On Different Hebrew Pronunciation…

A friend of mine, Amanda, is writing some articles for InterfaithFamily.com, explaining the different ways different people pronounce, translate and transliterate (write with English letters) Hebrew. The first article just went up: The Case of the Missing Sav, and other mysteries in the transition of American Hebrew. But in addition to that, I wanted to share an article that didn’t make it into her final draft.

Wait. Let me back up. One of the sources cited in her article was Alan Mintz’s Hebrew in America: perspectives and prospects. In it he writes,

I am not convinced that the American teaching agenda [of Hebrew] must be set by a dependence on Israeli teachers.

I agree! And I suspect that many parents who have or had children try to learn Hebrew in a synagogue’s religious or Hebrew school would also agree. Fluency in a language does not necessarily a teacher make.

But his argument goes on to explain, as Amanda’s article paraphrases, that in America:

Camps, schools and other infrastructure existed to teach children Ashkenazi Hebrew, in addition to it being the language of synagogues’ prayers. The transition to Sephardi pronunciation was gradual, and was aided by growing feelings of Zionism, the availability of Hebrew courses on college campuses taught in Sephardi Hebrew, sometimes by Israeli instructors, and other factors.

So what does that mean? The majority of Jews in the U.S. are of German and Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi). Many of them spoke Hebrew with their community’s pronunciation, which included pronouncing some “t” sounds (the Hebrew letter tav) as “s” (sav), “o” sometimes became “oy”, and “a” sometimes was “o.” There were many other differences too. (Which we’ll be sharing a resource on shortly!)

Sometimes, because of the push to standardize Hebrew in the U.S., fuelled, in part, by Zionism and a desire to align our Diaspora Jewish communities with Israel, the “old school,” Ashkenazi pronunciations are seen as backwards, stupid, and sloppy. I strongly diagree. In fact, I call that bullshis. (See what I did there?)

And here we return to the article that didn’t make the cut. Because she, and I, found it offensive. It’s archived from a URJ email discussion list, and we don’t know much about it. But the author, Burt, says in part:

Over the course of the last eight years I have discovered something deeply frustrating within our Reform congregational world. The struggle to instill a knowledge and love of standard, modern Hebrew is challenged not only by the centrifugal pulls of assimilation, the extracurricular demands on our children, the challenges of maintaining two-income households and a terminal case of “pleasure principle”, but by the persistence of archaic and inaccurate pronunciation of Liturgical Hebrew due to old habits, ce , pseudo-orthodox affect or cultural sentimentality. The widespread use of this strange half-Hebrew, half-Yiddish dialect I call Ashkebonics (the Jewish equivalent of Ebonics), subverts the proper teaching of Hebrew and exacerbates a cultural and cognitive gap with between the American Jewish Community and Israel. The fact that so many of our Jewish professionals use and reinforce Ashkebonics is to me both puzzling and deeply frustrating.

If you want to read his rant, by all means. But I’ll stop quoting there. In essence, he argues that this historical, cultural, familial Hebrew pronunciation system should be squashed once and for all. He wants to see all Americans using the Hebrew pronunciation of Israel.

Would that simplify things, help folks learn? Perhaps. Perhaps it would be less confusing if we all referred to the 25 hours of Friday evening through Saturday night as “Shabbat” instead of some people saying “Shabbos.” But then, doesn’t learning about our multitude of cultures and histories make us a stronger, deeper, more enriched community as a whole? When we recognize that there is more than one way to speak or pronounce Hebrew, just as there is more than one way to be or do Jewish, just as there is more than one way to claim Judaism as our own… the whole community benefits.

Russian Dolls

23-year-old Diana Kosov, who wears a Star of David around her neck, breaks up with her Latino boyfriend, despite her expressed affection for him and his Maserati, after informing him she would only consider marrying a “Russian.”

According to Moses, “In that scene, everyone understands that Diana means she cannot allow herself to marry a non-Jew, but she uses the code word ‘Russian’ in place of ‘Jew’ or ‘Russian Jew’.”

The Jewish Week has an article out about the Brighton Beach (a Brooklyn, New York neighborhood) Jewish, Russian community. Well, the article is really about a new reality tv show called Russian Dolls, which airs on Lifetime. Variety summarizes the show with:

Apparently, “Jersey Shore’s” crimes against culture will include unleashing a torrent of heavily staged reality programs steeped in me-too ethnic stereotyping. Enter “Russian Dolls,” which has the distinction of show-casing the worst Russian accents since the early Bond movies, or back when Boris and Natasha began trying to kill moose and squirrel. Set in Brighton Beach — described by residents as “One square mile of Brooklyn jam-packed with crazy Russians” — it’s a Vodka-infused taste of Lifetime’s desperation to become hipper and get noticed. Will it work? Probably nyet.

Sounds delightful, eh?

So, back to the Jewish Week article, “Too Much Bling in Brighton Beach.” The second half of the article discusses the Jewish identities of the “characters” and intermarriage.

Arguing that as the percentage of Jews in the Russian-speaking community in South Brooklyn has receded from over 80 percent to 60 percent or less in recent years, even prominent Russian Jews have become more inclined to speak publicly of the community as “Russian-speaking” rather than “Russian Jewish.” (An influx of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Uzbeks and others accounts for the drop-off.)

Moses observed, “We are seeing an ongoing de-Judaization of this community, and what we see in ‘Russian Dolls’ confirms that it has become politically incorrect to use the word ‘Jew’ in many situations.”

A rabbi that works with the local Russian Jewish community said,

“Any reality show is obviously exaggerated and cannot be taken too seriously,” he said. “Still, it was good that the producers showed the guts to stand up against intermarriage. Yes, Diana called herself ‘Russian’ instead of ‘Jewish’; but the basic concept that one should marry inside one’s own community was upheld.” Rabbi Tokarsky added. “To compare ‘Russian Dolls’ to ‘Jersey Shore’ is like comparing animal life to plant life. ‘Russian Dolls’ is much better.”

Was upholding “intramarriage” the point of that scene? And was it really about a Jew marrying another Jew or was it about a Russian marrying another Russian? Is there a difference, and, if there is, does it matter?

[sup](L to R) Svetlana Rakhman, Anastasia Kurinnaya, Marina Levitis, Anna Khazanova, Renata Krumer and Diana Kosov star in Russian Dolls.[/sup]

Children of Hidden Jews

I saw a short item, “Polish-language guide to Shavuot distributed.” An organization called Shavei Israel which does outreach to people with Jewish roots or ancestry around the world, prepared the pamphlet.

Children of hidden Jews are, for the most part, children of interfaith marriages. In the Polish case this looks nothing at all like interfaith marriage in the United States–the level of anti-Semitism in Poland and the lack of freedom of religion means that hidden Jews are also people whose Jewish roots were hidden from them.

The interesting thing is that this outreach, which is entirely to people who descended from interfaith families, is under Orthodox auspices and the organization has on its website that it is “under the ongoing supervision of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel.”