Off The Shelf | Keep talking scholars find meaning in language of Jews

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“Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!” So sings Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” (in words penned by Jewish lyricist Alan Jay Lerner). To her dismay, I’ll be highlighting new books that focus on just that.

“Jews and Words” is a collaborative effort by University of Haifa–based historian Fania Oz-Salzberger and her father, the great novelist Amos Oz. Stating that “ours is not a bloodline but a textline,” the two celebrate the oral and written word as the binding substance of Jewish civilization.

Looking back to last week’s Passover seders (whose very purpose is to fulfill the biblical commandment “And you shall tell it to your children”), it is hard to dispute the authors’ contention that “the national and cultural genealogy of the Jews has always depended on the intergenerational transmittal of verbal content.”

Commissioned as a companion volume to the new Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, the book was composed in a strikingly colloquial English (it has yet to be translated into its authors’ native Hebrew). And this makes sense — unlike Israelis, who study the Bible as part of the national curriculum, secular Americans are unlikely to have much exposure to the biblical, rabbinic or literary texts or the gems of the Hebrew language that the authors spend much of the book sharing.

“Jews and Words” occasionally ventures into polemics when the authors, as self-professed “atheists of the book” whose “Jewish identity is not faith-powered,” repeatedly assert their right to be at the table engaging with biblical and rabbinic literature while adamantly rejecting its religious underpinnings. The frequency of their digs at Orthodoxy gives the feeling of an ax to grind. And indeed, they acknowledge their increasingly isolated intellectual territory, lamenting that secular Israelis are turning away from engagement with the Bible and allowing it to become the domain of increasingly extremist religious and nationalist endeavors.

While I would argue with a number of the points in the book, Oz and Oz-Salzberger would acknowledge my response as evidence that they have succeeded. They celebrate debate — sparring with words rather than weapons — as an essential Jewish value. As they offer in a sort of secular blessing, “May our controversies keep sizzling. May we all be locking horns to the end of time … and knowledge shall be increased.”

Sarah Bunin Benor studies words in a different manner. A sociolinguist who teaches at Hebrew Union College, she is among the first scholars to focus systematically on the spoken language of American Jews.

Her new book, “Becoming Frum” (“frum” is a Yiddish-derived adjective denoting religious observance), emerges out of a yearlong study of an Orthodox community in Philadelphia to identify the language patterns of newly observant Jews.

Since the 1960s, thousands of American Jews from secular or liberal religious backgrounds have become ba’alei tshuvah, choosing to adopt the norms of Orthodox Judaism. Doing so involves not only taking on stringent ritual practices, but overcoming large cultural differences in order to participate fully in a close-knit synagogue community. In a process echoing that of the aforementioned Eliza Doolittle, Benor uncovers the central role language plays in newly Orthodox Jews’ adjustment.

This acculturation is complicated by the many features that increasingly distinguish the language spoken within Orthodox communities in America. They include using a large number of Hebrew and Yiddish words in everyday speech; incorporating Yiddish grammatical patterns into spoken English; and eschewing Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew words in favor of traditional Ashkenazi convention (e.g., Sukkes rather than Sukkot). A Jewish outsider hearing two Orthodox Jews communicate in “Yeshivish” is likely to find much of the conversation unintelligible.

With its narrow focus and its detailed account of Benor’s field study, it is unlikely that “Becoming Frum” will reach a large readership. But I found it interesting, and I valued how it prompted me to think differently about language in my own world. I became conscious, for example, of the extent of my own “code-switching,” such as telling certain people that I’m going to shul, while telling others (non-Jews, Israelis and people I don’t know) that I’m going to synagogue.

Benor also happens to be one of the scholars whose work is included in the new anthology “Choosing Yiddish.”

Formerly the first language of millions of Jews, Yiddish has been in dramatic decline, courtesy of the Holocaust, Soviet repression, the adoption of Hebrew as the language of the State of Israel and the assimilation of diaspora Jews. However, there are two disparate arenas in which it is experiencing revitalization. The first is in the rapidly expanding Hassidic world, where it is the preferred language of daily life. The second is in universities, where a new generation of scholars is expanding the field of Yiddish studies.

“Choosing Yiddish” is the first book to reflect the diversity of Yiddish studies in the academic world. Reflecting the state of the language, it is notable that a majority of its 26 contributors grew up without knowledge of Yiddish and learned it as a foreign language. Feeling something like a science fair with topics that span eras and continents, the book offers a showcase for the fascinating directions of scholarship in this growing field.

“Jews and Words” by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger (248 pages, Yale University Press, $25)

“Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism” by Sarah Bunin Benor (288 pages, Rutgers University Press, $27.95)

“Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture” edited by Lara Rabinovitch, Shiri Goren and Hannah S. Pressman (394 pages, Wayne State University Press, $34.95)

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.