gershon hepner (5 3 38 / leipzig)
Two Sides Of Coins In A Fountain
“He mekaraved me, ” are words BTs might choose to say,
whereas “He was mekarev me, ” is how an FFB
would say it, in their English-Jewish corny koine way
two sides of coins in a fountain where all speech is free.
Taking it away from them would be extremely thievish:
the way they speak proves to both categories that they are Jewish.
Despite a hilluk of a difference they both speak yeshivish,
in a mamme loshen that’s both second-hand and newish.
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Poet's Notes about The Poem
Benor’s study is more useful as catalog than as argument or discovery. Orthodox Jewish English is, to be sure, somewhat more than a mere collection of heimishe words. For instance, Benor shows that one way to tell an FFB (frum from birth) Jew from a BT is that BTs tend to use Hebrew-derived verbs in bare form, as in “He mekareved me” (i.e., brought me into the halakhic fold) , which the FFB would correct to be, “He was mekarev me.” She also identifies the “hesitation click” often used by Orthodox speakers midsentence before revising a point or moving a conversation in a new direction, by “touching the tongue to the roof of the mouth and bringing air inward.”….
Yet while the Western scholar of language treats multilingualism as a special object of study, more properly it is monolingualism that ought be treated as intriguing. Going through life speaking only one language is unusual as humans go, in both the present and the past.
In that light, there is a more radical kind of mixture between English and Jewish languages that many find genuinely surprising, even bizarre—and sometimes even illegitimate. Yet this mixture, the “Yeshivish” spoken by Jewish men studying at yeshivas, is in the technical sense no more surprising than the way of speaking that BTs acquire. “Yeshivish” can, indeed, be quite the mixture, sprinkled so thickly with Yiddish, Hebrew, and Aramaic words that it is incomprehensible to outsiders. Chaim Weiser’s seminal (and whimsical) Frumspeak: The First Dictionary of Yeshivishgives an example: “There are four ikar ta’amim why the Yeshivishe oilam speaks davka Yeshivish. The ershte ta’am in altz specificity. Lemushel... ”That is, if I may venture a translation, “There are four main reasons why the Yeshivishe crowd consciously chooses to speak Yeshivish. The first reason is for its specificity. For example...”
There is, it should be noted, a thin line between this language associated with the activity of Talmudic study and the speech variety upon which Benor concentrates, in which it would hardly be unusual to hear, as she quotes, “We should be mesameach the chossen and kallah” for “We should entertain the groom and bride.” However, even the especially full-blown Yeshivish of a bokhur immersed in learning is a linguistically unsurprising phenomenon. It seems otherwise only because of our print-focused perspective, in which standardized, written language is processed as “the real language, ” in relation to which change and mixture qualify as irregular and impure. Under this perception, a language that accepts more than a few words from other languages sacrifices its “purity.”….
These are counter-intuitive phenomena that a layman would not be likely to predict. Language mixture in the general sense, however, is not surprising: Languages coming together is a default. Yeshivish, along with the less-extreme renditions of the same phenomenon that Benor studies, is one more of the language varieties Jews have created based on the language of their nation of residence. Yiddish began as Jewish German, Ladino had its start as Jewish Spanish, and Bukharans speak a Jewish Persian. Among the most segregated Jewish populations, then, there is also a Jewish English.
It will remain common, nevertheless, for even Orthodox Jews to refer to Yeshivish as a kind of moderately off-putting stunt or oddity, a talking “like that, ” as I have often heard it described. Similarly, academic linguists will continue to treat it as a topic of interest that when humans join new social groups, they take on that group’s ways of talking. In the grand scheme of things, however, both perspectives marvel at the ordinary. There is an ironic lesson from Benor’s book, as well as the general discussion of varieties of Jewish American English: Modern linguistic life, entrenched in standardization and monolingualism, makes the ordinary human activity of learning new ways of speaking and the linguistic mixtures which result seem peculiar.