It’s descriptive and precise, poonkt the language to be used,
If you want to shteig in ler’nin, or just to chap a schmooze.
But it’s also become the talk of the town for the last week, thanks to an article in Tablet Magazine by Cole Aronson. It, of course, is the Yeshivish language. Aronson offers the chidush that in order to make Orthodox Judaism more accessible to the majority of Jews in America, frum Jews should stop speaking using the mix of English, Yiddish, Hebrew, and a dash of Aramaic to communicate within their community. This is Aronson’s eitzah to the problem of the ever-shrinking Conservative and Reform movements, the former members of which are unfortunately opting to move more towards removing their Jewish affiliation than they are becoming Orthodox.
Now I rarely use my credentials to assert why I’m qualified to discuss this topic – mostly because I don’t have any credentials. But in this case, I may be the perfect person to comment. I went to a fairly yeshivish high school in Kew Gardens Hills (one of the communities named in Aronson’s piece), and I went on to study English Literature in college, and eventually teach English in a yeshivah. So, you could say that I have a specialized skill set in dealing with this exact subject. In fact, I can distinctly remember a time when I had taken the bold effort to assign a research paper to an eleventh-grade class, their first ever research paper, complete with references and citations. The goal was to prepare them for research papers they may have in college (should they attend), but it turned out that many of them used Yeshivish in their writing styles, as well (“she holds like him in that regard”), which obviously needed correcting.
But let’s be clear on what this article was about. It’s not about how Jews should not be using Yeshivish or “frumspeak” in the secular world in order to fit in. I saw a lot of comments online posing just this point. Individuals were pointing out that nobody would ask Spanish speakers to use less Spanish, for instance. This seemed to be the argument of those who only read the headline and didn’t bother with the substance. Aronson was never making that point. His point was consistent throughout. Historically, Jews want other Jews to remain Jewish and keep the laws of the Torah. In order to do that, the religion needs to be accessible to those who don’t have it engrained in them yet; and language, being the primary method of communication, needs to be able to be understood by those we are trying to be m’kareiv.
However, there are several issues with the actual suggestions Aronson makes. Let’s start with his ultimate suggestion of what he calls “Communal Bilingualism.” He doesn’t exactly define what Communal Bilingualism means, but he states that the only two languages that should be used are Hebrew and English. He doesn’t say if they should be made into a hybrid language (like Yiddish is Hebrew plus German, or Ladino is Hebrew plus Spanish), or if we should be speaking each one by itself without any crossover. Let’s assume l’maaseh that he meant the hybrid language. This still doesn’t help to bring in most American Jews. The ones we are trying to bring into the fold are not familiar with Hebrew either. I would go so far as to say that when the casual American hears a word associated with Judaism, they don’t know if it’s Hebrew or Yiddish. Oy vey, dreidel, meshuga, ferklempt, and a myriad of other words associated with Judaism are in fact Yiddish. Removing the Yiddish language from our lexicon would have a drastic negative impact on many associations the audience we want to reach has with Judaism.
Second, and this is the more practical attack, the idea that we can forcibly manipulate language to suit our needs flies directly in the face of how language has ever existed. We can’t just tell people to speak a certain way or not to speak a certain way and assume they will. Changes in language occur over time. European Jews didn’t wake up one morning and start speaking Yiddish. It was a gradual change over generations that got us there. Today’s society seems to think that changes in language can happen immediately and forcibly. One need only look at preferred pronouns as an example of what happens when language is forced to change rather than when it does so naturally. You can’t just tell an entire group of people to stop talking in a way they have for decades and expect them to follow, regardless of how noble the reason for it is. Now, do I think that Aronson was actually expecting the entire Jewish population to read his article and change its behavior? I do not. But that is the stated goal, and it can’t happen just by saying “let’s do it.”
Let’s talk about the actual ability for a language change to have the desired effect. Let’s say this plan is feasible. Let’s say we succeed in eliminating Yeshivish from our vernacular. Then what? The article brings absolutely no proof that making this change will yield more individuals returning to the faith. In fact, I don’t think it would. When people currently unaffiliated with any culture start to learn about it, some of the most immediately recognizable differences are in how that culture speaks among itself. If people are interested in getting more acquainted with their roots, they will not let a slight language barrier be the deterrent. This is not to say that we should purposely speak in a way that’s inaccessible to others, but I am here to tell you that there are far more important reasons (many fixable) than a lack of speaking the language as to why a person would not want to become more knowledgeable about his or her Jewish roots.
The irony of this article coming out in this season is that either this article was attempting to be ironic, or it was completely oblivious. We are now well-entrenched in Pesach preparations, and famously, there were three differences between the B’nei Yisrael in Mitzrayim that were distinguishable between them and the Mitzrim. In addition to keeping their same clothing and names, they never changed their language to match the Egyptians. Keeping one’s language makes you special, and as we have already established, language changes, not in an instant in time, but over the course of history. It’s true that, at one point, Hebrew was the language of the Jews; but as language evolved, a second language became a de facto language of the Jews. Keep Hebrew. Keep Yiddish. Keep Yeshivish. These languages are what make us who we are, and those looking to rejoin us can learn it all.
Now if you want a more attainable answer as to how we should overcome this language barrier, might I suggest a modern take on Abie Rotenberg’s suggestion of printing a dictionary. Maybe it’s time for someone to lobby Google to add Yeshivish to its list of languages. The goal shouldn’t be to adapt for the modern world to know the hock, but for the modern world to be given the ability to access the hock.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.