Sunday, July 20, 2003

Salty Fish

If there were any one thing that would be the cause of our leaving Israel, it wouldn’t be the war, the terror, or the economy.

It would be the Hebrew.

I have tried, believe me I have. I’ve been in a half-dozen different Hebrew courses over the eleven years I have been in this country, but it just doesn’t seem to stick for me.

Oh, I can handle shopping and asking directions, and I even know our phone number and address in Hebrew, but put me in a serious discussion or a meeting at work, and I simply zone out.

Truthfully, I’m no good with languages, any of them. I took French for five years in junior and senior high school. Don’t remember a word. Except for “ou est la toilette?” You never forget something like that. Same with German, which I took in college – another year down the…well you get the idea. So in comparison, I speak Hebrew like a native.

One of the things that gives me the greatest joy is knowing that my kids won’t have to suffer like me. They are fluent in both English and Hebrew, an advantage that cannot be underestimated in our increasingly global village.

Sometimes, however, I catch them mixing languages in the same sentences. Five-year-old Aviv, who is the only one of the three of our children who was born here, is the chief culprit.

“The gannenet said that if we n’seder all the tables b’shniot, we can go to the hatzer and get matanot.


What he meant was: my kindergarten teacher said that if we arrange all the tables really quickly, we can go to the playground and get presents!”

Another time, when asked what he did that day, he proudly announced, “We played dag maluach.

They played with salty fish (the translation of “dag maluach”)?

I’m sure it was some kind of game, but neither Aviv nor I knew its English translation.

Kids learning two languages at once is always a good source of entertainment. However, apparently the mixing of languages has gotten so endemic in certain adult Jewish communities that a scholarly website called Jewish Language Research has now set up a new division for “Jewish English.”

Highly annotated, the site discusses in great detail the way that observant Jewish English speakers have begun mixing Hebrew and Yiddishisms into ordinary sentences to such an extent that Stanford University researcher Joshua Fishman asks in all seriousness: “is it possible that a new Jewish language is being born before our very eyes but that few are aware of it?”

Fishman continues: “Jewish English seems to be following the progression in which a group of Jews moves to a new land, picks up the local language, and speaks progressively more distinctly over time.”

This was the genesis of other Jewish languages. Yiddish evolved from the collision of Hebrew and German. Ladino was the Jewish language in areas where the Jews spoke Spanish. Aramaic is still spoken by the Jews of Syria who mixed Hebrew with Arabic.

These languages helped Jews keep their religious and national ties while in the Diaspora. It also gave them a secret language. Before we had kids, Jody and I used to speak to each other in our highly broken Hebrew if we didn’t want others to know what we were talking about.

Things like: how can we sneak out of here without hurting anyone’s feelings.

And: does the spinach casserole taste a little funny to you?

Once we had bilingual kids, of course, those days were gone.

“Jewish English” has many of the same elements of a secret language only understood by those in the club. For example, observant Jewish English speakers – and in particular the newly religious – regularly pepper their sentences with expressions like Baruch Hashem (Thank God), and words such as bentsh (to say Grace After Meals) and bleich (not an epithet of disgust but rather a large metal hotplate that keeps food warm on Shabbat).

By the way, if anyone told me when I was growing up that I'd write a sentence using the words bentsch and bleich, I'd have told them they were completely m'shuganah.

Then there are whole sentences that go back and forth between languages. One time at a Shabbat meal, one of our more Yeshiva-influenced guests started the following drash (a mini-sermon):

“I heard a great shiur from the Rosh Yeshiva where he poskins that to mesameach the chatan v’kallah is the most gevaltik mitzvah.

Which translates loosely as “I heard a class given by the school headmaster where he rules that to entertain a bride and groom is the most exalted commandment.”


There are whole books that document these types of back and forth, for example Chaim Weiser’s Frumspeak

The problem with all this is that now, in addition to still having to improve my Hebrew, I have to learn yet a third language. I don’t know if I can handle it.

Frankly, I think I’d be better off just staying at home and playing salty fish with Aviv.

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