (also know as Judezmo or Ladino).  In North Africa and the Middle East, many spoke varieties of Judeo-Arabic and Jewish languages related to Persian.  In India, one could find Judeo-Marathi and Judeo-Malayalam.  Do you see the pattern here?  Time and time again Jewish communities have adopted a language and modified it in certain ways while maintaining a distinct cultural identity, giving rise to a uniquely Jewish form of the original language.  What is remarkable is how similar this process has been for so many Jewish languages throughout the world.

There are two characteristics that all Jewish languages share.  First, all Jewish languages started out as already existing, non-Jewish languages, i.e. none of them developed from Hebrew or Aramaic.  Second, these adopted languages took on Jewish characteristics in the form of loanwords and expressions from Hebrew and Aramaic.  These borrowed vocabulary items tend to refer to concepts or items of religious importance, though Hebrew words or biblical expressions are often used in colloquial speech as well.  (It should be noted that this phenomenon varies in degree, depending on the language.)

There is also a third characteristic shared by most, though not all, Jewish languages:  the Hebrew alphabet.  Languages, such as Yiddish, Ladino, varieties of Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Berber, Bukhari, and others were or are written in the Hebrew script, often modified to accommodate sounds not found in Hebrew.  Judeo-Malayalam and Judeo-Marathi are not written in the Hebrew script, though many community members are able to read Hebrew for religious purposes.

Finally, another set of characteristics common to many Jewish languages, has to do with the mobile nature of diasporic life.  Many languages that were adopted and reshaped by Jewish communities around the world were then taken on further migrations to new regions of the world.  After the expulsion of Jews from Spain, Judeo-Spanish was taken to Morocco, Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans.  Bukhari, a form of Judeo-Persian, was taken to areas of modern day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.  This kind of movement often results in many archaisms being preserved in the Jewish language as it travels.  The language crystalizes to a degree, maintaining vocabulary or grammar that eventually drops out of the original language.  It also results in a tertiary language or set of languages that serve as a source for new borrowings, e.g. Judeo-Spanish that flourished in Turkey took on many Turkish loanwords.  In all cases, the end product is multi-layered language, often exhibiting di- or triglossia, whereby each register may have a different language source that it draws from most.  For instance, Ladino, the religious register of Judeo-Spanish is basically a word for word translation of Hebrew into Spanish-origin vocabulary, whereas secular writing is more throughly Spanish-based.  Finally, in the colloquial register of everday speech, one finds an abundance of loan words from Turkish, Greek or other local languages, depending on where the community is located.  Jewish languages have many ingredients.

Now that someIMG_1197 of these langauges have arrived in the U.S., they are transforming further and acquiring yet another layer due to borrowings from English.  And this brings us to the event that inspired me to write this post in the first place.  A couple of weeks ago the Endangered Language Alliance organised a Jewish languages walking tour in Brooklyn.  The idea of the tour was to give some insight into the lesser-known Jewish languages in our city, and it featured members of communities that speak Syrian Judeo-Arabic and Juhuri.  Needless to say, I was extremely excited.

A young member of the Juhuri speaking community, Roza Shamailova, and her Juhuri teacher, Simon Mardakhayev, spoke to us first.  Juhuri, sometimes referred to as Judeo-Tat, is a language spoken in Azerbaijan and Dagestan and now in Israel and the United States.  It is most closely related to modern Persian, but still has characteristics of medieval Persian, borrowings from Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Azeri, and Russian.  It even exhibits the phonological phenomenon of vowel harmony, common to Turkic languages such as Azeri.  Juhuri also has sounds not found in Persian to accommodate the traditional Mizrahi pronunciation of Het (ח) and Ayin (ע).  Written Juhuri has undergone many changes, first having been written in the Hebrew alphabet, then a modified Roman alphabet in the 20’s, and finally the Cyrillic alphabet under the Soviet Union.  You can find in Juhuri all the multi-layered characteristics of a typical Jewish language.

Juhuri has not been widely passed on to the younger generations in recent years and has less than 100,000 speakers worldwide.  In Azerbaijan and Dagestan pressure to speak Russian and Azeri, as well as mass emigration, has reduced the usage of the language.  In Israel and the U.S., pressure to speak Hebrew and English has done the same.  In response to this, Roza and other young members of the Juhuri community in Brooklyn have organised classes to learn the language of their parents and grandparents.  She said she has attained an intermediate level in the language and is motivated to continue learning, but it is certainly an uphill battle.

Before moving on with the tour, we were given a short Lezginka performance, a style of dance from the Caucasus popular with Juhuri speakers.  The children who performed the dance were obviously proud and enthusiastic about their heritage, and I could imagine them taking an interest in learning Juhuri as they get older.  Let’s hope the community’s efforts in teaching the language yield more resources and social relevance for Juhuri in years to come and that teachers like Simon (featured in the video above) continue to share their knowledge.

The ELA recording a conversation in Juhuri.

Our next stop on the tour was Bnei Yehouda, a small house synagogue within the Syrian Jewish community, led by Cantor Yohai Cohen.  Cantor Cohen grew up in Israel with family from Syria and Tunisia, each speaking their own version of Judeo-Arabic.  He said that the major difference that he notes between Judeo-Arabic languages and other varieties of Arabic is the use of Hebrew loanwords and expressions.  If a person speaking Judeo-Syrian Arabic, for example, is careful to not use Hebrew-based words, their language could be mistaken for non-Jewish Syrian Arabic.  He also commented that on Djerba island in Tunisia, where part of his family is from, the difference between Judeo-Arabic and non-Jewish Arabic often has more to do with how things are said and the choice of words, rather than the origins of the words themselves.  This is where the debate between dialect and language comes in, as often happens with Jewish languages due to the nature of their development.  Some will consider varieties of Judeo-Arabic just to be dialects of Arabic, not languages.  Judeo-Arabic is distinct, though, in its use of the Hebrew alphabet, which has been employed in Judeo-Arabic literature throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Cantor Yohai Cohen playing the Oud.

Cantor Cohen is also a master of the maqam musical tradition, a system of melodic scales, found in traditional Arab music.  In Jewish communities this melodic system has been used for centuries to sing religious songs in both Hebrew and Arabic.  This usage of maqams is as much a blending of different elements as Judeo-Arabic itself.  Cantor Cohen takes great pride in the music and language, and the community is lucky to have him keeping both alive.

The tour continued on to Mansoura Bakery, run by a Moroccan French-speaker, whose family originally spoke Haketía, a variety of Judeo-Spanish.  After loading up on sweets the tour continued to the final destination, Mizrahi Bookstore, housing a large collection of Sephardic/Mizrahi-focused books.  I had other commitments and wasn’t able to make it to the bookstore (this time), but the tour left me with plenty to think about.  How strong must a group’s cultural identity be to develop and maintain (across time and space) a language that is all their own?  Certainly cultural isolation and the “otherness” imposed by outsiders play a role in strengthening a group’s hold on their language and identity as well, but I think the speakers’ sense of self is key.

It is amazing that Juhuri speakers’ ancestors spoke Hebrew, then Aramaic, then Persian, and were exposed to Arabic and Azeri and Russian, and today’s speakers still carry all of those layers on their tongues.  It should only make sense that the language would continue to morph and add more layers as it moves to different parts of the world.  But a very strong cultural identity and real conviction is going to be necessary to give Juhuri (and most of these other languages) any place in contemporary New York City, let alone in the future.  Minority languages are not spoken out of need or convenience in today’s world, but rather because of the sense of belonging and history that they provide.  I think that as more people realise this, we’ll come closer to preserving and cultivating the linguistic richness that still exists around us today.




Yiddish: unofficial minority language of Brooklyn and official minority language of…Sweden?

Every now and then one receives a request for a favour that doesn’t seem like a favour at all because it is simply a pleasure to do.  A few weeks ago I received just such a request.  My friend from Sweden asked me to go to Boro Park (also spelled Borough Park), a largely Hasidic neighbourhood in Brooklyn, to buy some books in Yiddish for a library where he works in Stockholm.  He said they didn’t need to be anything specific, but they should be visually interesting enough to appeal to someone who might not actually understand Yiddish.  Not a bad assignment – go buy pretty books.  I accepted the challenge.

Now, you might be wondering what a library in Sweden would want with books in Yiddish, especially while acknowledging that the readership for said books will be limited.  This all stems from a decision made in 1999 whereby the Minority  Language Committee of Sweden designated five official minority languages of Sweden.  These are Finnish, Sami, Romani, Meänkieli, and Yiddish.  Increased awareness of Sweden’s minority language communities and pressure to recognise and support them resulted in a law being implemented on January 1, 2010 to establish legal recognition and protection of the official minority languages.  (Incidentally, Swedish was not even recognised an official language until 2009).

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“The law results from the fact that Swedish minority policies did not have the impact that was hoped for and that Sweden was criticised for not having met its international legal obligations.  Above all, the needs of minorities had not been considered outside of the administrative departments.  Therefore there is now a unified law that applies throughout the country with strengthened protection in certain areas.  Ensuring that minority rights are enforced is one part of Sweden’s work for human rights.”

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“Yiddish, Romani Chib, Finnish, Meänkieli, and Sami are national minority languages.  The latter three have extra protection under the new law and can be used in correspondence with the authorities, and minorities have the right to elderly care and childcare in their own language.”

So what exactly were the criteria for deciding which languages should be included as official minority languages?  Basically, a language would be granted official status if it had a historical presence in Sweden for a significant amount of time and if it was spoken by a significant amount of people.  Yiddish, having been brought to Sweden by Jews starting in the 1700’s, and having had its population of speakers more recently replenished by refugees in the years after WWII, met the qualifications.

One final piece of the minority language legislation is that the speakers of these languages should reap cultural benefit from the newly acquired status.  This idea of cultural benefit focuses in large part on the younger generations.

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“The law is especially concerned with the development of children’s cultural identity and the promotion of minority language use among children.”

What all of this legal protection means, in a country like Sweden, is that there is a fair amount of funding available for the promotion of minority languages.  On Sveriges Radio’s website you can find children’s stories in Yiddish, and Sveriges Utbildningsradio even has some children’s tv programs dubbed in Yiddish (as well as all the other minority languages).  Yiddish books are published in Sweden every year, and there are language learning resources available for free online.  And finally, getting back to my mission, librarian Yiddish-enthusiasts get to stock the shelves of their local libraries with Yiddish titles.

So last Monday I set out on the D train for Boro Park in search of fresh Yiddish materials to be sent to join the minority language love-fest over in Sweden.  The mere 30 minutes it took me to get to my destination transported me to another world.   Walking out of the station at 62nd Street is a bit like stepping back in time.  The vast majority of the people are Hasidic, ultra-orthodox Jews, the women dressed in modest clothes right out of the 1940’s and the men dressed in hats, suits, and long coats that harken back a century or so further.  The shops are mostly mom and pop establishments, some still with old hand-painted signs, and the language on the street is Yiddish.

New York has long been a haven for the Yiddish language.  Less than 100 years ago you could find a thriving Yiddish-language theater scene, hear Yiddish dramas on the radio, read local newspapers in Yiddish, and more or less live your daily life in the language.  The need to flee persecution in Eastern Europe in the 19th century and later due to WWII meant that there was a constant influx of Yiddish speakers into the greater New York area, and Brooklyn was a place where many of them settled.  Over time, however, secular and less religiously conservative Jews assimilated to mainstream, English-speaking life, and the language ceased to be passed on to younger generations.  The average New Yorker (Jewish or not) still peppers their English with a large number of Yiddish loanwords and expressions, but the language in its true form has mostlly died out…with one large exception.

In the aftermath of WWII many Hasidic religious leaders saw assimilation as the demise of the Jewish people; some even taught that the holocaust was a divine punishment for having assimilated too much into mainstream society.  As these leaders began to rebuild their communities in Brooklyn, they emphasized the need to remain separate, religious, and also Yiddish-speaking.  Today, these communities have mostly stuck to their linguistic guns, and in neighbourhoods like Boro Park and South Williamsburg, as well as towns upstate like Kiryas Joel and New Square, Yiddish is the main language of daily life, from seniors to toddlers.

In general my efforts to speak Yiddish in these neighbourhoods have been  pretty well received, and this time was no exception.  The first place I stopped was a small bookstore that I like because the owners are always friendly and willing to chat.  I explained what I needed, and the man behind the counter directed me to a rack of children’s books with colourful pictures, graphic novels, and comics.  At first he didn’t bat an eyelash at my Yiddish, but after a few minutes he asked me why I had learned it.  I replied, “?פאר וואס נישט” (Why not?)  He shrugged his shoulders and made a contemplative face as if to say, “Good point – why not?”.  After a little more shmoozing, I bought a graphic novel (in Yiddish) about Mashhadi Jews in Iran and continued on my way.

As I walked down 13th Avenue, there was no shortage of opportunities to eavesdrop on Yiddish conversations, read the headlines of the many Yiddish newspapers at the newsstands, and succumb to the temptation of bakeries selling baked goods, all with Yiddish names.  My absolute favourite Yiddish sitings, though, were DIY advertisements, hand-written and taped to walls or lampposts.  Here’s a good one:

Do you struggle with your kid’s peyos?  You don’t like the “jelled” (sic) look?  We have an awesome styling gel.  Hair stays natural looking, holds firm and long, hair won’t get sticky, a little bit gets the job done.  And above all, it’s natural!!!  Call now: (number blurred)

There is also a fair amount of English and Hebrew spoken in neighbourhood, but little details like this ad give the feeling that Yiddish is the language that’s nearest and dearest to the community.

My last stop in Boro Park was Eichler’s, a large Judaica store with a particularly good selection of books and everything else in Yiddish.  I come here when I need a little inspiration to reignite my enthusiasm for the language.  It might be Yiddish boggle or a CD of techno music in Yiddish, but I always find something.  After checking out the comics and religiously themed children’s graphic novels, I found a book of first person narratives, relaying harrowing or otherwise touching true stories from people’s lives.  That’ll do the trick.

Walking back to the train, carrying some books bound for Stockholm and a couple for my own bookshelf, I couldn’t help but think that the Yiddish world of Boro Park was a far cry from the Yiddish world in Sweden.  Here the language is alive and dynamic, a true community language of deep importance for the very religious community that speaks it.  In Sweden, Yiddish is more of a relic, spoken by a dwindling number of elderly, often secular Jews, with little transmission to the young.  Yet here the language has very little recognition and no government funding, while in Sweden they seem to have the resources to dedicate to the language, but probably no more than a few thousand speakers in the whole country.  I started to wonder what place these books from Boro Park would have in a library in Sweden.  Even if these two pockets of Yiddish have little to no common ground, I suppose the important thing is that the language is being supported in one way or another wherever it can get support.

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Information about same-sex marriage laws in Sweden, courtesy of the Swedish Government.  A good example of the often stark contrast between the use of Yiddish in Sweden and the use of Yiddish in Boro Park.

Once home, I decided to make one more contribution to the presence of Yiddish in Boro Park by writing a Yelp review for Eichler’s, in Yiddish of course.  When I tried to post it, though, the Yelp language police didn’t like what I was doing, and the site wouldn’t support the Hebrew characters.

Luckily, Yiddish is a flexible language that has always had to adapt and navigate all sorts of policing, so in the end I found a way.

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“A very good bookstore, especially for books in Yiddish.  They’re always friendly and helpful.”