What’s that you say?
January 30, 2013
A few years back, while fact-checking an article about the Purim gifts known as mishloah manot, I came across this paragraph at a website written by and for Orthodox Jews:
The Binyan Tzion, Rav Yaakov Etlinger, is Misupak if you are Yotzei the Mitzva of Mishloach Manos if you present it yourself, since Mishloach implies that you must send it with a shaliach.
The passage is a beautiful example of Yeshivish, the Yiddish-Hebrew-English patois spoken wherever observant Jews gather to talk Torah. I’m no yeshiva bucher, but between my intermediate Hebrew and excellent Google skills I was able to decode the paragraph. To wit: A legal authority known as the “Builder of Zion” doubts that you fulfill the commandment of delivering Purim gifts if you do it personally — because the Hebrew word for such gifts implies that they must be sent by an emissary.
Yeshivish is probably the starkest example of the ways “Jewish” vocabulary shapes the English language. But we all do it, whether we drop a Hebrew word into a sentence or shape an English phrase with a Yiddish construction (“From this he makes a living?”). Such expressions not only announce that we are Jews, but what kind of Jews we are.
That’s why I’ve become addicted to the Jewish English Lexicon (jewish-languages.org/jewish-english-lexicon). Creator Sarah Bunin Benor calls it “a Wikipedia-style database of Hebrew and Yiddish words used in Jewish English.” I’ve written about Benor before. An associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, she was the coauthor, with Steven M. Cohen, of a survey called “American Jewish Language and Identity.” “Jews wear their identities on their tongues,” they concluded.
The lexicon asks people to go on-line and suggest “Jewish” words and definitions; the last time I checked, there were 790 entries, from Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish, English, Ladino, and Arabic.
The lexicon includes words you’d expect (chutzpah, plotz, mishegoss), the more esoteric vocabulary of religious Jews (chumrah, tsniusdik, emunah), and the Hebrew expressions that are regularly used by frequent visitors to Israel (b’tayavon, ruach, beseder).
Like Benor’s survey, the lexicon suggests that the Members of the Tribe are really Members of the Tribes. “Some are Yiddish lovers,” Benor writes, “some are engaged in religious life and learning, some have a strong connection to Israel, some have Sephardi heritage, and some are all of the above.”
Some of these tribes within the Tribe are well-documented; Benor herself has just published a book, Becoming Frum (Rutgers University Press), about the ways newly Orthodox Jews acquire a new vocabulary and break with their non-Orthodox pasts. Another tribe includes kids who have been to day school or Jewish summer camp and toss around Hebrew expressions like “davka” and “sababa.”
Playing around with the lexicon, I realized I am part of my own tribe: the Jewish Professional. In fact, I contributed “Jewish professional” to the lexicon, defining it as “an employee, excluding support staff, of an institution specifically or largely devoted to a Jewish cause or agenda.”
Hang out with other people who work for Jewish institutions and you forget that not everyone knows what you mean by words like “chosenness,” “continuity,” “engagement,” “unaffiliated,” and “peoplehood.”
So here’s a little game: Translate the following paragraphs, and match them to the websites or author I got them from. It may or may not tell you what tribe you belong to, but it just may get you to consult the Jewish English Lexicon.
A. Our specific interest in encouraging engagement in Jewish life has energized the Jewish cultural scene. The initiative focuses on collaboration among Jewish organizations celebrating the connection, continuity, and culture that come from diverse Jewish traditions.
B. Following WFA training, the tzevet embarked on a three-day tiyul. On this tiyul, they went canoeing, biking, hiking, and rock climbing! The tiyul was led by a former Moshavah madrich and sgan. The tzevet loved having Scott on the tiyul, especially because he was their Moshavah madrich when they were chanichim!
C. With gratitude to HKBH, I announce the publication of an English-language treatment of Nesivos Shalom by the Slonimer Rebbe. Like my sefer on Maharal, this is not a strict translation, but a distillation and adaptation of parts of the Rebbe’s sichos on the parshah.
D. Oy gevalt, I’m so ferklempt that I could plotz!
So grab your yarmulka —
The one you got for Chanukah —
Let’s put on our yarmulkas and —
Hey! Hey! Do that Hebrew thing!
1. “Weird” Al Yankovich
2. Rabbi Yitzhok Adlerstein
3. Koret Foundation
4. Union for Reform Judaism
Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor-in-Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.