Speaking of Language

In the flood of congratulatory articles celebrating Israel’s 75th birthday, it’s been odd and surprising to encounter one side of the language debate that filled my childhood home — Yiddish (my leftist father) vs Hebrew (my right-wing Zionist mother) — almost a century after it was first promulgated, and after the mass genocide of our people rendered the outcome inevitable. We Jews have always been a polyglot people; a glance at our history indicates that Hebrew has never been our only ‘Jewish’ language, and for most of our long life not even our primary one (scholars differ on the era of the shift, viewing it as anywhere from the 4th c. BCE to the 2nd CE at the latest).

The reality was that already by Second Temple times Hebrew was restricted to being a ‘sacred language’, and the Bible needed to be translated into the vernaculars for Jews themselves. Moreover this was the case for most Jews throughout at least more than the last 2000 years — most Jewish men were not scholars and did not spend their days in yeshiva (this kollel practice emerged even among the haredim only after the Shoah); a rudimentary cheder reading knowledge of the prayers and some other liturgy by rote tended to be the sum total of their Hebrew education; and women were excluded from Hebrew learning altogether.

During the time of the Second Temple, official translators (into Aramaic — the Targum) were required at public Torah readings; the primary Jewish Tanakh in use at the time was the Septuagint (Greek translation); Rashi wrote in Old French; most of Rambam’s writing (including the Guide for the Perplexed, translated into Hebrew only later by Samuel ibn Tibbon) was in Arabic (using Hebrew script), as was most of the Hebrew poetry of the Golden Age; much of the Talmud is in Aramaic; the Zohar is in literary Aramaic; and so on.

To say that Hebrew was the universal language of the Jews historically is tantamount to claiming that Latin was until recently the universal language of the world’s Catholics – true in a very specialised way, and only for a tiny scholarly elite. While most adult Jewish men had a rote reading ability of Biblical/Rabbinic Hebrew for the purpose of davening and leading a seder, that was the general extent of their ‘knowledge’; most Jewish women lacked even that.

There were strong Zionist rationales for creating Modern Hebrew — toda rabba Ben Yehuda — but the marginalization and repudiation of all the other Jewish languages was a Zionist step way too far. It may have been polemically necessary for early Israeli nation-building; but it amounts to cultural and historical amnesia and erasure now. The extraordinary diversity of Jewish history and culture is, I think, our strength, and any kind of triumphalism is our proven weakness.

It is the reclamation of their own recent history that motivates most younger folks now ‘reclaiming’ Yiddish, plus its rich cultural and political legacy. The same is true for those now ‘reclaiming’ Ladino. And for the record, Arabic was also a major language of the Jews historically, and until very recently.

I am happy to continue my family legacy of multilingualism, and I remain stupefied at most native English-speakers’ inability and unwillingness to acquire other languages. But in truth, the current ‘universal’ Jewish language would have to be considered…English, much as Aramaic was at the time of the Second Temple, and Arabic in the early Middle Ages..

I don’t think Israel’s cause is strengthened among younger Jews by a repudiation of their own Jewish history and legacy, or the kind of Zionist triumphalism that thankfully was beginning to be amended even within Israel itself — eg with the renaming of the ‘Museum of the Diaspora’ to the ‘Museum of the Jewish People’. I remain hopeful that the current political turn within Israel to an unfortunate triumphalism is temporary.

About the Author
Kitty Hoffman's award-winning writing has appeared in literary anthologies and journals including The New Quarterly, Boulevard, The Commons, and Prism. A spiritual director in Montreal, she is in the final year of rabbinical studies and working on a book of literary nonfiction about her medieval ancestor, the father of European kabbalah, and the weight of her Holocaust legacy. More info at
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