Clothes Make People, Scripts Shape Communities

Jewish-Arabic culture is the result of a profound and sustained process of socio-cultural transformations that shaped the Islamicate world during the Abbasid period (late 8th century onwards). For all religious communities, this transformation brought about new ways of knowledge production, organization, dissemination and consumption. Its most salient feature was the gradual adoption of the Arabic language as primary means of written and spoken communication. The Arabicization of the Islamicate world facilitated and accelerated the exchange of ideas across communal and denominational borders as well as the transfer of knowledge over longer distances. It entailed the adoption of new terms, concepts, discourses, textual forms, literary genres and disciplines of knowledge.

From within this cultural complex, this blog post singles out a tiny snippet, to wit the exchange of texts and ideas between Arabicized Jewish and Samaritan communities which has long been neglected and occasionally even declared to be non-existent. While most major European manuscript collections combine the descriptions of Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts in the same catalogue volumes, they are typically approached as cultural artifacts of two detached communities with few to no cross-connections between them. This separation stands in stark contrast to the fact that in some urban centres of the Arab world, and most notably in Cairo, the two communities were living adjacent to one another for many centuries within one and the same neighbourhoods.

A closer look at the Arabic literary heritage of both communities exposes the myopia of previous scholarship and lays bare a continuity of exchange and communication.

Depending on period, place, community, genre and context, Jews and Samaritans used various scripts to put their Arabic texts into writing. The following examples may serve as illustrations for varying graphic renditions of one and the same text passage:

MS St Petersburg, Russian National Library, Arab.-Yevr. 350, fol. 3v–4r, (© The National Library of Russia, St Petersburg)

MS St Petersburg, Russian National Library, Arab.-Yevr. 350, fol. 3v–4r, shows an extract from a Qaraite refutation of a Treatise on the Qiblah by the 11th-century Samaritan scholar Abū l-Ḥasan al-Ṣūrī. The Samaritan author advances scriptural prooftexts to buttress his view that Mount Gerizim is the location God chose for His sanctuary (left side, lines 7–8), while the Qaraite detractor aims at proving him wrong to demonstrate that “chosen place” is the exclusive prerogative of Jerusalem.

The oldest versions of both texts are entirely in Arabic script, while using distinct transliteration systems to render the Hebrew texts of Scripture in Arabic script.

A later, 14th-century copy of the Samaritan treatise gives the Hebrew text in Samaritan script,

MS Sassoon 726, fol. 10r, lines 17ff. (current owner and library unknown; image used with permission)

whereas a later specimen of the Qaraite refutation is all in Hebrew script.

Yevr.-Arab. I 1681, fol. 43v–44r (© The National Library of Russia, St Petersburg); see left side, lines 13–14

As shown with these examples, script and scribal habits often serve as a means to integrate the trans-denominational commonality of knowledge into the particularity of a communal setting and to adopt it as one’s own. This also applies to the following image from a hitherto unknown Samaritan copy of Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed.

SP, RNL, Firk. Sam. III 35, fols. 18v–19r (© The National Library of Russia, St Petersburg)
Professor Gregor Schwarb
Senior Research Fellow,
“The Transformation of

Jewish Literature in Arabic in the Islamicate World”, LMU Munich
Jewish English

Jewish English Texts: Camp Hebraized English Online and Hebrew-Letter Campaign Gear

For many readers, the phrase “Jewish languages bookshelf” likely conjures images of medieval Judeo-Arabic treatises, early modern Judeo-Italian siddur translations, and modern Yiddish and Ladino novels. For me, this phrase encompasses not only items like these, but also a much broader swath of writing, especially in the language I study, Jewish English. Jewish English is an umbrella term for the many ways Jews have spoken and written English in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, Australia, and elsewhere. This post gives two examples of Jewish English writing and analyzes how they are both similar to and different from languages Jews have written in previous eras.

Excerpt #1: Camp Hebraized English blog post

Excerpt from a Habonim Dror Camp Galil parent update, 6/15,

Most American Jewish summer camps are conducted primarily in English, but many are infused to varying degrees with Hebrew loanwords. Orthodox communities, including their summer camps, use loanwords primarily from Textual Hebrew and Yiddish, with only some from Modern Hebrew. But secular Zionist camps like Galil, a Habonim Dror camp in Pennsylvania, USA, use loanwords primarily from Modern Hebrew. Most of these words refer not to religious life, but to camp:

  • activitiestiyul ‘hiking trip’, avoda/avodot ‘chore(s)’, tochnit erev ‘evening activity’, kibud ‘snack’, peulot ‘discussions’, chugim ‘electives’, menucha ‘rest time’, chofesh ‘free time’, ivrit shimushit ‘[the skit to teach the] useful Hebrew [word of the day]’
  • locationstoren ‘flag pole’, tzrif ‘cabin’, refet ‘barn’, beit omanut ‘art room’, chadar ochel ‘dining hall’, moadon ‘clubhouse’
  • roles: madrichim ‘counselors’, tzevet ‘staff’, chanichim ‘campers’
  • groupings and divisionskvutsa ‘small, united community’, shichva/schavot ‘age group(s)’, Chotrim ‘rowers’, Bogrim ‘graduates’, Amelim ‘workers’, Tzophim ‘scouts’, Sayarim ‘patrols/scouts’, and Bonim ‘builders’.

By using so many Hebrew words in the everyday life of camp, this Zionist institution highlights the importance of Hebrew and makes camp feel like a distinct environment from campers’ homes, schools, and synagogues. In fact, this can be seen as a special register of Jewish English: “Camp Hebraized English”. This register follows the historical trend of Jewish languages incorporating Hebrew loanwords into the language spoken by the surrounding non-Jewish communities. But the main source of those words in this case is not the sacred ancient texts of Judaism, but rather the spoken language of the State of Israel.

Like in many Jewish languages, the Hebrew words in this excerpt are pluralized according to Hebrew morphological norms. For example, the masculine noun chug receives the masculine plural suffix -im (chugim), and the feminine noun avoda receives the feminine plural suffix -ot (avodot). Even irregular nouns receive the appropriate Hebrew plural morphology: shichva becomes shchavot (but with a typo here: schavot). Although not evident in the update, the camp also tends to use the Hebrew morphological system of distinguishing between males and females, e.g., madricha for a female counselor and Amelim (masc.) and Amelot (fem.) to refer to boys and girls of that division.

Despite the general trend of following (Israeli) Hebrew linguistic norms, some of the Hebrew words have distinctive usages and meanings in this excerpt (as at camp), such as peula, ‘discussion’, which is ‘action/activity’ in Modern Hebrew; refet, ‘barn without animals’, which is ‘cowshed, dairy section of a farm’ in Modern Hebrew; and moadon which is shortened to mo. In addition, in the years since this blog post, Galil and other camps that affiliate with the Habonim Dror youth movement have begun to use innovative gender suffixes, such as Amelimot (gender-inclusive double plural of this division) and chanichol (gender-neutral ‘camper’). These are common trends not only in Jewish English but also in Jewish languages around the world; many loanwords undergo semantic shift and are sometimes clipped and otherwise altered phonologically.

Aside from loanwords, this excerpt does not include any other elements of the distinctive Jewish linguistic repertoire, such as the Yiddish grammatical influences found in Orthodox Jewish English or the rise-fall intonation patterns and New York phonological variants perceptible only in spoken language.

This excerpt reflects the common trend of writing Jewish English in Latin letters, using the same orthographic norms as English, with the addition of transliterated Hebrew words. This contrasts with the Hebrew-based writing systems used in most Jewish languages historically. This development can be explained by the expectations and educational policies regarding near-universal literacy in the countries where Jews live today, in contrast to medieval and early modern societies. However, there are exceptions to this trend, such as English words in Hebrew letters on apparel and other items advertising universities, sports teams, and political candidates. We see an example of this in Excerpt #2.

Excerpt #2: Hebrew-Letter Jewish English Campaign Gear

Kipah: “Trump/Pence/Keep America Great/2020,” from this article. [Note: the inclusion of this item should not be interpreted as a political endorsement!]

This kipah (skullcap) is one of many American political campaign items that incorporate Hebrew letters, sometimes alongside English letters, such as a 2008 Obama bumper sticker: “ברק אובמה ’08” and a 1980 [Ronald] Reagan button: “רייגין Reagan” (see the Reagan button and similar historical buttons here). Each of these items represents an American candidate’s name in Hebrew letters, sending the message that the individual displaying it is a supporter of that candidate, a Jew proud to publicly display their Jewish identity and, likely, someone who has at least basic Hebrew reading skills.

The kipah in Excerpt #2 includes an additional element: Trump’s 2020 campaign slogan rendered in Hebrew-letter English: “Keep America great.” Some other merchandise translates the slogan into Hebrew, e.g., “שמור את אמריקה נהדרת” (such as this poster). By spelling the English slogan in Hebrew letters, Trump supporters appeal to the most common Hebrew skill level among American Jews: an ability to decode Hebrew letters but not to comprehend Hebrew texts. The kipah follows the orthographic system of Modern Hebrew for transliterating foreign words, rather than that of Yiddish, Ladino, or another Jewish language. Even so, by rendering English words in Hebrew letters, this image connects Jewish English orthographically to Jewish languages throughout history.

These two items demonstrate that English-speaking Jews are continuing some of the linguistic trends of their predecessors around the world: speaking a version of the local language while incorporating distinctive features, especially lexical and orthographic influences from Hebrew. At the same time, these items demonstrate some new historical developments: the privileging of Modern Hebrew over Textual Hebrew influences and the tendency to use the writing system of the surrounding society. They also highlight new forms of writing brought about by technology, such as blog posts and mass-produced apparel. Despite these new developments, these texts show that Jews continue to position themselves as both a part of and apart from society.

This post incorporates elements of several articles by the author:

Benor, Sarah Bunin. 2009. “Do American Jews Speak a ‘Jewish Language’? A Model of Jewish Linguistic Distinctiveness.” Jewish Quarterly Review 99/2. 230-269.

Benor, Sarah Bunin. 2020. “Bivalent Writing: Hebrew and English Alphabets in Jewish English.” Journal of Jewish Languages 8/1-2: 108-157.

Benor, Sarah Bunin. 2021. “Written Jewish English.” In Jewish Languages: Text Specimens, Grammatical, Lexical, and Cultural Sketches, ed. Lutz Edzard and Ofra Tirosh-Becker. In Porta Linguarum Orientaliumseries. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. 368-391.

Benor, Sarah Bunin, Jonathan Krasner, and Sharon Avni. 2020. Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Dr Sarah Bunin Benor
Director, Jewish Language Project; Vice Provost and Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and Linguistics
Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion


Aki Yerushalayim: The Digital Revival of a Fascinating Ladino Magazine

Aki Yerushalayim (1979-2016, 2019-present) is the oldest and arguably most authoritative all-Ladino magazine in the world. Making sense of its sociopolitical and community impact requires us to venture into the changing role of Sephardim since the inauguration of the modern State of Israel.

Issue 105 of Aki Yerushalayim, published online in September 2021

As explained by Prof. Shmuel Refael in his anthology Un Grito en el Silencio (“A Scream in the Silence”, Tirocino, 2008), it took decades for the descendants of the Sephardim in Israel to be considered part of the national narrative. The turning point was arguably the election of Yitzhak Navon (1921-2015) as the fifth president of Israel. In 1978, he became the first Sephardi Jew to serve in that office, which he did until 1983. In 1979, Navon was appointed the first chairman of the board of Aki Yerushalayim, whose first issue was launched that very year. The magazine was published by the cultural organisation Sefarad, in cooperation with the National Authority for Ladino (1996), of which Navon also became the first chairman in 1997. The editorial committee of Aki Yerushalayim featured three emblematic Sephardic authors: Moshe Shaul (editor-in-chief), Mordehay Arbell and Zelda Ovadia.

Its 2-3 yearly issues contained articles about Sephardic personalities, history, literature and various organisations, as well as sections on topics such as food, philately, upcoming cultural events, poetry, short stories, books and CD reviews. More importantly, it featured three iconic and unique rubrics: El kantoniko de haketía (“Haketía Corner”, devoted to the vernacular linguistic variety spoken by the Sephardim that settled in northern Morocco); El kantoniko de solitreo (“Solitreo Corner”, featuring texts written in the cursive script used by Sephardim in the Ottoman empire); and El kantoniko de letras Rashi (“Rashi Corner” devoted to the semi-cursive Sephardic script). Other than its content, a further significant contribution of Aki Yerushalayim to Sephardic language and culture was the standardisation of Ladino in the Latin script by, of and for Sephardim across the world, courtesy of the pronunciation table elaborated by Moshe Shaul and adopted almost unanimously in subsequent Ladino publications.

However, due to budgetary constraints, low subscription renewals and the advanced age of its readers and editors, in 2016, the adventure of Aki Yerushalayim seemed to come to an end. The announcement of Aki Yerushalayim’s supposed final issue (99-100) was met with dismay from the global community of Ladino lovers (most of whom were Sephardim, though not all). To date, I still remember reading at that time numerous poignant testimonies of regret and nostalgia from dozens of members on the Ladino email list Ladinokomunita (Rachel Amado Bortnick, 1999- ). Yet as the motto of the Turkish Ladino-only newspaper El Amaneser reminds us, “kuando muncho eskurese es para amaneser” (“when it’s dark out, that’s because dawn in coming”), an adage whose truth has stood the test of time for the global community of Ladino speakers.

In 2019 and upon the initiative of Haim Carmi, a new generation of Ladino scholars and activists took upon themselves the challenge of restoring Aki Yerushalyim and assuming its editorial board, which nowadays includes the following activists: Aldo Sevi (editor-in-chief), Nava Cohen, Esther Rute Cediel, David Atias, Orit Salinas and Hedva Perahia. Now exclusively published in digital version, Aki Yerushalayim continues to feature the above-mentioned sections and kantonikos, as well as a new website ( containing old and new issues (though this is still a work in progress).

As a Ladino scholar and CEO of Ladino 21 who specialises in revitalising this language by digital means, I have had the opportunity to interview and converse with most of Aki Yerushalayim’s current editorial board members. In my daily interactions with them, I have the fortune of witnessing their relentless passion and selfless devotion to Ladino.

Based on the above, I am confident that the future of the most authoritative all-Ladino magazine in the world is in the safest and warmest hands, and would like to take advantage of this post to acknowledge and celebrate everybody that has made possible the existence and continuation of Aki Yerushalayim, all of which has granted this publication a place of honour in our Jewish Languages Bookshelf.

Dr Carlos Yebra López
Spanish and Portuguese Post-Doc/Lecturer,
Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literature,
New York University

Italian Judeo-Spanish

MS. Canonici Oriental 6: A Judeo-Spanish Copy of an Italian Bestseller

Sometime before 1580, somebody transliterated a Spanish translation of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso into Hebrew letters (aljamiado). This took place somewhere in the Ottoman Empire, probably in Anatolia. At some point later on, four folios were added to the transliteration containing an epitaph for a woman composed in Patras (present day Greece) in 1580.

MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries

The question is ‒ why would somebody go to the trouble of doing this? The Orlando Furioso was one of the undisputed bestsellers in Renaissance Europe. An Italian epic romance in verse, it was first published in 1516, and then again in a revised edition in 1521 as well as in a revised and enlarged edition in 1532. Soon it had been translated into several European languages ‒ French, Spanish (1549), English (1591) and German. The first Spanish translation, by Jerónimo de Urrea, was reprinted ten times in the first 34 years. Two complete translations more would be published before the end of the sixteenth century.

The volume took as its main characters Orlando (Roland) and the other paladins of Charlemagne’s court at war with the Saracen army that had invaded France. The work in its final version comprised forty-six cantos (forty-five in the Spanish translation) with 4,842 stanzas (4,902 in the Spanish translation), which makes for an astonishing 38,736 (39,216) lines in total. The appetite for chivalric romance in the sixteenth century was clearly limitless.

The work itself originally had been published well after the expulsions of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, and the Spanish translation even more so. Still, several generations after the 1492 Expulsion, Jews of Sephardi origin continued reading the same works as their Christian contemporaries; this phenomenon took place not only in the West, but also, as our work shows, in the Eastern Mediterranean. For, indeed, it was in the Ottoman Empire that the manuscript under discussion herein was produced, according to Malachi Beit-Arié. Adolph Neubauer, the Hebraica Curator who produced the Catalogue of Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, thought the work was written in transliterated Italian and had been written somewhere in the Italian peninsula. This is a plausible guess, but does not stand up to a closer examination of the manuscript. Laura Minervini, an Italian scholar, studied it more recently and wrote about it.

It is very unlikely that an Italian Jew would want to read the Orlando Furioso in Spanish. Furthermore, a Sephardi descendant of those expelled from Iberia residing in the Italian lands would not need to read the work in Hebrew letters, in the unlikely case that they could not read the Latin alphabet.

The work offers a fascinating view into a world where Jews in the Ottoman Empire kept up with the reading preferences of their contemporaries in the Hispanic world, yet found it more congenial to read them in the Hebrew alphabet. Curiously, the work was transliterated following the source word for word, with no attempt to “judaise” the original’s Christian phrasing, as is often the case for similar works. The very world described in the Orlando Furioso, a world of valiant Christian and Muslim knights (some of them women), ladies, sorcerers, flying steeds, enchanted castles and exotic lands would seem totally alien to traditional Jewish culture, and yet somebody clearly saw it as worth the effort to produce this transliteration. Thirty-six of the Spanish translation’s forty-five cantos were transliterated, with the only apparent difference between the two being the suppression of thirty-eight of the seventy-two stanzas added by Urrea to Canto 34 (35 in the Italian original), eulogising the great figures of Spanish history.

The Spanish Orlando Furioso in Hebrew letters (aljamiado) gives us a glimpse of a world of which very little has remained, where the descendants of Jewish exiles from the Iberian Peninsula read a widely successful Italian chivalric romance in a Spanish translation written in Hebrew letters, comprising thousands of stanzas relating the wildly improbable adventures of knights and ladies. For all these reasons and specificities, it throws light on a fascinating corner of Jewish life.

Dr César Merchán-Hamann
Fellow Librarian & Director of the Leopold Muller Memorial Library, Bodleian Libraries; Victor Blank Curator of Hebraica & Judaica, Bodleian Library

Inauguration of The Jewish Languages Bookshelf

We are honoured to launch today The Jewish Languages Bookshelf, an online blog series of short articles on specific manuscripts, printed books, notes, documents and ephemera written in any of the multitude of Judeo-languages from late antiquity until today. This new series of brief and accessible yet scholarly articles is a publication of the Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages (OSRJL), recently created by the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. As of October 2021, the OSRJL offers free, online classes in twelve different rare Jewish languages, some still spoken today, others known only from texts, and most of them threatened by extinction.

For the past two thousand years in all the communities of the Diaspora, Jews spoke the vernacular languages of their non-Jewish neighbours while using their ancestral Hebrew and Aramaic for education, religion and literature. With time, these spoken vernaculars acquired linguistic specificity and began shaping Jewish culture and identity. While originally means of communicating with the world outside Jewish communities, these languages eventually became the means of expressing emotions and daily concerns within Jewish families themselves.

These “mothers-tongues”—reputed to convey frivolous messages such as magic recipes; wedding songs; lullabies; tales and stories of knights, princesses and dragons; or special, simplified adaptations of Biblical accounts for the supposedly less educated women and children—were nonetheless often committed to writing. The vernacular sounds of home and street seeped through the walls of synagogues, institutions of learning and printing houses to penetrate the learned spheres of liturgy, education and literary creation.

Manuscripts, books, almanacs, newspapers, magazines, tracts and written notes on a variety of mundane and intellectual subjects written in Judeo-languages, usually in Hebrew letters, became inseparable companions of the Jews throughout their history. The Jewish Languages Bookshelf celebrates these writings and their roles in shaping Jewish life. The editors are delighted to share with our readers the insights and discoveries of little-known writings, and invite the growing community of scholars of Judeo-languages to contribute to The Bookshelf. We are proud to open the series with a glimpse at the Judeo-language treasures of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, as detailed by Dr César Merchán-Hamann.

Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger
President, OCHJS; Director, Centre for Hebrew & Jewish Studies; Professor of Hebrew Manuscript Studies, EPHE, PSL; Fellow, Corpus Christi College
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