“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.