Jews and Language
By Ethan Tratner
For thousands of years, Jews have lived as a marginalized people exiled throughout the world. After massive immigrations to countries such as Israel and America and thousands of years living as a minority, the question emerged: what makes Jews unique and where do they belong? In America, many Jews acculturate into society, yet they manage to retain uniquely Jewish traditions. One such aspect of Jewish culture that sets Jews apart from their surrounding cultures is language. Jews have always used their own language, Hebrew, in religious ceremonies and texts. Within their communities, however, a variety of secular languages were spoken in everyday life. Many of these distinctly Jewish languages are in danger of extinction. It is imperative that Jews attempt to preserve their many languages because it adds vibrancy to our culture.
The ancient Jews spoke Hebrew. This is in the Semitic language group that includes Aramaic, Assyrian and Arabic. These languages originated and were spoken throughout the Middle East. The ancient Jews were subject to attack from various expanding empires fighting over the region. After the loss of the kingdoms of Judea and Israel the Jews were scattered across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. With the loss of a singular homeland, the Jews integrated into these new empires. Although the Jews are now living in the Diaspora or exile, they have not dissolved into their new nations. Hebrew remained the Jewish language of prayer and new languages formed within the now dispersed Jewish communities.
The Jews, scattered and living in thousands of towns, created a vast trade network between their communities. Jews fell into the niche of craftsmen, artisans and traders within these societies. They began to converse internally in their own unique languages and interacted extensively with the peoples around them, which required firm knowledge of multiple languages. Wherever the Jews settled, their own languages were shaped by the people around them. The Ashkenazi Jews originally settled in the area which would become Germany and Southern France. Their language transformed into Yiddish, a fusion of old German and Hebrew. Jews also traveled into the Iberian Peninsula into the nations of Spain and Portugal. They developed Ladino, a fusion of Spanish and Hebrew. After Islam spread with the empire of the Islamic Caliphate, Arabic spread across the Middle East and North Africa. Jews formed Judeo-Arabic which combines Arabic and Hebrew. While all these languages were fusions, they were all written with the Hebrew alphabet.
These languages, similar to the Jews who spoke them, flourished for hundreds of years. Yet Jews were subject to various campaigns of persecution: Inquisitions, Blood Libel and Pogroms. These campaigns of persecution shifted Jewish populations across the globe, and with them, their unique languages. Jews flooded Russia, Poland, the Netherlands and eventually America and Israel. These migrations added the languages of these nations to the list of Jewish languages.
When Jews began immigrating to Israel the question of language became a new focus. Jews spoke many languages but had only several in common. A Zionist named Eliezer ben Yehuda decided to create a new language based on ancient Hebrew. His son was the first native speaker of Hebrew in almost two thousand years. He campaigned for the Jews to return to their ancestral homeland and to adopt Hebrew as the new language of the Jewish people. The Hebrew movement gained popularity and became the language of Israel after its founding in 1948. Jewish immigrants from the Middle East, Europe and Africa populated the new nation and made it a homeland for the Jews. These new immigrants adopted the language of Hebrew.
Language is part of Jewish culture and identity, and it separates Jews from the peoples around them. With the creation of the state of Israel and assimilation into nations such as the United States, many of these languages have become scarce. Ladino, Yiddish and Judeo-Arabic are in danger of becoming extinct. Some estimate the number of Yiddish speakers close to 750,000 and growing (before the Holocaust there was an estimated 12 million). Approximately 100,000 people speak Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic nearly gone. These two languages are not growing and are considered endangered.
As a History and Jewish Studies student at UCSC I have studied many aspects of Jewish culture. Language is a major aspect of Jewish lives that has always set them apart from the people around them. As religion remains an integral part of Jewish identity, languages are also important to Jewish heritage. They are part of the Jewish people’s unique history and give us insight into the lives and communities of our ancestors. Although modernity and assimilation may seem like a blessing, they come at the expense of certain aspects of culture. Language is just one part of the Jewish identity that is at risk of disappearing. These are the languages of our ancestors and preserving them is one way to stand up for our identity. We must prevent the loss of Jewish culture in the face of modernity.
Published on page 39 of the Winter 2011 issue of Leviathan.