Tag: English

Why I don’t make fun of Hasidic English

Why I don’t make fun of Hasidic English

Recently, I saw a fellow young progressive Jew write a pretty nasty Facebook post.  With all the rancor going on about the election, you might assume it was about politics.  But actually, it was about language.

The person had taken a picture of Kosher food packaging that had misspelled the word “cookies” as “kookies”.  All sorts of giggling ensued.

While perhaps a small chuckle is warranted – after all, we all make mistakes – I was concerned when I saw some pretty nasty comments making fun of how ignorant Hasidim were.

This, frankly, is where I draw the line.  Let’s start at the very beginning (to quote one of my favorite musicals).  With the exception perhaps of the Chabad community, Hasidic Jews largely speak Yiddish as a first language.  It’s a phenomenon almost unknown in the language preservation world.  Most minority languages that have survived to this day are doing so thanks to government support (see: French in Quebec or Catalan in Catalonia).  The fact that Yiddish is starting to rebound is due in large part to the resilience of the Hasidic Jews who speak it.  So let’s give credit where credit is due.

People who make errors in Standard English often do so because they are native speakers of another language.  For example, a Spanish-speaker from Bolivia might accidentally write “Jonathan” as “Yonathan” because the Spanish “y” more closely approximates an English “j”.  An Arabic-speaker from Syria might write “Bebsi” instead of “Pepsi” because there are no “p” sounds in their dialect and the “b” is the next closest thing.  I promise you English-speakers do the same thing when they speak other languages.  It’s natural and a part of the learning process.

In the case of Hasidic Jews, there is also evidence that actually a new dialect is forming.  That, notwithstanding this one spelling mistake, Hasidic Jews (somewhat like other American Jews) have developed a Yiddish-infused English.  Some scholars call this “Jewish English“.  If I think about myself, a Reform Jew, I could see how sometimes I speak this English.  I could say, for instance, “I’m going to put on my yarmulke and go to Shabbat services.  I’m going to stay for the oneg to shmooze and do some tikkun olam with my friends from NFTY.”  Most Reform Jews would understand this thought.  But the average non-Jewish American would probably be lost.

Hasidic Jews do much the same thing.  Take this sentence, for example: “We do all that shtik to be mesameach the chosson v’kaloh.”  In Standard English, this means: “We do all those routines to entertain the groom and bride.”  If that’s not a dialect, I’m not sure what is.

A lot of cultures do this.  Growing up, I learned Standard Spanish.  I was exposed to different accents, but all of them were varieties of Spanish.  When I started working at a Mexican-American non-profit, I was exposed to Spanglish.  I had to reconfigure the way I spoke both English and Spanish to learn this new way of using the language.  “Órale pues, let’s go to the cine but afterwards, quiero bailar.”  You might translate this as “Ok, let’s go to the movies but afterwards, I want to dance.”  It’s a new thing, and once you get used to it, it can be kind of fun.

If you’re not inclined to make fun of a Latino for either misspelling something in English or speaking Spanglish, then I hope you’d reconsider whether it makes sense to ridicule a Hasidic Jew for doing the exact same thing.

This isn’t to say you can’t disagree ideologically with Hasidic Jews- I certainly do (and a lot of them disagree amongst each other!).  As the Yiddish saying goes: “tsvey yidn dray shuln” or “two Jews, three synagogues”.  I also don’t mean to suggest there isn’t a role for more secular education in the Hasidic world, as some advocates like Lipa Schmeltzer have pushed for.

All I’m saying is this: treat others with kindness and respect.  Hasidic Jews are keeping the Yiddish language alive and inventing a new dialect of English.  They’re busy!  If they misspell something in English once in a while, give them a break and I’m sure they wouldn’t mind a correction.  Show a little rakhmones!

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Multilingual America

In 2011, Texas State Senator Chris Harris told an immigrant rights activist that using an interpreter to translate his Spanish testimony was “insulting“.  One can find examples of this disheartening “English only” attitude in many parts of the United States, although it is particularly rich for a white man in Texas to tell someone to not speak Spanish in a place that used to be part of Mexico and where Spanish was spoken before English.

“English only” activists like this Senator would like us to believe that English has always and should always dominate the linguistic landscape of our country.  They want us to think that unlike in today’s multicultural America, in Early America, people only spoke English.

In this post, I intend to prove them wrong by demonstrating that America has always been a multilingual place, even in colonial times and the early years of our nation.

Many of our founding fathers were multilingual.  Benjamin Franklin taught himself French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek.  James Madison knew Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.  John Adams spoke French and Latin.  The most impressive polyglot was Thomas Jefferson, who spoke French, Italian, and Latin, had some reading proficiency in Greek and Spanish, and may have spent time studying Gaelic, Welsh, Arabic, and German as well.  He advocated for his daughters and young correspondents to learn French and (gasp) Spanish “because of the increasing diplomatic importance Spain would presumable hold in U.S. foreign relations.”  According to the book Language Loyalties by James Crawford, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush was also an advocate for multilingualism.  He wanted German and French taught in schools and for German to be preserved as an asset for the new nation.  He said that people who feared Germans in Pennsylvania were “narrow-minded” and that “a man who is learned in the dialect of a Mohawk Indian is more fit for a legislator than a man who is ignorant even in the language of the learned Greeks.”

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(Thomas Jefferson’s Paris house memorial)

Early Americans used many languages besides English.  According to Crawford, “[p]rior to the arrival of the Europeans, more than 500 languages were spoken in North America.”  He notes that “[m]any churches offered services in different languages” and that there were French and German language schools, societies, and libraries in both the North and South.  In fact, none other than Noah Webster (of dictionary fame) suggested that our primary language not even be called English and said that “circumstance render a future separation of the American tongue from the English necessary and unavoidable.”  In Webster’s view, the way Americans speak would become as different from English as “modern Dutch, Danish, and Swedish are from…German.”  New Amsterdam (today’s New York) was incredibly diverse where “18 languages were spoken on Manhattan Island as early as 1646.”  In what is today New York, “English not even introduced into Dutch schools until 1774.”

The Early American press was multilingual.  In 1732, Ben Franklin published Philadelphische Zeitung, the first ever German or non-English paper in what is today the United States.  Crawford notes that “acceptance of and support of French and German newspapers” was common throughout the country.  Die Freyheits-Fahne was founded in Pennsylvania in 1814 and there were at least eight other German papers and at least two French papers in the state by the early 1800s.  Americans even founded a French language paper in South Carolina, Echo du Sud, Moniteur Francais, in 1801.  The book Language Loyalties notes that the Continental Congress even issued publications in French and German to persuade the local population to join the revolutionary cause.  One of those documents was the Articles of Confederation, which you can find here in French.

Philadelphische Zeitung

(Ben Franklin’s German paper published in Philadelphia)

In conclusion, people like State Senator Chris Harris want you to believe that speaking languages other than English is un-American.  However, our history shows that America has always been a multilingual place.  Speaking other languages is as American as Ben Franklin and as patriotic as Thomas Jefferson.

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(Plaque honoring Ben Franklin’s arrival to France)

I’d like to extend a special thanks to Rachel Jirka, the Research Services Librarian of the Society of the Cincinnati, who generously offered her time to help me research this piece.