Jona van der Schelde

The prettiest Jewish language

(Engin Korkmaz, Dreamstime)

There are a lot of Jewish languages and they all have their own wonderful quirks, profound idioms and fascinating histories. When it comes purely to sound, though, the absolute beautifullest one has to be Judeo-Italian. It is more a collection of vernaculars (with names like Ghettaiolo, Romanesco, Iudesco), often very old (Jews were already living in the center of the Roman Empire as long ago as before the destruction of the Second Temple) and with a long literary tradition. Especially from the Middle Ages, we find lots of Judeo-Italian texts (written in Hebrew script, like most Jewish languages), like a 14th-century glossary for the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah in which baked dough gets translated as ‘pizza’, which is the first ever (!) written mention of that now so ubiquitous delicacy.

But let’s talk about the beauty. This comes through due to the seamless weaving together of Hebrew roots with Italian suffixes, yielding unquestionable gems. Talking, for example is ‘dabberare’ and eating ‘akhlare’, from Hebrew ledaber and le’ekhol respectively. Bad luck is ‘malmazallo’ and goodness ‘tovezza’. Shabbat is ‘sciabadde’ and a ‘magna-tora’ is a quick reader (literally a Torah-eater, from the Old-Italian form of mangiare). The most fun one I encountered may be ‘khamissido’, which means a slap, derived of course from Hebrew khamesh meaning five (as you use that amount of fingers for a slap). That last example comes from the Judeo-Piedmontese dialect which is nostalgically described by legendary writer and chemist Primo Levi in the first chapter of his book The Periodic Table

A few other charming examples: ‘hasirud’ which means a mess (derived from the Hebrew word for pig, khazir), ‘gannaviare’ (to steal, from Hebrew root ganav), barocaba (a more melodious way of saying barukh haba – welcome).  

The word ‘mezuza’ in Judeo-Italian may be used as a euphemism for a beautiful woman, while ‘khanukia’ may refer to an ugly, old hag (through the association with the dusty state of many old menorot). Judeo-Italian is no doubt a ‘mezuza’ of a language, of a beauty which will have you kiss your hand in true Italian fashion.

About the Author
Jona van der Schelde loves language and cycling. He lives in the Netherlands and teaches Hebrew.
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