An outdoor cooking area at Moshava IO (Bnei Akiva camp in Pennsylvania) utilizes Hebrew and English words. Photo by Sarah Benor.
By Sarah Benor
My preschool years were conducted primarily in English, but Hebrew also played an important role, appearing in songs and blessings, as well as words inserted into English sentences. At my JCC preschool and summer camp, we sang Hebrew songs like “David, Melech Yisrael” and “Shalom, Chaverim” and Jewish English songs like “Who Knows One?” (“Six are the books of the Mishnah, five are the books of the Torah… one is Hashem”). At home, we recited Kiddush in Hebrew every Friday night. We hunted for “chametz” and chopped fruit and nuts for “charoset” the night before the “seder.” And I called my grandma “Eemie” because she asked my mom (her daughter-in-law) to call her “Eema” (Mom).
I believe this infusion of Hebrew in my early years was instrumental in making me feel that Judaism is a core part of my identity. But it was not until I began researching Jewish languages that I truly appreciated how common this kind of language mixing has been in Jewish communities around the world, throughout history.
To give just a few examples, Jews in medieval France composed bilingual wedding songs with lines alternating in Hebrew and French. Jews in Modern Italy had a Judeo-Italian version of “Who Knows One?”: “Sei ordini de Miscnà [six orders of the Mishna], cinque libri della Torà [five books of the Torah]…” Judeo-Arabic in Yemen includes Hebrew words like laylat (a)l-fasaḥ (night of the seder) and yitraššaʕ (became evil – neglected his studies). Jewish Malayalam in Southern India includes Hebrew words like shalom (peace), abrāṃ abīṉ.oṭ’ (Avraham avinu – Abraham our father) and the mixed Hebrew-Malayalam phrase alam padacavanthe (world-created-he, referring to God).
I rejoiced in my discovery that I, an American Jew, had spent my whole life participating in this millennia-old tradition of speaking a local language with enrichment from our sacred language, Hebrew.