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
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:
- activities: tiyul ‘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]’
- locations: toren ‘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 divisions: kvutsa ‘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
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 BarackObama.com” 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.