What’s in a name?
Quite a lot, actually. Important information, such as history, culture, and religious identity.
On Shabbat, Sarah Bunin Benor — professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles — will speak about Jewish names, Jewish language, and the particular language of North American Jewish summer camps.
Dr. Benor’s field includes many disciplines — “I teach mostly social science, anthropology, and linguistics, with a focus on the language of contemporary Jews,” she said — and her course offerings are equally varied. She teaches undergraduates at the University of Southern California about language, race, and identity in the United States, and she guides master’s students in the field of Jewish social research, showing them how to do research on contemporary Jews.
On Shabbat morning, Dr. Benor will talk about what Jewish languages are and who speaks them. “Historically, Jews have spoken somewhat differently,” she said. Sometimes the differences are small — people integrate a few Hebrew words into a local language — and other times they are major, rendering their speech incomprehensible to outsiders.
“For the most part, when Jews moved to a new land they picked up the local language and Judaicized it,” she said. “They spoke a Jewish version of the local languages. Sometimes it was not intelligible to outsiders; sometimes it was.”
While the language of American Jews has distinctive features, it is among those with fewer distinctive differences, she said. Noting the diversity of the American Jewish community, however, she pointed out that “among the Orthodox, there are more differences.” For example, Orthodox Jewish language is more likely to include Yinglish, the language of the immigrant generation, who then acquired some English, as well as the language of their children.
Dr. Benor became interested in Yiddish, and Jewish languages in general, when she was a student at Columbia, majoring in comparative literature and linguistics. She later received a doctorate in linguistics from Stanford. It was at Columbia that she discovered the diverse varieties of American Jewish English. Indeed, her undergraduate thesis was on how the Orthodox Jews at Columbia spoke English.
Jewish English is not really one language, she said.
“We use various Hebrew, Yiddish, Aramaic, Ladino, and Russian words and phrases, depending on where our family is from and which communities we’re in. Sometimes we use distinctive grammatical features or distinctive intonations.” Generally, American Jews don’t do this with outsiders. But within the community, it helps Jews identify each other and identify themselves as certain types of Jews.
Her field is not new. “Starting in the 1980s, scholars became interested in Jewish language as a phenomenon,” she said. Her research continues that tradition of practice, “and takes it into the 21st century.”
Dr. Benor notes on the website she edits, jewishlanguages.org, that “Throughout the world, wherever Jews have lived, they have spoken and written differently from the non-Jews around them. Their languages have differed by as little as a few embedded Hebrew words or by as much as a highly variant grammar. Learning about Jewish languages (also known as Jewish language varieties) leads to a better understanding of the diversity of the Jewish diaspora and of the linguistic manifestations of contact among diverse communities.”
What is noticeably different among American Jews, she said, is that our language is not written in Hebrew letters, while most other Jewish languages have been written in that alphabet. That is one of the topics she will discuss.
Her website identifies twenty different languages. But how many languages there really are is a matter of dispute. “It depends how you count,” she explained. “Do you consider Moroccan Judeo-Arabic and Yemenite Judeo-Arabic to be separate languages, or varieties of the same language? How about medieval Judeo-French and contemporary Jewish French? Orthodox Jewish English in New York and Reform Jewish English in San Francisco? In other words, anywhere from 20 to hundreds.”
Dr. Benor suggested that the popularity of some Yiddish words and expressions now “has a lot to do with Jews being well integrated into American society. There’s also influence from the media. The mid-20th century Borsht Belt is becoming more mainstream.” As one example, words like “chutzpah” pop up increasingly on television and in the press.
She also noted that “the phenomenon of non-Jews using Jewish words is not unique to American Jews. At various times and places, non-Jews have used Hebrew words and other features of the language. It became part of the professional jargon for cattle traders and jewelry makers.” Examples abound in Dutch and German, she said.
In addition, Jews themselves are using a few more “Jewish words.
“In the last few decades, there’s been a shift in American Jewish communities in using more Hebrew and Yiddish words in certain realms. I didn’t grow up saying ‘shul’ but now I do, and now my parents do too. It’s one of those shifts you might not notice happening,” she said.
Asked whether there is a stereotypical Jewish voice — one you might hear in your head when thinking about the issue — Dr. Benor said, “I think of the sketch ‘Coffee Talk’ on Saturday Night Live. There absolutely is a connection between New York speech and Jewish speech.” Indeed, she added, non-Jews typically think of New York speech when thinking of Jewish speech.
In discussing Jewish names, she will focus on where common names throughout the world come from. She also will explore such questions as why men are more likely to have biblical names. Interestingly, Dr. Benor put to rest to the myth that immigrants’ new surnames were a product of Ellis Island functionaries.
“The names were not changed on Ellis Island,” she said. “They were changed later, either by official petition or informally. It happened for reasons of economic advancement related to anti-Semitism.” When they Anglicized their names, Jews “were more likely to pass as non-Jews.” Still, she said, even when families changed their names, they did not tend to drop their Jewish identities.
On the subject of Hebrew names, she said that the practice of giving such names to newborn Jewish babies is still very common. “It’s been happening throughout history,” she said, especially in Ashkenazi communities. There’s a midrash that says we were redeemed by keeping our names.” (The midrash in question suggests that not adopting Egyptian names was one of the three merits for which the Jewish people were redeemed.)
On the topic of summer camp Hebrew, Dr. Benor said that the use of Hebrew at camp “is not generally about proficiency. It’s about making camp into a distinctly Jewish environment. Language plays a huge role in it, more than in any other domain. Hebrew is used to name places and activities, and even in camps that are not as Jewishly engaged, they still have some Hebrew words, Hebrew songs and cheers, or word of the day.
“The purpose is to foster Jewish identity.”
Dr. Benor and her husband, Mark, have three daughters, Aliza, Dalia, and Ariella, who range in age from 10 to 16. This summer, her oldest daughter will attend Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim.
Who: Professor Sarah Bunin Benor
What: Will deliver three lectures
When: Friday, 7 p.m., “From Harry and Sally to Josh and Liora — Jewish Names Around the World”; Shabbat d’var Torah, “Do American Jews Speak a Jewish Language?”; Shabbat, 1:30 p.m., “Ruach in the Dining Hall — Language at North American Jewish Summer Camps”
Where: At Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck
For more information: cbsteaneck.org