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.