Nissim Black, an African American Hasidic rapper, offers some wise words about how long-time Orthodox Jews should respond to the zeal of ba'alei teshuva and gerim, echoing the analysis in Becoming Frum:
In a class I teach for undergraduate students at the University of Southern California, Language, Race, and Identity in the United States Today, the first assignment is to write a Language and Identity Autobiography. On this blog, I feature some exceptional student essays, posted with their permission. This one is by Eileen Toh, a first-year USC student.
An Internal Battle
By Eileen Toh
“God, why can’t you just be more Korean?”
I froze at the out-of-the-blue comment. I let it seep into my mind; I was just hanging out with my friends during lunch, enjoying my usual bagel. But now, I felt myself on the defensive.
Offended, I glared back at the lady, another one of Mom’s Korean friends, and set her straight: “I am Korean, and you know it.”
“Oh no, Eileen, it was just a joke,” she spat back. Defeated, I went back to my bagel, without saying another word.
Because of course, at that time, she wasn’t completely wrong.
“What are you?” people ask me.
My name’s Eileen Toh. I’m an 18-year-old college freshman born and raised in Saratoga, a Bay Area-based bubble of booming tech industries and unreasonably priced housing property. I play cello and piano, love writing for student publications, and plan on becoming a doctor. These aspects make up who I am as a person. But when someone asks me those unwelcoming questions (“What are you?” “I mean, where are you from from?”) that strategically target my racial identity, they never believe me when I say I am Korean.
I can’t really blame them — there’s Park, Lee, and Kim, but Toh is not a usual Korean last name. Some have also said that I don’t look like the “typical Korean.” When I asked what that looks like, they would squint their eyes and say: “I just want some bulgogi. Eileen, go make me some kimchi.” Well, so much for that.
As a kid, I loved everything that had to do with Korea. The food, for one, makes vegetables taste like dessert. Every birthday, my family gathered to eat seaweed soup, and every Korean New Year, we feasted on tteokguk, a soup with sliced, chewy rice cakes, which signified another year of strength and good health. The traditional Korean movies I watched with my sisters, the calming ballads we sang along to during road trips, my turquoise and magenta hanbok I wore proudly to my Saturday Korean classes on special occasions — I enjoyed every moment of being Korean.
That is, until I became ashamed of it.
On the first day of first grade, Ms. Haas, a plump white lady, called my parents to notify them that I was required to take a class for kids whose second language was English.
“But… why?” Mom asked over the phone.
“Because, Ms. Toh, Eileen’s just not pronouncing things right.”
Mom checked with me at home. I was speaking completely fine with the exception of a few sounds: Instead of saying calcium as “kal-see-um,” I picked up Mom’s stumbling broken English pronunciation “kar-shoom.” And I unknowingly pronounced zebra as “jee-brah.”
“It’s just a little different, that’s all,” Mom told me. “But you aren’t any different. I want you to know that.”
For the rest of first grade, I went to my regular first grade classes as well as my ESL classes, bearing the ignorant remarks of my classmates (“So, you’re Asian but you’re not Chinese? All the words that come out of your mouth are ‘ching, chang, chong’ though.”). I excelled in ESL by watching Disney Channel and mimicking the actors’ voices every night. Soon enough, I adopted the “normal American” voice, masking my broken English and perfecting the “z” sound.
And that was only the beginning. It took me a while to realize that I was the only Korean American in my school in a sea of Chinese, Indian, and white people. People immediately categorized me into the broad umbrella term “Asian” or “yellow,” though I didn’t want to think of myself as that.
Throughout elementary and middle school, I found myself ostracized by the cliques around me. The principal called our class the most racially segregated grade to ever step foot on campus. The white girls, with their beach houses and leather Michael Kors jackets and Louis Vuitton backpacks, mingled with the white boys, who made an effort to look like the T-Birds from Grease; the Indian girls only dated within their Indian network of boys; and the Chinese girls, with their sneered-at Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts and Gap jeans, admitted that they settled for the Chinese boys, who only cared about their Wii games and math olympiads. These were the options I was to be sorted into despite my unwillingness to be so categorized.
As the Korean who didn’t seem to click with the Chinese group, I found it hard to fit in. I needed to fit a stereotype, but clearly, none of them worked like a cookie-cutter. Already rejected from the Chinese group due to my inability to speak the Chinese language and refusal to take Chinese classes per Mom’s encouragement, I looked to the white group of girls — the self-proclaimed “Flirty Fifteen” — for acceptance. By now, my voice was considered “normal” by my teachers and peers, but it was time to do a few tweaks.
I threw in some “like, you know?”s here and there, and after listening to some of their conversations during my English classes, I perfected the hair flips and the unamused laughter and even the so-cute-that-boys-would-notice sneezes. I adopted look-a-likes of their clothes from clearance sales and drugstore makeup products using my babysitting money. And knowing which TV shows and celebrities the Flirty Fifteen obsessed over, I invested myself in One Direction and Gossip Girl, abandoning the Korean Drama Saturdays with Mom. But hey, everyone has to make some sacrifices, right?
But my efforts simply weren’t enough. No matter how much I looked like them, there was one difference that everyone could point out: my appearance. I was physically different: my skin was too olive-toned, my nose too round and flat, and my double-eyelids barely noticeable. By going out so much for expensive brunches and after-school snack sessions, I couldn’t keep up with my lame paper bag lunches and shrinking piggy bank.
Slowly but surely, I could tell that my parents weren’t happy with the person I’d become. “You look like an Asian Barbie,” Dad said with a frown as I went out in a tight, small dress for the fall dance. My grades also dropped; the Flirty Fifteen said it was cool if people didn’t study, and by spending so much time with them, I never had the chance to do my algebra. “You’re in advanced math, Eileen?” a girl scrunched her nose when she saw my textbooks. “That’s just like so, like, Asian and not cool.”
I was opposed to anything Korean. Being Korean before seemed exotic and rare for me, but in this new world of Friday night shopping trips and boy talks, being Korean was geeky and unnecessary, and I quickly came to believe that as I refused to ever tell anyone my Korean middle name. My family wasn’t happy with me when I bailed on watching the newly released Korean movie with them, and I made myself known as the “wannabe American girl” in the Korean community, with the mothers criticizing me every chance they had. I couldn’t even remember how to speak the Korean language.
But one summer, a crisis hit our family. My grandpa, who had been battling lung cancer for the past two years, passed away after the cancer cells metastasized to his other organs.
I remember it all so vividly — it’s a painful memory, yes, but one that significantly molded me into the person I am today. While he was resting, we circled around his bed, overseeing him as my grandmother started crying into his hands that were wrapped with breathing tubes and wires. My aunt wrapped her arms around me as we wept together. My father dropped to the floor, bawling, and my uncle looked down, breathing heavily as the numbers on the heart monitor quickly decreased to a flat zero.
I never was able to say goodbye to him. What struck me is that since I forgot how to speak Korean, I was never able to have a meaningful conversation with him. Just last summer I found out from Dad that he went to the most prestigious national university in Seoul and was a wealthy businessman who invested himself in philanthropic organizations.
His death still stings to this day, and from then on, I found no point in forcing myself to assimilate into any other racial group anymore. I am Eileen Seungmin Toh, a proud granddaughter of Samuel Siewhan Toh, and I am a Korean American.
I took off the makeup, went back to my studies, and reconnected with my family. I laugh just as hard as I did before when I watch the Korean talk shows with my parents, but I also integrate the more American side of my life into the household. Now, thanks to me, Dad has “The Power of Love” by Celine Dion playing in his car when he commutes to work, and Mom lists La La Land and The Imitation Game as her favorite movies of the decade.
Being Korean and American can be disconcerting at times; it’s as if I have to choose between my “Korean Mode” and my “American Mode” throughout the day. However, while switching both on simultaneously can inevitably cause cultural clashes within myself, I like to think of myself as someone who exudes multiple flavors instead of just one. After all, who has ever said that bland vanilla is better than marble cake?
Since 2005, I have taught a class at the University of Southern California called "Language, Race, and Identity in the United States Today." The first assignment is for students to write a 2-3-page language and identity autobiography. Every year, several of my students wow me with their interesting stories and beautiful writing. Because these essays incorporate some of the same themes of language and identity that are found in my book, I decided that I would like to post some of the best ones on this blog. This fall, I highlight a compelling narrative by first-year USC student Amaria Stern, posted with her permission.
- Sarah Bunin Benor
Language and Identity Autobiography
By Amaria Stern
I sit helpless under the gaze of several of my overly intrigued white friends like a small docile puppy who wants nothing more than to be petted and caressed.
“Since you don’t have to wash your hair every day, do you shower every day?”
“Why don’t you straighten your hair?
“Your hair is so cool, like you’re so alternative!”
There was a time when I mistook these statements and questions for a healthy interest in black culture. I basked in the glory of white approval when my Caucasian counterparts seemed so eager to touch my afro. I was ecstatic to be everyone’s token black friend, but as I grew older, shed my insecurities, and began to fall deeply in love with every part of my identity, I realized that my culture was not to be put on display for the white eye. In these realizations, I learned to stop apologizing for my occasional slips into Ebonics or looking down on people who had no intention of using standard English. While being black is not the only important aspect of who I am as a person, it plays the largest role in others’ perception of me, and I have gradually learned to place less value in those perceptions and more value in the richness of my culture despite the way people view it.
I always wondered why my mom (I was always careful not to use the title “Momma” outside of my home and conversations with my close black friends) slightly altered her voice when she was on the phone with someone other than a relative or close friend, but now I realize it to be what I now refer to as the “tip-toe” lifestyle. She was careful not to sound “too black” over the phone, for that could jeopardize whatever business was taking place. I too acquired the tip-toe lifestyle; I tip-toed my way through elementary school, middle school, and halfway through high school. Even when I attended predominantly black schools, I was careful not to be classified as “ghetto” or “ratchet” like some of my other classmates. I was cautious about my appearance, never understanding why my mom wouldn’t allow me to chemically straighten my hair. I was cautious about the music I listened to, or the music I let my white friends think I listened to. I was cautious about the way I spoke. I didn’t realize that I was conditioned to believe that being black was synonymous with being “wrong” as opposed to simply being different and equally as beautiful as any other culture. Even within the black community, I was told that lighter was better, and because I had darker skin, I was less than. I have endured conversations based on the fact that if black people were still physically enslaved, I wouldn’t be allowed in my master’s house, as if the lighter skinned friends that I was speaking with had this great advantage over me because they would be allowed to work in the kitchen. Trying so hard to hide my insecurity about my skin, I always rebutted with my favorite Hairspray quote, “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” Despite this awful reality of colorism within the black community, I still choose to embrace it and devote myself to being a part of change.
Even though I was physically considered to be “too black”, in a social context I wasn’t black enough. Being the child of a pastor and growing up in a strict Christian home, I was what some may call sheltered. Very seldom were my younger sister and I allowed to listen to secular music or watch certain television shows, including seemingly innocent cartoons that my parents thought were subliminally damaging. This meant that our television was never turned to BET or MTV so I missed out on programs that my friends thought were a requirement of being black, like 106 and Park or The Game. On top of this struggle, I battled between my parents’ unnegotiable conservative views and the liberal beliefs held by a majority of people at my performing arts high school. Somehow I managed to please both parties, but one of the most contradictory aspects of my identity was the intersection of being the child of a pastor and eventually the product of a home hit by divorce. I was required to face the confused looks of people who knew my religious identity when they heard me talk about a weekend at my dad’s house. This was yet another example of my aggressive attempts to not be “too black”. I needed people to know that I too had a dad who I saw just as much as my mom and that I was not another stereotypical black child who didn’t have a relationship with her father.
In the midst of this tension, I found peace in my identity as an artist. I have been dancing since I was four and plan to pursue it as a career, but I also have an intense passion for music. This passion for music is influenced largely by my experience in the black church, which is evidence that my identity as an African American and a Christian are extremely interconnected. I consider the black church to be art in itself. Through gospel music, praise dance, and the sermons, the black church offers such a profound sense of purpose, and the intense soulfulness in a service overshadows the lack of value placed on “standard English”. You might hear the pastor exclaim a phrase like “Ain’t God good!” and in response you might hear a member of the congregation shout “Hallelujah!” This practice of call and response is just one example of the sense of family emphasized in the black church, and one of the countless reasons I will always consider it the birthplace of several parts of my identity.
During my freshman year in high school, I transferred from a predominantly white high school in the northern part of Dallas, Texas to an ethnically diverse performing arts school in Downtown Dallas. Because of this change in environment, I felt more comfortable in the way I looked and spoke and my friend groups were much more diverse, but I was still not able to escape this uncomfortable fascination white people had with my blackness. This fascination was accompanied by the unconscious mimicking of the way I expressed myself. If I happened to say something especially “black”, like extending the word “girl” or “boy” before a sentence for dramatic effect, borrowing a phrase from the black roasting culture like “boy if you don’t getcho(instead of “get your”) ole…”, using a facial expression that is infused with some “attitude”, or yelling “YES HONEY”(which I have recently been made aware is borrowed, and often appropriated, from the gay community) when I see a dance move that I like, there is a possibility that a white friend of mine would try their hand at their best impression of me. If I happen to use the slang word “finna” in place of “about to”, or say “Oh Fatha God” when I’m exasperated, or slip into what non-Texans consider a Texan accent and use the word “y’all”, anyone around me foreign to my culture feels quite entertained.
And this is where the issue lies. For such a long time, I saw myself through the eyes of others, and to others I, along with many of my other African American friends, was lunchtime entertainment. My identity was held solely in who others thought I was, but I eventually had to find value in who I was for myself. Learning to appreciate every life experience and how each of them shapes my identity has led me to the conclusion that my culture is more than entertainment and should be treated as such. This allows me to have a deeper respect for other cultures and understand that deviation, especially a deviation in language, is not a downfall.
This article was published on Generation J, a Jewish culture website, in October 2000. The website no longer exists, so I re-publish it here.
“Everyone’s Using Yiddish But Joe Lieberman.”
by Sarah Bunin Benor
Ever since Joe Lieberman was selected as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Jewish language has gone public. The mainstream press and other media have been filled with Hebrew and Yiddish words usually heard only among Jews. Meanwhile Lieberman’s speeches have been filled with phrases associated with Christians. A quick look at who uses which words shows a lot about Jews and American society today.
Jewish and non-Jewish journalists in mainstream publications have used “chutzpah,” “kosher,” “shtik,” and “kibitz,” words that are generally known outside of the Jewish community. But how many non-Jews can translate “davening” (‘praying’), “mitzvah” (‘good deed’), and “minyan” (‘prayer quorum of ten’)? New York magazine used these words without explanation.
In an NPR interview, Linda Wertheimer asked for translation when Abe Foxman discussed “halacha.” A rabbi debating on CNN mentioned Lieberman’s “menshlechkeit.” The Washington Post printed “shul” and “kvell” without translation. Other publications used “bar mitzvah,” “Talmud,” and “Torah” with no explanations. One must wonder: are readers unfamiliar with Judaism confused when they see these foreign words?
Not all Jewish language in the American press has been unexplained. Many journalists have used translated Hebrew in their informational pieces about Lieberman’s religion. Here are some examples, all from widely read newspapers and magazines, with translations as they appeared: “eruv (boundary)”; “pikuach nefesh, translated from Hebrew as ‘concern for human life’”; “Shomer Shabbos (‘Sabbath-observing’)”; “halakha, the vast corpus of traditional Jewish law”; “the concept of ‘communal needs,’ tzarkhei tzibbur”; “tzedakah – social justice”; and “tikkun olam – repairing the world.”
These journalists have taken the opportunity of Lieberman’s selection to teach about Jewish holidays and values – and the Hebrew words Jews use when discussing them. By using this language, some Jewish journalists are also showing a new openness about their identity. In a Newsweek article, Jonathan Alter used several Hebrew and Yiddish words. He pointed out his new Jewish pride when he reported consulting his rabbi, “something I probably wouldn’t have admitted in print to doing before last week.”
Some publications have used Hebrew and Yiddish words for humorous effect, as in Newsweek’s “Conventional Wisdom”: “Special Veep Chutzpah Edition: Gore: … Gutsy goy goes for the gold. Lieberman: … Scintillating Shabbos superstar. … Buchanan: … Picks a right-wing black woman as running mate in fractured party. Oy vey!” This humor shows how closely the public associates Jews with their heritage languages and reminds us of the lasting impact of Borscht Belt comedians.
Even right-wing internet chatters have been using Yiddish, sometimes in derogatory ways. According to The New Republic, “A sample of postings from the Clinton-hating Free Republic website includes: ‘Where’s his yarmulke?’; and ‘There is hardly anything kosher about Liberalman.’”
It seems that so many people with an interest in Lieberman’s Jewishness are using Jewish language – columnists, radio hosts, Jewish leaders, Democrat haters – everyone except Lieberman himself. In his public speeches and interviews reported by the media, he has exhibited very little Jewish influence.
In Lieberman’s acceptance speech in Tennessee, he used one well known Hebrew/Yiddish word: “There are some who might actually call Al Gore’s selection of me an act of chutzpah.” He in effect dissociated himself from the word by attributing it to others. In a TV interview, when asked about the problem that Inauguration 2001 falls on Saturday, he responded, “Well, as my mother would say ... ‘Sweetheart, we should have such a problem.’” He did use a Yiddish-influenced construction, but by quoting his mother, he effectively distanced himself from it. By using some Jewish language and marking it as foreign, he sends the message: Yes, I am a proud Jew, but I talk like an American.
Of course any politician must tailor his speech to the norms of politics. It is rare to hear a non-standard variety of speech used by a politician in a public address. Nobody would expect to hear a Black candidate use African American Vernacular English speaking to an ethnically mixed crowd. But when that same candidate gives a speech to an African American group in Harlem, it would be more acceptable to say something like, “I be workin’ for da people.”
Similarly, Lieberman could tell an Orthodox crowd in Riverdale about the time he stayed by the Gores for Shabbes and Al was a mentsh and acted as his Shabbes goy. But he could not use this language in a televised interview with Tim Russert. Lieberman follows the norms of political language.
In fact, he even adheres to what seems like a right-wing Christian norm of using religious language in political speeches. As the Washington Post reported after his acceptance speech, “Lieberman proved himself fluent in the ubiquitous biblical idiom, sounding not so much Jewish as simply pious. ‘I ask you to allow me to let the spirit move me,’ he said, like any southern preacher might.’”
How surprised would you be to hear this religious phrase at synagogue? This is not the only instance of the Jewish senator sounding like a Christian preacher. Lieberman has peppered his speech with “Praise the Lord” and referred to Gore as “a servant of God Almighty.” Perhaps these utterances are translations of Hebrew phrases. “Praise the Lord” might be a literal translation of “Hodu L’adonai” or the more common “Boruch Hashem.” And “God Almighty” is similar to “El Shadai.” But these English phrases, associated with Christianity, are rarely heard among Orthodox Jews.
There are a few explanations for Lieberman’s use of Christian-sounding language. First, to project his persona of deep religiosity, he must use what most Americans think of as religious language. But this is not to suggest that “praise the Lord” and “God Almighty” do not come naturally to the Senator. Lieberman came of age in the ‘60s, when yarmulkes, long skirts, and the use of Hebrew words were less common among modern Orthodox Jews. It is likely that in his Orthodox community growing up he heard phrases that we now consider Christian.
Even now, many Orthodox Jews translate their Hebrew for non-Jewish audiences. When a non-Jew asks one Boro Park woman how she is, she answers “Thank God,” rather than her native “Boruch Hashem.”
Similarly, Lieberman has used some loose translations of Hebrew in his public speeches. In what seems like a paraphrase of the “Shehechiyanu” prayer for special occasions, he said, “Dear Lord, maker of all miracles, I thank you for bringing me to this extraordinary moment in my life.” Lieberman also asked an audience to allow him “to sing to God,” perhaps hinting at the liturgical phrase, “Shiru l’Adonai shir chadash.” In another speech, rather than sing “Hinei Ma Tov,” he recited an egalitarian English version, “how good and wonderful it [is] for brothers and sisters to come together in harmony.”
While Lieberman cannot go from speech to speech using language of the Yeshiva, he does what he can to remind audiences that he is Jewish and that he is religious. The lack of Hebrew and Yiddish and the prominence of “Lord” and “Almighty” may be giving the public a skewed image of traditional Jewish language. On the other hand, the public is being exposed to Jewish language – used for informative and humorous ends – in the mainstream American press.
Ariel Stein wrote about a bilingual announcement and shared the post with the author of the announcement, Rabbi Doniel Katz. Ariel and I were both very pleased that Rabbi Katz responded to Ariel's question about his thought process. Here we reprint Rabbi Katz's response, with his permission.
Thanks for your email. Kind of amusing to read an academic deconstruction of a quick synopsis I wrote. One day I hope people will put as much thought into breaking down the teachings as well. :)
I understand one doesn't usually see two different synopses for the same event, but also there are very few, if any, such events that target such extremely diverse worlds. As I am sure you know - there are events that are usually run for the frum world, and others that run for a kiruv audience, and then there are self-help development seminars, say, that run for a secular audience. But rarely is one product appealing to such a diverse crowd. We see that as a wonderful opportunity for unity, but it comes with certain challenges, to make all types feel comfortable and understood.
I would say the necessity for two different synopses was motivated by the following factors:
Many blessings to you both in the work that you do,
In this guest post, Ariel Stein, a research specialist at Brandeis University who has studied Orthodox outreach, shows how an outreach organization uses language to advertise an event to two different audiences.
By Ariel Stein
I was recently invited to an all-day seminar in New York led by Rabbi Doniel Katz, who teaches at outreach yeshivas in Jerusalem. I was not in New York at the time and could not attend, but the manner in which the seminar was advertised immediately caught my interest.
One of the fascinating aspects of Orthodox language patterns that is discussed in Becoming Frum is how loanwords and other elements of speech are used differently depending on the setting and audience. Sometimes this code switching is deliberately planned, rather than spontaneously occurring. Chapter 7 includes an analysis of video tapes of a speaker giving the same lecture for two audiences, one for frum-from-birth (FFB) and longtime Orthodox Jews and the other for newcomers. It’s noted that, in addition to differences in verb use, grammatical influences, and direct rabbinic quotes:
"…for the FFB audience he [the speaker] used over three times as many loanwords, less than a quarter as many English words that have common loanword correlates, and less than half as many translations" (Becoming Frum, p. 152).
In a similar fashion, the seminar was advertised differently for “English” speakers (mostly non-Orthodox), compared to “Yeshivish” speakers (FFBs or long-time baalei teshuvah). What is particularly interesting is that these synopses were right next to each other on the page, labeled with “English” and “Yeshivish,” allowing both types of readers to see how the seminar was advertised to both audiences (for the reader’s convenience, I underline identical portions and italicize Hebrew and Yiddish words):
"SEMINAR SYNOPSIS (ENGLISH): The goal of the Elevation Seminar is to explore the Kabbalah’s definitive map of human psychology and consciousness on an experiential level. We'll teach you how to achieve perfect uninterrupted concentration, overcome fears and emotional blocks, and access an infinite source of deep inner peace, serenity and joy. Based entirely on authentic Jewish mystical sources, we'll deconstruct the psychological mechanism of prayer and learn advanced techniques for transforming your consciousness and accessing profound meditative states that you never realized were part of your own tradition. Rabbi Katz's open and compassionate teachings have been a catalyst for change in thousands of people's lives. Now is your opportunity to join the hundreds of people from around the world who have already participated in this unique and groundbreaking workshop, and get ready to forever transform the way you view Judaism, life and your own heart, mind and soul.
SEMINAR SYNOPSIS (YESHIVISH): Let’s be honest: tefillah, for too many of us, means mindlessly reciting pages of words that we barely connect to. Pity we were never taught the secret of how to plug those words in and turn on their real power — until now. The goal of this intensive one-day version of the Elevation Seminar is to teach you extraordinary techniques from the depths of Mussar and Chassidus that will allow you to truly feel connected to Hashem while you daven. We will explore Torah’s definitive map of human psychology and consciousness on an experiential level, teach you how to achieve perfect uninterrupted concentration, and learn how to access profound meditative states of higher consciousness. And we’ll learn life-changing techniques from the seforim hakedoshim of how to really m’taken your middos and access madreigos of emunah, ahavas Hashem, deveikus and kavanah that you never imagined were achievable. Join the hundreds of people from around the world who have already participated in this unique and groundbreaking workshop, and get ready to forever transform the way you view Torah, tefillah and your own heart, mind, and soul."
Differences between the two synopses are apparent. The English version makes the seminar about methods for meditation, concentration, and consciousness from Jewish tradition. “Prayer” is mentioned once in the middle of the paragraph, almost as an aside. In contrast, the Yeshivish version makes it clear that the seminar is about prayer. The first line explicitly mentions “tefillah” (prayer) and goes on to say how the words of the prayer services have real power. The middle includes “daven” (the act of praying), and “tefillah” is mentioned again at the end of the paragraph. The end of the English paragraph notes that one’s view of Judaism and life will be changed, but in the Yeshivish version it is Torah and tefillah. “Prayer” is never written in the Yeshivish version. This heavy focus on prayer may be lost on the English reader.
We find several differences in word choice, like “Jewish mystical sources” instead of “Mussar and Chassidus” (texts from the Ethics and Hassidic movements). The English version never mentions “Torah,” substituting in one instance “Kabbalah,” an eye-grabbing word that may attract participants due to its prominence in pop culture. The second half of the Yeshivish description is heavy with loanwords. While the English description just says one will learn about techniques “that you never realized were part of your own tradition,” the Yeshivish description goes into detail where they came from: seforim hakedoshim (holy books). Instead of being able to “overcome fears and emotional blocks, and access an infinite source of deep inner peace, serenity and joy,” one will learn “how to really m’taken [fix] your middos [character traits] and access madreigos [levels] of emunah [faith], ahavas Hashem [love of God], deveikus [cleaving/closeness (to God)] and kavanah [concentration (for prayer or ritual acts)].”
Were the event planners concerned about how to attract different populations to the same event? Were they worried that “English” speakers would be scared off by the Hebrew and Yiddish words? Which description was more “true,” i.e. how much of each was focused on attracting participants rather than giving a straightforward description of what would occur? Unfortunately, since I did not participate, I cannot answer this. But I think this example brings up the wider question of how groups talk to others in their own in-group, how they present themselves to outsiders, and how we can find ways to do both at the same time.
You can read Rabbi Katz's response here.
by Sarah Bunin Benor
Given that my book includes discussion both of Yiddish and of My Fair Lady (unrelated in the book), I thought readers might be interested in this Yiddish version of My Fair Lady that I wrote several years ago. I later found out that a full version of this play had been produced at some point, but I never managed to get a copy of it. My version is very brief (more like a trailer, mostly songs), and it focuses on the accent differences between the Northeastern and Southern regions of Yiddish: the Litvaks and the Galitsianers.
Elisheva Tubisl (Eliza Doolittle)
Professor Kluger (Professor Higgins)
Mysterious Man (Freddy)
Narrator: Elisheva Tubisl is a Galitsianer girl who really wants to be a writer.
Wouldn’t It Be Lovely
Elisheva (in a Galitsianer accent):
Alts vus ikh vil iz tsi laynen git (all I want is to read well)
Shraabn lider mit git gramatik (write poetry with good grammar)
Tsi shraabn yeydn tug (to write every day)
Se volt gevayn a mekhaye (it would be a pleasure)
Mekhaye, mekhaye (pleasure, pleasure)
Narrator: So she goes to Vilne to pursue an education. She introduces herself to the renowned Professor Kluger:
Elisheva: Shulem alaykhem, Profesor Kliger. Ikh hays Elisheva Tibisl! (Hello, Professor Kliger. My name is Elisheva Tibisl!)
Kluger (in a Litvak accent): Neyn, neyn, Elisheva Tubisl. Du darfst redn a gut yidish, azoy vi ikh, Profesor Kluger. Zog mir nokh: Dos sheyne meydl geyt aheym aleyn. (No, no, Elisheva Tubisl. You have to speak a good Yiddish, like I, Professor Kluger, do. Repeat after me: The pretty girl goes home alone.)
Elisheva: Dus shayne maydl gayt ahaym alayn. (The pretty girl goes home alone – [in a Galitsianer accent])
Kluger: Neyn, neyn, neyn. Dos sheyne meydl geyt aheym aleyn. (No, no no. …)
Elisheva: Dus hob ikh gezugt. Dus shayne maydl gayt ahaym alayn.
Kluger: Neyn, neyn, neyn. Nokh a mol. Dos sheyne meydl geyt aheym aleyn.
Elisheva: Dus shayne maydl gayt ahaym alayn.
Narrator: They work, and they practice, and finally:
Elisheva: Dos sheyne meydl geyt aheym aleyn. ([In a Litvak accent])
Kluger: Vos? Vos hostu gezogt? (What? What did you say?)
Elisheva: Dos sheyne meydl geyt aheym aleyn.
Kluger: Ikh meyn az zi hot es! Nokh a mol: (I think she got it! Again:)
The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly in the Plane Eli/Klug: Dos sheyne meydl geyt aheym aleyn.
Dos sheyne meydl geyt aheym aleyn.
Kluger: Vu geyt dos meydl sheyn? (Where does the pretty girl go?)
Elisheva: Aheym, aheym. (Home, home)
Kluger: Vi geyt zi dokh aheym? (How does she go home?)
Elisheva: Aleyn, aleyn! (Alone, alone!)
Eli/Klug: Dos sheyne meydl geyt aheym aleyn.
Eli/Klug: Dos sheyne meydl geyt aheym aleyn!
Narrator: Afterwards, Elisheva is exhausted but exhilarated.
I Could Have Danced All Night
Elisheva: A gantse tog un nakht (All day and night)
Volt ikh mit im getantst (I would have danced with him)
Un tantsn nokh a mol (And danced some more)
Ikh volt geshtoygn dort (I would have risen there)
Ikh volt gefloygn dort (I would have flown there)
Un tantsn nokh a mol (And danced some more)
Narrator: But the story doesn’t end there. A mysterious man hears Elisheva’s beautiful Galitsianer accent and falls in love with her. After hearing her speak once, he walks around the university looking for her:
On the Street Where You Live
Man (in a Galitsianer accent):
Oft bin ikh gevayn in dem lern zal (Often have I been in this learning hall)
Ober tumid hob ikh du gehert nor Yidish Klal (But I have always heard only Standard Yiddish)
Itst bin ikh farlibt in a maydl a shayns (Now I’m in love with a beautiful girl)
In ikh vil az zi zol vern maans. (And I want her to be mine)
Narrator: So what happens? Does Elisheva stay with Kluger? Does she go off with the mysterious man and start a Galitsianer pride movement? To find out, you’ll have to see Der Yidisher Pigmalion: coming soon to a teater (theater) near you.
by Sarah Bunin Benor
Although I often agree with Jay Michaelson, a brilliant writer and scholar, I was taken aback by the tone of his most recent article in the Forward. Citing recent scandals involving sex abuse and money laundering, as well as struggles surrounding the kotel and circumcision, he expresses fear that Haredi populations are growing exponentially in New York and Israel. He predicts that the results of the demographic shifts “will be catastrophic.” As a non-Orthodox Jew who has written about Orthodox Jews, I am offended by this prediction and feel obligated to respond.
Using data from a recent survey of New York Jews, Michaelson warns of the growth of Haredi communities: “pretty soon, the hierarchy will overwhelm us… Non-Orthodox Jews will look like the secular Persians of Iran: once the complacent majority, now a minority oppressed by fundamentalists.” This analogy works well for Israel but seems a stretch when applied to the United States. Yes, the demographic trends will lead to non-Orthodox Jews being a small percentage of U.S. Jewry in a few generations. But why should this scare us? And why should our response be to undermine Haredi hierarchies? A more appropriate response, I think, would be to build up non-Orthodox institutions, culture, and families, a point also made in a response to Michaelson’s article by Forward Editor Jane Eisner.
Even if we followed Michaelson’s suggestions, the demographic trends among Haredim would likely still continue. Let’s suppose that non-Orthodox Jewish institutions stopped supporting impoverished Haredim, convinced the U.S. government to block loans for yeshiva students, and somehow engineered an exodus of many open-minded Haredim. Would the majority of those who remained Haredi then decide to have small families? Highly unlikely.
If we did begin lobbying against educational funding for yeshivas, we might bring negative consequences for other Jews. Michaelson writes, “We can demand an end to all federal and state subsidies to yeshivas that do not prepare students for contemporary economic and civic life.” Yeshivas prepare students to be rabbis, scholars, educators, and leaders in the Jewish community. The same is true for non-Orthodox rabbinical seminaries and institutions like Hebrew Union College’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, where I teach. A major difference is numbers. A large percentage of Haredi men attend yeshivas, compared to a tiny percentage of non-Orthodox Jews. Should we then lobby state and federal governments to fund only a few yeshiva students each year? It seems to me that any lobbying effort against Haredim could backfire for Jews more generally.
Another issue that arises in Michaelson’s article is where to draw the line between Haredim and the rest of Jews, which he refers to as “the mainstream of Jewish denominations — including Modern Orthodoxy.” As I explain in my book, Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Orthodoxy exist on a continuum. Many people are uncomfortable labeling themselves as one or the other and use the terms instead to distinguish themselves from those to the right and left of the continuum. Take for example a man who wears a black hat and learns daily and a woman who wears skirts and a sheitel (wig) and strictly follows the laws of menstrual purity. Are they Haredi? What if they work as doctors and allow their children to watch cartoons? Are they Modern Orthodox? If I was a frum Jew in the middle of the continuum, I would not know whether Michaelson’s suggestions apply to me or only my more Yeshivish neighbors.
But the most glaring problem that I find in Michaelson’s article is the implication that Haredim as a group are to be feared. He does mitigate his critique (“Of course, there are wonderful Haredi Jews out there”), but his juxtaposing sex scandals and religious coercion with warnings about demographic trends in America leading to catastrophe smacks of essentialism. I agree that there are problems in Haredi communities, just as there are problems in any group. But to indict all (or most) Haredim for the misdeeds of some of their leaders and for some systemic issues is akin to holding non-Orthodox Jews responsible for the Madoff scandal or blaming all African Americans for the crimes of gang members.
I do think that Michaelson makes some important points. Organizations like Footsteps are crucial in helping former Haredim integrate into American society, and non-Orthodox funders should support them, as he suggests. I agree with his proposed response to developments in Israel: “We can support our allies in Israel that are fighting for religious pluralism, for equal conscription of all Israelis, for civil marriage and for the defunding of the rabbinate.” And there’s no denying that because of high birth rates, Haredim will be the majority of world Jewry in just a few generations. But instead of seeing this trend as an impending catastrophe that we should work to counter, let us instead begin the process of getting to know the Jews who will soon be in the majority. Through dialogue and relationship building, Haredim and non-Haredim can learn from each other – from our similarities and our differences.
I was pleased to receive an email from a recent graduate of Stanford University (where I went to grad school) telling me that she wrote a term paper about Orthodox language for her Intro to Sociolinguistics class. I felt that her paper offered additional evidence for some of the trends I describe in Becoming Frum, especially Chapter 5 (“Torah or Toyrah: Language and the Modern Orthodox to Black Hat Continuum”) and the part of Chapter 7 about the videos geared toward new BTs and long-time community members. So I invited her to write a guest post here. I’d love to hear from readers who studied at Ohr Somayach. Have you noticed the variation between /t/ and /s/ on the Ohr Somayach website? Did you switch your own pronunciation from /t/ to /s/ at some point? What was that transition like?
Guest post by Ellie Ash, recent Stanford graduate
There are two major systems of Hebrew pronunciation, the Ashkenazic and the Sephardic/Sephardic-influenced, pronunciations, which originally reflected regional and ethnic distinctions in the Jewish community. In the twentieth century, however, the more progressive Ashkenazi branches of Judaism started using a pronunciation influenced by the Sephardic system. As a result, in contemporary America the choice of Ashkenazic vs. Sephardicized pronunciation reflects the speaker’s religious position, namely, whether they are (non-Modern) Orthodox or not.
One difference between the two systems is the pronunciation of the Hebrew letter tav when it does not have a dagesh. In the Ashkenazic pronunciation tav is pronounced /s/, and in Sephardic-influenced pronunciations it is /t/. For example, the word meaning “commandments” is “mitzvot” in Sephardicized systems and “mitzvos” in Ashkenazic.
I recently examined the transliteration of tav-without-dagesh in the website Ohr.edu, which is the website of the kiruv (outreach) organization Ohr Somayach. Ohr Somayach is a Haredi Orthodox organization which, according to their mission statement, aims to “instill Jewish pride in university students…through knowledge” of traditional Jewish text and belief. It is fair to assume that as members of a Haredi community, the rabbis and other staff of Ohr Somayach consistently pronounce tav as /s/ among themselves. However, both “t” and “s” are used to transliterate tav on Ohr.edu.
Ohr.edu is primarily composed of regular columns about specific topics. Each column is consistent in its use of “t” or “s” in transliterating tav. The columns that use only “t” are Ask!, TalmuDigest, Torah Weekly, Parsha Q&A, Ethics, Israel Forever, Love of the Land, The Human Side of the Story, and @OHR. The columns that use only “s” are The Weekly Daf, Insights into Halacha, and Kinder Torah (for children). The only column that uses both “s” and “t” is B’Yachad, the alumni magazine.
It turns out that the “s” spelling is used only by columns which are directed at people who have been involved with Ohr.edu longer and are already invested in Orthodox Judaism, while the rest use “t”. For example, the TalmuDigest and The Weekly Daf columns are both about Talmud, but the former uses the “t” spelling for tav and the latter uses the “s” spelling. This is because the first is intended to be for beginners, as reflected in the title, which is in English and implies that the material has been predigested. In contrast, “The Weekly Daf” includes the Hebrew word for “page”, daf, and is directed at more advanced students. Therefore only The Weekly Daf uses “s” spellings for tav.
I think there are several reasons for using “t” in the majority of the website. The primary reason is that the intended audience for Ohr.edu is more familiar with the “t” spellings, since they are non-Orthodox Jews. Another reason is that the “t” spelling is associated with secular scholarship. Ohr.edu stresses that its rabbis are conversant with mainstream academics, and using the “t” spelling is meant to be a further indication that Ohr Somayach is not against secular scholarship. It is also possible that Ohr.edu wants to downplay its Orthodox identity for newcomers who may have negative associations with Orthodoxy.
Once a student gets involved with Orthodoxy, Ohr.edu switches to the “s” spellings of tav because they represent the community norm. Not only is the student likely to be more familiar with the /s/ variants by this point, but also it is important for them use the Haredi pronunciation norms as they prepare to join a Haredi community.
I think this is interesting because it reveals that the people who write for Ohr.edu are aware of the different social meanings of the /s/ and /t/ pronunciations of tav. They do not simply think that /s/ is the correct pronunciation, which would lead them to use “s” spellings exclusively. Instead, they use “t” when it is appropriate to accommodate their audience, and “s” when it is appropriate to integrate students into the Orthodox world.
- Ellie Ash
by Sarah Bunin Benor
I announced the launch of my new website, the Jewish English Lexicon, and a frum friend who lives in Monsey sent this fun response:
"Fantastic. Moiredik. It's totally not geshmak for me to bring this up, but it's mamesh a pele to me, certain words that you forgot to include. What's pshat? Well lemaiseh I shouldn't complain; You taineh that we can add to the website, and I hear it, I hear the point, but still. My eitzah is that if you would be by us for Shabbes, you would chap a few more words for your website, plus you could help me make Shabbes - put up the chulent, get the kugel on the blech. (We don't hold by the eruv, you should know.) Don't worry, we're cholov yisroel, although we're not makpid on yoshon.
"So how's the mishpocha? By me, everything is boruch Hashem. I have a new einikel, the mechutanim were by us for the Sholom Zochor and bris, my daughter is supporting her husband in learning, my son in Lakewood is out of the freezer and still in the parsha, and the rest of the kinder are growing up quickly, keineinehora poo poo poo.
"I'm maskim is that it's anyway not shayach for you to include every word and expression. So 'shkoiach on the gevaldige website! We all mamesh love it."
This tongue-in-cheek response is a great example of Orthodox Jewish English, which I discuss in Becoming Frum and Chaim Weiser documents in Frumspeak: The First Dictionary of Yeshivish. Orthodox Jews use many words from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish in their everyday English speech, as well as grammatical influences from Yiddish. Many of the words in my Monsey friend's response are already listed in the Lexicon, and I'm hoping readers like you will add the rest (it's a Wikipedia-style site).
To what extent do non-Orthodox Jews use this distinctive English? I talk about this a bit in Becoming Frum and in this AJS Perspectives article. In addition, I offer some further thoughts in this article about an Orthodox rabbi's open letter to Sarah Silverman. I'd love to hear your responses.