Search
  • rabbinathan

“Hebrew is not a Jewish language…”

I have a life-long love of learning languages. At school I spent my lunch-hours learning Greek and took after-school classes in Biblical Hebrew. At university I read Classics and spent far too much time writing Latin poetry. My attempts as a rabbinic student to learn Arabic have been well-documented, and I passed all the ulpan stages in Modern Hebrew, even if I struggled to transform the words from the page to my mouth. One of my first jobs as a rabbi was in Luxembourg, where my working language was French, where again there was a large gap between my theoretical knowledge, gained as a schoolboy, and the very practical skill of talking, which took a few years to develop on the streets.


Certain languages defeated me: after a year spent in Hungary I had little more than a smattering, although I specialize in knowing the names of fruit and vegetables. I told myself that I was there to study chess and not Hungarian, but I still needed to eat! In Singapore I took four private classes in Mandarin, by which time I understood that I would not progress much without doing homework between sessions, and so switched directions and started taking lessons in Spanish. And all of this despite the irony that whichever language I speak, it always sounds like English.


In short, I like to have at least one language on the go at any time, and so when I heard that Oxford Centre for Hebrew & Jewish Studies had established a new School for Rare Jewish Languages, there was no holding me back. We are fortunate to live in a time where you can sit on your sofa and study at Harvard; thanks to the pandemic-accelerated developments in video technology, classes that would have been deemed too niche for one university or one location now have the potential to gather a critical mass of students from all over the world.


Naturally I jumped in with both feet, making applications for some of the dozen courses on offer. I was not sure if I would be accepted for any of them, given my age and linguistic background, but was delighted to receive positive replies for four languages: Yiddish, Judeo-Tat (Juhuri), Judeo-Italian and Ladino. My wife was a little less pleased, the programme began in the midst of us spending a lot of time in hospital, but I was convinced that the hour a day spent Monday-Thursday on these classes was essential to maintain my sanity during this stressful time.


Monday afternoons have been spent learning Yiddish. Out of my four new languages, the method for this one has been most akin to the learning of any modern language. Classes have been well-structured, with a few minutes for conversation at the beginning, followed by weekly progress in Sheva Zucker’s Yiddish text-book, with each session being rounded off by a Yiddish song. The class is taught by Dr. Beruriah Wiegand, Lector in Yiddish at Oxford University, whose gentle humour and warm manner is most conducive to learning. Despite having never studied in Yiddish before, I went straight into the “Advanced Beginners” class, which started in chapter 8b of the text-book. This meant that I had to speed-read my way through the first seven and a half chapters in a few days before the course began, and although I am a little shy to speak still, I think I am managing to keep up.


On Tuesdays, it’s been Juhuri. This is the Jewish language that has been spoken by the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan and Dagestan, and an entirely different linguistic world. Although we quickly learnt that “Juhuri” is rhotacized and means “Yiddish”, or rather that both words mean “Jewish” in their own language. Taught by Professor Gilles Authier from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, the classes have a very different feel. Prof. Authier has literally written the grammar of Juhuri in his “Grammaire juhuri” (2012), but seems more down-to-earth that what I would imagine is typical for the formal French professorial style. He corrects mercilessly students’ homework live on screen, but in which other language would you be immediately asked to translate sentences like “My wife struck my nose and poured the blood in a bottle”? In case you were wondering, it’s “Зенме зе вини мере ве декуьрд хуне э шише.”


Here I should add a note about my fellow students. Each class seems to have started with between thirty and fifty students, with a slight diminishing of numbers as the term has progressed. The demographics for each language has been quite different, but in general there are students of all ages and many nationalities. Only one other student is familiar to me, one of my former teachers at rabbinical school who is now a librarian at the Bodleian. Various facebook and whatsapp groups have been set up to bring the participants together, but it’s obviously much less easy to get to know your fellow students on zoom than if you were really sitting in a classroom together.


In Juhuri, one of the joys of the class is to watch the linguistic clash between the expert professor and the children or grandchildren of Mountain Jews who were, and in some cases still are, speaking Juhuri together. They have been not slow to correct the professor or his assistant, and while many of the differences are dialectal, according to which part of the Caucuses their families were from, it seems clear that Professor Authier enjoys greatly the access to the linguistic refreshment that these new students offer. The major text we have studied this semester was a poem that begins “I went to a forest”. The interpretation of the poem for Professor Authier hinged on the meaning of a key word, about which he has spilt much ink. Two of the students checked with their relatives and offered elongated versions of this poem with a different “key word”, neutralizing his interpretation. It’s fascinating to see this discussion, which also touches upon questions of genre, e.g. whether to study Juhuri as a written language (e.g. this poem is like one of Horace’s Odes) or a modern, living one (e.g. this poem is more of a contemporary nursery rhyme).


Wednesdays are for Judeo-Italian, where we have yet to start studying texts but have begun with the theory of Jewish languages in general. Here I was stunned by the title of the article “Hebrew is not a Jewish language”, which somewhat provocatively posits that to be defined as a “Jewish language”, a language is rather a minority version of the local vernacular, which Modern Hebrew is not. This theoretical approach helped me to understand that we can learn about the Hebrew proficiency of local Jews by the volume of words that cross over into their local Jewish language, and that actually meaningful knowledge of Hebrew (i.e. understanding what the words mean beyond being able to read them) was little better historically than it is amongst diaspora Jewish communities today.


The Judeo-Italian class milieu is very Italian, with a large number of Italian students, and we were advised by our teacher, Dr. Marilena Colasuonno (from the University of Naples) to brush up our Italian at the beginning of the course. I am a little behind on this, but it has been fascinating to see how Judeo-Italian (and no doubt standard Italian) developed from Medieval Latin. As Dr. Calasuonno has frequently told us, there is not just one Judeo-Italian, rather several, as each local community were adapting the not-yet-standardized Italian that was being spoken around them. Unfortunately, unlike with Yiddish and Juhuri, there are no speakers of Judeo-Italian today, but in the coming semester we will be tackling some Judeo-Italian texts from the thirteenth-seventeenth centuries. And for anyone who was wondering It was in this course that I learnt that pizza is Jewish! That is to say, the word “pizza” finds its earliest attested form in Judeo-Italian, rather than in any other form of Italian.


And my week is rounded off on Thursdays by Ladino, taught by the youthful and engaging Dr. Carlos Yebra Lopez from New York University. His research focusses on the revitalization of Ladino by digital means, and he is at the forefront of efforts to document and archive materials from Ladino speakers around the world. He also oozes a sense of fun.


One of the hallmarks of Jewish languages is that they are often but not exclusively written in Hebrew letters (Juhuri is more frequently written in Cyrillic), and the early Ladino classes focused on reading in Rashi script (which I did know) and Solitreo (which I did not), as well as the orthography of writing Ladino in Hebrew letters. With this reading challenge out of the way, the classes have now started to focus on Ladino as a spoken language. Classes start to resemble my early Spanish lessons, albeit with the sprinkling of Ladino expressions e.g. “Salud I beracha” and “mashallah” interspersed, and it is very useful to be able to compare the Ladino spellings with the Spanish that I have studied.


The pace of this class has been a little slow, and nothing compared to the acceleration of the Juhuri class in which we learnt five tenses in the last ten minutes of one session! It is obviously a huge challenge for the teachers to decide the level of the class and balance the diverse needs of the students, with the variety of different linguistic backgrounds. Until now I have enjoyed the classes immensely, and as anyone who knows me well can confirm, the fact that I barely missed a class this past semester, despite everything that has been going on around me, including two months of hospitalized isolation, is testament to how exciting these courses have been.


In fact, I have enjoyed these four classes so much that as well as continuing them for the rest of the year, I have applied to study three more that begin this semester: Judeo-French, Judeo-Greek and Judeo-neo-Aramaic. In each case it makes sense since I have some background in the related language, but if accepted I am sure my wife is going to bottle my blood! Let’s see what the new term brings, but for the record the languages on offer that I am definitely not studying are Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic, Classical Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Turkish and Karaim. Well, at least not this year…

490 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

The days of Elul are falling away and Rosh Hashanah will soon be upon us. On the streets of Jerusalem the pomegranates redden on the trees. The playgrounds empty and quieten as the new school year beg

I grew up in a poor family; we owned few treasured possessions beyond our books. Every wall was covered with them, the accumulation of dusty tomes being a life’s long work. It had been my father’s dre

There are four new years: the first of Elul is the new year for animals.[1] Sheep conceive in Nisan and give birth in Elul, and so it is fitting that their New Year is on the first of Elul.[2] Sheep e