This post was written by Museum intern Sophie Brous.
If someone asked you to make a list of Jewish languages, what languages would come to mind? Many people would think of Hebrew first, which certainly makes sense–Hebrew is the national language of Israel and historically considered the language of the Jewish people. Some might also think of Yiddish, the native language of Central and Eastern European Jews that travelled to America with those immigrants and entered the American lexicon with words like schlep, schmooze, and bagel. But how many people would mention Juhuri, Ladino, or Bukhori? Hebrew and Yiddish are fairly common, but just as there are diverse Jewish cultures all around the world, there are as many different Jewish languages.
Of course, this brings up an important question: What makes a “Jewish language”? While Jews worldwide speak a huge variety of languages, just being Jewish and speaking a language does not make it a Jewish language. Rather, this term typically refers to a language spoken only by Jewish people–some linguists would call this a “religiolect”.
These Jewish languages originated in several ways. Historically, most religious Jewish communities have some knowledge of Hebrew, even if they used it only for religious practice. Simultaneously, many smaller, isolated populations of Jews would have needed to communicate with the cultures around them in some way. To solve this problem, Jews would typically learn the local language. Because they now spoke two languages–Hebrew and the local language–new languages would form, a sort of hybrid between the two that eased communication yet still distinguished them from surrounding communities. These Jewish communities would mold their two adopted languages to fit their own cultural needs, creating unique dialects or entirely new languages. Additionally, Jews’ long history of migration and displacement led to even more cultural and linguistic sharing, resulting in new additions to already spoken Jewish languages.
With such a rich history, why don’t more people know about the array of Jewish languages? To start, many were spoken by small isolated communities that simply don’t have the visibility of larger cultures like the Ashkenazi. And unfortunately, as with many smaller languages, increasing globalization, technology use, and other factors have caused the number of speakers to drastically shrink, and many of these once vibrant languages have been lost. However, there are still a number of Jewish languages which survive today. Let’s explore a few of these languages and learn a bit about their history as well as their current state.
No list of Jewish languages would be complete without a mention of Yiddish. Most American Jews will be familiar with a few Yiddish words, and even non-Jewish Americans use Yiddish words every day, perhaps without even realizing it (did you know ‘glitch’ was Yiddish? I definitely didn’t!). With around 372,000 native speakers today, Yiddish is currently one of the more widely spoken Jewish languages, although that number was far higher pre-20th century.
Yiddish originated in Germany, where it formed as a hybrid between German, Hebrew, and some Aramaic. Many of its speakers then migrated to Eastern Europe, where it acquired elements of the languages spoken there as well. When Eastern European Jews came to the United States (which also led to the founding of the Eldridge Street Synagogue), they brought Yiddish with them, and the population of Yiddish speakers thrived for decades in dense Jewish enclaves like the Lower East Side. However, as a language of immigrants, it was considered a “lesser” language by the social establishment. Children of immigrants who attended public schools were taught in English and actively discouraged from using their parents’ native tongue. As many immigrants nurtured upwardly mobile aspirations,, the population of Yiddish speakers in the U.S. began to decrease. In Europe, the majority of remaining Yiddish speakers were sadly lost in the Holocaust. In the 1950s some of the few remaining speakers fled to Israel, and a select few remained in Eastern Europe. Today, the majority of remaining Yiddish speakers are in these places and in the U.S., where they are especially concentrated in Brooklyn.
Currently, Yiddish is experiencing a revival as many Jewish Americans are aiming to connect with their Jewish heritage and ancestry. Many universities and community centers are offering introductory Yiddish courses, and Jewish cultural institutions are returning to Yiddish culture and language in their programming–for example, here in New York, the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene recently put on a hit production of Fiddler on the Roof performed entirely in Yiddish.
The next language on our list is Ladino, also known by many names including Judeo-Spanish, Judezmo, and Espanyol. Ladino is probably the best known and most widely spoken language of Sephardic Jews (Jews originating from Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East). Ladino was born in Spain and based on old Spanish, with some elements of Hebrew as well as Arabic and Aramaic. With the expulsion of 1492, most Ladino-speaking Jews were forced out of Spain and dispersed, ending up in the Balkans, Turkey, and around Northern Europe. As a result, Ladino acquired elements of the languages spoken in these areas. In its prime, Ladino was an extremely important liturgical language in the Sephardic tradition, primarily used in religious literature and oral folk literature. However, like Yiddish, the majority of Ladino speakers were lost in the Holocaust, and today there are only around 133,000 speakers. They are based mainly in Israel, Spain, Turkey, and around the Mediterranean.
While few Ladino speakers remain, those who do are still attempting to hold on to their language. They have even managed to spark a renewed interest in the language, with several synagogues and even universities offering Ladino classes for second-language learners. Şalom, a Turkish newspaper, still publishes a page in Ladino (originally, the paper was entirely written in Ladino), and small communities of speakers occasionally perform plays and music in order to preserve Sephardic language and traditions.
Moving away from Europe, our next stop is Bukhori or Judeo-Tajik, spoken by the Bukharian Jews of Central Asia. Bukharian Jews lived in what is now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, concentrated especially in the city of Bukhara, and spoke Bukhori, a
combination of Hebrew and Tajik (a southwest Iranian language). While there are currently only about 110,000 remaining speakers, Bukhori once flourished within the 45,000-strong population of Bukharian Jews. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the majority of Bukharian Jews fled Central Asia, leaving behind their traditions and language in the process. Today, only about 100 Bukharian Jews remain in Bukhara, but much larger populations can be found in Israel and North America, especially in Queens and Toronto. In October of 2018, the Museum celebrated New York’s Bukharian community with an event featuring fabulous music and dance by ensemble Shashmaqam – and delicious Bukharian teahouse food straight from Queens. Take a walk down 108th street in Queens today (dubbed “Bukharian Broadway”) and you might just hear someone speaking Bukhori.
While all of the above languages have managed to retain quite a few speakers, many more Jewish languages have struggled to retain even a few thousand, and Juhuri is one of them. Based on Hebrew and the Persian language Tat, Juhuri (or Judeo-Tat) was once spoken widely by Mountain Jews of the Caucasus who migrated to Persia. During this migration, they acquired elements of Tat into their own speech, and retained this language even after they returned to the Caucasus. However, the number of Juhuri speakers dwindled due to the Russification efforts of the Soviet Union, and Juhuri was largely replaced by Russian. Today, only about 2000 Juhuri speakers remain (although this estimate is debatable). They are mainly in Israel, with a few in North America, Russia, and Azerbaijan. Sadly, this number will continue to drop as most current speakers are older and have stopped passing the language to their children in favor of Russian, Hebrew, and English. However, all hope is not lost for Juhuri. Small organizations such as the Endangered Language Alliance continue to fight for Juhuri, documenting the language and its speakers. The Theater of the Eastern Caucasus, a small theater in Hadera, Israel, puts on productions in Juhuri, preserving the language through performance. Though little-known, these efforts have the potential to keep alive a language that is quickly fading.
Many people don’t directly associate Arabic with Judaism, but in fact Arabic has played a huge role in Jewish history. (Take one of the Museum’s Jews and Muslims courses on their ancient connections to learn more!) Even today, Judeo-Arabic (a Jewish dialect of Arabic) is perhaps the most widely spoken language on this list, with an estimated 515,000 speakers. Jews have long lived besides Arabic speaking groups, and as a result Judeo-Arabic was spoken widely by Middle Eastern Jewish populations. The language flourished especially during the golden age of Islam, but eventually declined after Jews spread out of the region and began speaking other languages. However, during its prime Judeo-Arabic became an important language in Judaic scholarship, and a number of works were published in the language, including Maimonides’ famous text Guide of the Perplexed. Today, most Judeo-Arabic speakers reside in Israel, with few speakers remaining in Iraq and even fewer in Yemen. Like most other languages on this list, the majority of Judeo-Arabic speakers tend to be older, and few are speaking the language with their children. However, due to its importance to Jewish history and scholarship, there is still hope for this language.
Other Jewish Languages
While this article has covered a huge variety of Jewish languages, we’ve still touched on only a small few of the many different Jewish languages that have existed throughout history. Others currently surviving include Judeo-Aramaic, Judeo-Median, Judeo-Berber, and more, while languages such as Yevanic (Judeo-Greek), Judeo-Italian and Judeo French flourished in the past but have long since disappeared from regular use. There are so many more fascinating details about Jewish language and history, far too much to explore in one blog post, but hopefully this post will inspire you to look more into this incredibly rich, diverse topic!
Sophie Brous is a Museum at Eldridge Street summer intern. She is a rising junior at Haverford College, where she is studying Linguistics.