Introduction: There’s a Jewish Way of Saying Things

Avraham (Alan) Rosen


In his intro­duc­tion to There’s a Jew­ish Way of Say­ing Things: Essays In Hon­or of David Roskies, Rosen offers reflec­tions on the spe­cial issue as a whole and the orga­ni­za­tion and cat­e­go­riza­tion of the essays it contains.

For a pdf of this arti­cle click here.

For millennia, Jewish teaching and tradition have subjected speech to intense scrutiny. Rambam, medieval codifier of Jewish law par excellence, sets forth five categories of speech: Required (Torah); Forbidden (lies, etc.); Repulsive (idle chatter); Desirable (praise); and Permitted (food, drink, etc.). His classification takes as its departure point an earlier rabbinic maxim: “nothing is better for the body than silence” (Pirke Avot 1:17). While silence may be optimal, speech is the general mode of human interaction—and of human interaction with the Divine. Hence, Rambam’s intriguing range of categories.

By and large, Rambam’s guidelines prescribe and delimit. In so doing, they tell how best to use rather than abuse speech. “Best” here does not mean how to employ speech most effectively, a skill gained by the study of rhetoric or, in today’s world, by attending seminars in public speaking. Rather, “best” means guidelines offered to develop spiritual and ethical care and sensitivity, precepts fashioned in light of the Torah and its expositors.

The essays that follow are more descriptive in character. Many are concerned with how literature, a written medium, integrates speech—which is, in a way, its opposite number. The written word can only exist by silencing the spoken one.

Or so it might seem. “There’s a Jewish Way of Saying Things” contends that speech, the spoken word, the vibrating resonance of uttered sound, finds its way back into the text, takes up residence there, as it were, and makes itself heard. To be sure, this dynamic is not limited to Jewish writing and letters. The counterpoint between writing and speech, the written word and the spoken one, text and voice, is present and accounted for the world over. Nevertheless, “there is a Jewish way of saying things” presumes a special Jewish angle, voicing, diction, cadence—not to mention the evocative role played by Jewish languages. It focuses our attention on patterns of Jewish literary voicing that might otherwise be missed, overlooked, or underemphasized, showing how the way Jews speak finds expression in written texts of all sorts.

The following collection’s four sections group like-minded essays under what we hope is an enabling rubric, the first being “Speaking Jewish Traditionally.” Here, Torah and Talmud—the bedrock texts of Jewish tradition—model Jewish ways of speaking, while speaking with their own inimitable voice. These voices resound in the reading of the Torah scroll three days a week; in the study halls of Talmudic learning where deciphering a page of any given tractate takes place out loud, often in a cadence all its own, most often with a companion; clusters of verses and passages drawn from these sources echo in daily prayer, spoken—or shouted, or whispered—individually or collectively, the world over.

In this spirit, a story is told of an elderly Jew who, though feeling particularly weak that day, gets up to go join evening prayers at the local synagogue. His wife tells him that, to her mind, he would do better staying home. He asks an apparent non-sequitur: Do you prefer to cook your shabes stew in a new pot or in one you’ve seasoned many times? “The latter,” she replies. “Why is that?” he queries. “Because,” she says, “all the seasoning the pot has absorbed adds taste to the stew.” “Exactly,” he responds. “The walls of the synagogue where I’m heading have absorbed the petitioners’ prayers for generations. They’ll season mine too.” The words in texts vocalized by Jews find their way into walls, and back again. The notes inserted into the cracks and crevices of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, bearing hopes, yearnings, and the names of those in need, have their counterpart in the outpouring of voiced prayer that, one might imagine, layer the massive stones.

Moreover, the legacy of these ancient texts can be felt in almost every Jewish writing thereafter—and, perhaps, in every conversation in which a Jew takes part. The meaning of this legacy is what these essays strive to reveal, or reveal anew: the risk and necessity of translation; the music conjured by sacred words; the elevating force of commentary; the interweaving of voice in prayer, Talmudic arguments, and prophetic rebuke. All of these aim to return to something primordial, a sacred reflex ingrained and passed down that leaves its signature on mundane conversations, deliberations, and investigations.

The section “Speaking in Jewish Tongues” has as its backdrop the long history of Jewish multilingualism, beginning in the ancient world with the Torah and its commentaries in Hebrew, the Talmud in Hebrew’s cousin language Aramaic, and these sacred tongues dwelling alongside a host of vernaculars. Many times the vernaculars—Arabic, Persian, Spanish, and German, to name a representative sample—were given a special twist by the resident Jewish community, fusing local speech with Hebrew words and script to produce a spoken and written dialect all its own. In general, the process was naturally more complex and the story of the origin and evolution of these tongues more debated than my short summary can address. And that is also the case with Yiddish, the Jewish tongue that receives the bulk of attention in the essays that follow.

Said to originate in the 1200s in Central Europe, Yiddish traveled with the Jews to Eastern Europe in the centuries after, eventually becoming the Jews’ lingua franca in much of Poland, Russia, the Baltic countries, Ukraine, Rumania, Hungary, and adjacent lands. It nourished both the mystically-informed Hasidic awakening and, in a different spirit, the rise of secular belles lettres; it facilitated the learning of Talmud in the premier study halls of Jewish Eastern Europe, while also serving the Jewish populace at large as a language of politics, culture, and daily affairs. It continues to serve in a similar dual capacity today in Melbourne, New York, London, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Antwerp, and Israel, even though the onslaught of WWII considerably diminished the number of Yiddish speakers.

The numbers matter less than, as has been suggested by David Roskies, the wondrous capacity of Yiddish literature to represent the language as Jews actually spoke it. This exceptional facility, this inbred talent of Yiddish to keep its spoken verve in print, accounts, at least in part, for the nearly ubiquitous presence of Yiddish in this section. The examples of genre are broad: novels, poems, stories, film, and stage; of the imprint of regional fluctuation and variance; of places (taverns) where conviviality is at its height; and of the formal twist of endings. This facility also accounts for the volume’s multiple reflections on Sholem Aleichem’s contributions to a Jewish way of speaking. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine our Jewish way of speaking as not indebted to his: wry, satiric, garrulous, and wise, all at once. Yet the essays of this section aim deeper, mining levels of emotional expression, bonds of interfamilial communication, and the constraints and possibilities of tradition and innovation.

In “Speaking Jewish and the Holocaust,” the titles speak (as it were) for themselves, invoking a sobering list of negatives: orphaned; silence; death; nothing; without. And “night words.” In conjunction with the dark terms produced in and after these events, these essays elaborate a “secret language of suffering,” a “ghost language” as well as “a strategy for decoding Jewish silence.” Lest one think however that under such onerous conditions Jews were made to slough off long acquired habits, we are told that “even there and then, they didn’t relinquish their Jewish way of saying things.” Stated in reference to the Vilna ghetto, this tenacity was present elsewhere, perhaps everywhere, as scores of written and oral testimony make clear. Yet, simply for practical reasons, most of what we have included here considers the aftermath, the struggle of language in the wake of the Holocaust to reenter a reconstituted world and formulate a just response, at times halting, at other times lyrical, in some cases curiously wry. Whereas children sought to find words that could rebuild for them a semblance of normality, adults have been anxious to memorialize, to tease out meaning and hold firm to a shattered past, in texts, rituals, and symbols.

Not a few who came out from those difficult years had to contend with making themselves understood in, and understanding, the English language, whether in Australia, North America, Great Britain, or elsewhere. To be sure, they were not the first Jews to do so, as there had been a Jewish presence in these countries for centuries. But it was in the years following World War II, when English has assumed its premier position as the global language, that English also came of age as a medium of Jewish expression. This development is made evident by diverse signposts, such as the publishing of a multitude of traditional Torah texts and commentary in English translation; the almost taken-for-granted presence of Jewish studies programs in North American colleges and universities; and the cultivation of English-language academic journals dedicated to providing readers with an expanded critical vocabulary fully attuned to the Jewish past and future.

The themes of the essays in this section on “Speaking Anglo Jewish” overlap with these developments and also add to them. The ascendency of English in the Jewish orbit has not been all smooth sailing nor has it taken place without costs. Important to see, therefore, are the various connotations of broken English. Lack of fluency in a language often became the way to show the cost of seeking refuge in the New World, where characters were caught between languages—and much else. But this being between languages, neither here nor there, was to some degree generational. In time, Jews have become so proficient in English that they no longer feel linguistically stranded, adrift, without bearings in an English-language environment. Indeed, the shoe is now on the other foot. Competent in English to the extreme, these Jews yearn for the Jewish language left behind. Such languages can of course be learned. Yet one strategy among others has been to invent a language—really, to cobble together a set of Yiddish phrases and words—for those who wish to speak, as it were, more Jewishly—or at least more discernibly Jewish, both to others and themselves. Speaking Jewish thus creates a zone of identity that mastery of English threatens to efface. In this vein, literature, as we know, not only records or reflects what is, but can try out what might be—including a slanted way of speaking Jewish.

In recent times, such an approach has also endeavored to liberate the suppressed Jewish voices of characters and authors from a more distant past. In this way, the Jewish language pulsating beneath the surface can be given an outlet; even Shakespeare’s gritty English has had to make room for a Yiddish companion. Hence, a character, stigmatized in his or her day as Shylock was, might in an updated casting be Jewish and also speak Jewish.

These acts of reclamation bring to the fore recognizable examples of suppressed voices. But some ways of speaking Jewish may come in such a disguised manner that it is only by way of clues that we become aware of them. Tucked in the seams of literary masterpieces, the Jewish idiom, like the Jews who penned the words, remains undercover. This way of speaking Jewish demands a kind of excavation that brings them to the surface. Once recognized for what they are, however, these covert Jewish voices, subdued for so long, struggle to rejoin the domain of Jewish letters and thereby enrich the multiple registers in which Jews speak.

There’s a Jewish Way of Saying Things: this volume was conceived as a book with its own merits. But the inspiration, the roster of contributors, and the specific cluster of concerns were designed to honor David Roskies.

As scholar and teacher, David has done many remarkable things, influencing generations of scholars and students of Holocaust literature, Yiddish belle lettres, Eastern European Jewish ethnography, and many related aspects of Jewish studies. Indeed, each area of his influence could spawn a collection of its own. We chose on this occasion to highlight his unique contribution to “a Jewish way of saying.” A partial inventory of just the evocative terms he has formulated to consider the topic would include prooftexts, sacred parody, Jew-Zone, and Jewspeak. Yet his distinct approach is heard not only in what he writes about but, certainly to my eye and ear, in how he is able to put his voice in print on the page. He has shown us that an academic can, and perhaps should, aspire to write like the masters—and thereby has become a master in his own right.

Further, in formulating these terms when, where, and how he did, David seized the historical opportunity of a postwar generation at home in being Jewish yet in need of guidance to recognize the treasures it inherited. Apologies were no longer needed; a newly energized idiom, harnessed to greater knowledge of Jewish sources, was. The digital journal In geveb, rallied into existence by David Roskies a few years ago, was itself one recent effort on his part to expand the Yiddish/Jewish vocabulary in fresh directions. How appropriate then that this collection of essays graces the site of the journal he envisioned.

This, and much more, is what David, speaking with singular passion and eloquence in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English, has given students, colleagues, friends, and family for some five decades. Seen from this angle, the essays that follow measure, word for word and sentence for sentence, the lasting mark he has made on all of us.

Rosen, Avraham (Alan). “Introduction: There’s a Jewish Way of Saying Things.” In geveb, June 2020:
Rosen, Avraham (Alan). “Introduction: There’s a Jewish Way of Saying Things.” In geveb (June 2020): Accessed Mar 04, 2024.


Avraham (Alan) Rosen

Dr. Avraham (Alan) Rosen is the author or editor of fourteen books. He is most recently the author of The Holocaust’s Jewish Calendars: Keeping Time Sacred, Making Time Holy (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2018); The Wonder of Their Voices: The 1946 Holocaust Interviews of David Boder (Oxford UP, 2010; updated paper edition 2012), and Sounds of Defiance: The Holocaust, Multilingualism and the Problem of English (U of Nebraska P, paper 2008).