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No Yiddish Spoken Here

Shira Yehudit Djlilmand

Most Jews of the Western world consider Yiddish to be the Jewish language. But for centuries, their cousins in Arab lands spoke Judeo-Arabic, a rich collection of dialects that synthesized the local Arabic with Hebrew and Aramaic. Today, these evocative dialects, although in decline, are still alive and sounded by Jews across the globe in shiurim, song, and even on the radio. Judeo-Arabic enthusiasts share their takes on this uniquely Jewish language.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Yiddish is not a language I hear often. English-born, married to an Iranian Jew, and living in Israel, the languages I hear most frequently are English, Hebrew, and the Farsi that my husband speaks with his Iranian relatives. But if I step outside, I’m likely to hear a very different language. Tzfat has a very strong concentration of Moroccan and Tunisian Jews, and many of them have made their homes in my neighborhood. When I pass by their yards, I’m likely to hear them conversing animatedly, often with a glass of mint tea or Turkish coffee in hand, in a language that to Western ears may sound like Arabic, but, in fact, shares many parallels to Yiddish. The language they are speaking goes by the name of Judeo-Arabic. Much like Yiddish, it’s a distinctly Jewish language, a synthesis of a host country’s native language and a large number of Hebrew and Aramaic words.


Arabic Teitch

Judeo-Arabic, historically called al-Yahudiyya, may actually predate Yiddish. Although it’s impossible to give exact dates for the origin of languages, it is known that Yiddish developed from the Ashkenazi culture of tenth-century Europe, whereas there is evidence that the Jews in the Arabian Peninsula used some sort of Arabic-Jewish dialect even before the Islamic conquests of the 600s CE. Interestingly enough, some of the Hebrew and Aramaic words that pepper Judeo-Arabic actually infiltrated the speech and writing of the Arabs, which may account for the fact that there are a number of Hebrew and Aramaic words in the Koran.

After the great Islamic conquests, the Jews in the newly conquered lands gradually adopted the conquerors’ language, but retained their own unique vocabulary. Jews in these regions wrote their unique Judeo-Arabic dialect in Hebrew script, sometimes using Arabic notations to express letters that didn’t have a Hebrew equivalent.

The language wasn’t only used for mundane affairs; it also played a vital role in Jewish religious life. All the major religious texts, including the Chumash, siddur, Pirkei Avos, etc., were translated word-for-word into Judeo-Arabic. The Chumash translation was commonly known as sharh, the rough equivalent of the Yiddish teitch. And not only were the sacred texts translated into Judeo-Arabic, but many classic seforim were actually originally written in Judeo-Arabic and only later translated into medieval Hebrew so that the Ashkenzai Jews of Europe could understand them. These classics included Rav Saadia Gaon’s Emunot vV’Deot, Rav Shlomo ibn Gabirol’s Tikun Middot HaNefesh, Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pakuda’s Chovot HaLevavot, Rav Yehudah HaLevi’s Kuzari, and the Rambam’s Commentary on the Mishnah, Sefer HaMitzvot, and Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed).


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