Endangered and Emerging Jewish Languages: An Interview with Sarah Bunin Benor

Marina Mayorski


Among the many unprece­dent­ed con­di­tions of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, the tra­di­tion­al Passover cel­e­bra­tion had to be recon­fig­ured this spring in order to abide by the stay-at-home orders in effect in many parts of the world. But the sit­u­a­tion also yield­ed many cre­ative ini­tia­tives sur­round­ing the hol­i­day, allow­ing for peo­ple across all con­ti­nents to come togeth­er and share their diverse Seder tra­di­tions. One such ini­tia­tive was led by the Jew­ish Lan­guage Project, includ­ing a Pow­er­Point mul­ti­lin­gual Hag­gadah for a Zoom Seder and a live mul­ti­me­dia con­cert atwhich Passover songs in mul­ti­ple lan­guages were per­formed by renowned musi­cians. Such a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to expe­ri­ence the mul­ti­plic­i­ty of Jew­ish cul­tures and lan­guages is exact­ly the goal of Sarah Bunin Benor, the founder and Direc­tor of the Hebrew Union Col­lege – Jew­ish Insti­tute of Reli­gion (HUC-JIR) Jew­ish Lan­guage Project, which pro­duces the Jew­ish Lan­guage Website. 

Con­fined to my home in Michi­gan, I delved into the rich tapes­try of Jew­ish worlds that the Project encom­pass­es, dis­cov­er­ing lan­guages and cul­tures I was ashamed to have nev­er even heard of, as a grad­u­ate stu­dent who stud­ies Jew­ish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture. When most peo­ple hear the phrase Jew­ish lan­guage,” they think about Hebrew and Yid­dish, and I am always hap­py to remind any­one who will lis­ten about the won­drous tra­jec­to­ry of Ladi­no, which is the sub­ject of my own research about Mod­ern Sephardic cul­ture. But how many peo­ple know about Judeo-Tajik, the lan­guage of Bukha­ran Jews, one the old­est Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in the world? How many of us have con­sid­ered the con­tem­po­rary emer­gence of nov­el Jew­ish tongues, in the diverse com­mu­ni­ties of Latin Amer­i­ca, the US and even Sweden? 

I inter­viewed Benor, who is a Pro­fes­sor of Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Stud­ies at HUC-JIR, where she teach­es most­ly master’s stu­dents in the Zelikow School of Jew­ish Non­prof­it Man­age­ment and under­grad­u­ates at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. In this inter­view, Benor talks about the path that led her to the study of Jew­ish lan­guages. We dis­cussed the val­ue of postver­nac­u­lar activ­i­ty, the var­i­ous facets of the Jew­ish Lan­guage Project, and the many chal­lenges it faces.

Marina Mayorski: I wanted to begin by asking about your own scholarly trajectory. What drew you to the study of Jewish languages?

Sarah Bunin Benor: I got interested in Yiddish through klezmer music. I played violin and had a klezmer band at my bat mitzvah, which started my interest in klezmer music. And then in college I took a class on Yiddish culture because [the course description] mentioned klezmer music. Then I got into Yiddish; I got an internship at the Yiddish Book Center, then other summer programs at Oxford and Columbia. As an undergrad, I took a lot of classes in Yiddish. I was a comparative literature major, but only because I wanted to study language and I wanted to write a thesis, and there was also no linguistics department at Columbia. So, I created my own concentration in linguistics in addition to the Comp Lit major, and I focused on Yiddish. And then when I was taking a class on the history of Romance languages, I was reading an encyclopedia article and it mentioned three different Jewish Romance languages: Ladino, which I had already known about, and Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Portuguese, which I had never heard of before. I got really excited and decided that this is what I want to do with my life— I want to study Jewish languages. I decided to write my [undergraduate] thesis about Jewish English, because I was at a university with a lot of Orthodox students and I realized that there was a Jewish language being developed around me and there hadn’t been a lot of research about it. And then I decided to go to grad school to study linguistics.

MM: Could you give me a big picture overview of the Jewish Language Project?

SBB: Since I was in grad school [at Stanford], I’ve been doing various educational and research projects related to Jewish languages, including a Jewish languages website I started in 2002. I realized that I should consolidate those into one official project, and I decided to house it at HUC [Hebrew Union College] where I am a professor, so that is how the HUC Jewish language project came about. I really hope that this project will raise awareness about Jewish languages. Most people know about Yiddish and Hebrew and Ladino; some people know about Judeo-Arabic, but not many. But most people have not heard about most of the other Jewish languages, like Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Malayalam. I want people to know that wherever Jews have lived around the world, they have spoken in a distinctive way, written in a distinctive way from their non-Jewish neighbors. I want them to learn about the similarities of these languages and their differences. I personally find it fascinating to learn about a Hebrew word that has been used in dozens of Jewish languages, and I want to share that excitement with others.

But I’m also concerned about the urgent situation right now with regard to documentation. A lot of these languages are endangered. Yiddish is not, but most of the other long-standing Jewish languages are endangered; the people who speak them are almost all very elderly. There are some projects that are working on this documentation, including the “Mother Tongue” project in Israel and the Endangered Language Alliance in New York, but I think they aren’t doing it fast enough, so I’m trying to partner with them to do this as well. Currently our main initiative is an endangered Iranian Jewish languages documentation project. We’ve found twelve speakers of various Iranian Jewish languages to record, so we’re going to record them through Zoom and FaceTime, because we can’t proceed with our initial plan to record them in person. I feel that this is urgent enough that we should do it even now during the stay-at-home restrictions. My role in that is to coordinate various groups to do that documentation and apply for funding.

Lately I have also been working on a series of webinars. We had about 200 people watch each one. We had a lot of website traffic around Passover, because of our Passover resources, videos and images from Haggadot from around the world, including versions of various songs from the Haggadah in different Jewish languages. I think we got about 5000 visitors in the weeks leading up to Passover. The part of the website that gets the most traffic is the Lexicon, especially the Jewish English lexicon that I started in 2012. Often people arrive at that site by looking up a Yiddish word or a Hebrew word. So I feel like we have an impact.

I have a lot of other ideas, but I can’t do them all at the same time. One future initiative is names, which I see as a part of language. I want to create a large database for surnames and first names that Jews have used around the world; it would be searchable and sortable. There is just so much interesting research that can be done using such a database. I’ve applied for funding and hopefully that will happen in the next few years. I also want to add a crowd-sourced audio component to the Jewish-English lexicon, so that people can hear how the words on the lexicon are pronounced. People from around the English-speaking world would record their own versions of these words and sentences, which would also be a way to collect data about how Jews in different places speak.

MM: That’s fascinating. I was looking at the Russian Jewish lexicon just now. I’m from a Russian-speaking family that immigrated to Israel. One of the first things I saw in the lexicon was “Aliya”, which was so striking to me, because growing up I actually thought “Aliya” was a Russian word. I thought “Olim” was a Russian word too. Everyone used it in Russian speech, in a very “Russian” way, so it took me very long to understand that it’s actually Hebrew, and then when I realized it – I felt so embraced. I was so happy to see it in the Russian Jewish lexicon; it gave me a sort of affirmation…

SBB: That one is really in its infancy. It needs a lot of additions.Another project that I have in mind, which I just wrote an article about (though it hasn’t been published yet), is a database of the Hebrew and Aramaic words that have been and are used in Jewish languages around the world. It’s a huge undertaking. Right now, there is a comparative dictionary of Hebrew words in Jewish languages created by Aharon Maman, but it doesn’t include languages that already have published dictionaries, like Yiddish, Ladino, and some Judeo-Arabic varieties. That dictionary is really good and could serve as a basis for a comparative database, but there is so much more to be done. I would love for people to be able to just go on this website, look up a word, and see which languages it is documented in, how it’s pronounced and how it’s used in these languages. This would require a lot of collaboration among scholars and informants in these languages.

MM: That really is a huge undertaking. Is it just you, creating networks with these other organizations? Do you have any other collaborators, co-workers, or students also working on this?

SBB: It’s mostly me. I have an assistant, Elaine Miller, who works from time to time on the website and other initiatives, and I work with students from time to time. I have three student interns this summer working on the English-Jewish lexicon and other projects I also collaborate with people all the time, like in the case of the concert we produced for Passover, where I collaborated with many organizations as well as the musicians. That concertwas on March 15th, right at the time when the coronavirus got really serious in LA. Three days before the event we had to switch from in-person to online, which was a problem but also a blessing because people from all around the world could attend. I’ve also been happy to interact with a lot of people who visit the website, because there are forms where they can enter questions. Just today I answered a question someone asked about a name. I think it’s an important service to the world, to have that interaction. A lot of academics produce work that is only ever read by people in their field, and I do that too, but I also think that it’s important, for me, to share my scholarship and others’ scholarship with the broader world.

MM: I want to go back for a moment to the question of the very definition of “Jewish language,” the specifically “Jewish” component within that, and also the distinction between “language” and “dialect”. I heard you speak about it on the Association for Jewish Studies’ podcast, reacting to the constant rigorous attempts to define or delineate the borders of what constitutes a language, what is specifically Jewish, and what is a “dialect”, which is often used in a derogatory manner. You’ve also introduced the concept of an “ethnolinguistic repertoire” in your articles to somewhat address these problems. Can you talk a little bit about that, if and how language politics concern these discussions, and whether or not these are productive definitions to begin with? How do you see these questions within the project – the attempts to define what’s Jewish and what’s not, and what’s a language of its own and what’s not?

SBB: Trying to distinguish between language and dialect is politically fraught. Some people might say that these are dialects from the same language, while others might say that these are the same language, and these stances might have ramifications for language rights, funding, and various other things. In the case of endangered languages, it’s particularly important. People want to know how many speakers there are of Judeo–X, or some endangered language, and it’s sometimes hard to answer that question. How do you distinguish between the Judeo-Italian and Italian, for example? What if a sentence uses some words that are not part of standard Italian or a regional dialect? Is the presence of just one distinctive feature enough to say that this is a Judeo-Italian sentence? If somebody uses features now and then in their speech, is that enough to consider them a speaker of Judeo-Italian? It’s a really complicated question. The standard definition is mutual intelligibility, or mutual unintelligibility. If two ways of speaking are unintelligible to each other, then they are considered separate languages. The problem with that is, whose opinion do you take? Because the person who speaks in the more minoritized way can often understand the person who speaks the standard way, so that they might not think about it a separate language because they can understand. There are issues of power surrounding these definitions.

But in terms of Jewish linguistic studies, the question of whether things should be considered languages or dialects doesn’t really matter when we’re doing a comparative analysis of Jewish ways of speaking.If we’re talking about comparing Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, and Jewish French in the 21st century, one thing we want to think about is how different they each are from their “base” language. So we might compare Yiddish to German and conclude that they are very different. We might compare Judeo-Arabic with the non-Jewish Arabic of that place. We might compare Jewish French today with standard French. We might say that they exist on a continuum: Jewish French is the least distinct, and Yiddish is the most distinct. That is a more useful understanding than saying that one is a language and the others are not.

Some might say that Yiddish is a language because it’s different enough from German not to be mutually intelligible. Judeo-Arabic from Cairo in the 19th century is similar enough to Arabic that it might be called a dialect, and Jewish French might not even be considered a dialect because it’s so similar to French. But that distinction between language and dialect is not useful in this context. However, we need a way to refer to the collective way that Jews have spoken and written throughout history, and so I use the term “Jewish languages”. Sometimes I say “Jewish language varieties,” but that whole phrase gets a little clumsy. [Linguist] David Gold, for example, used the term “Jewish-lects”, from the word “dialect”, as an umbrella term. But I tend to say “Jewish languages”, and because of that people are sometimes skeptical about the inclusion of Jewish English in my comparative analysis project. My take on that is that it is very useful to include Jewish English and other contemporary Jewish language varieties because it gives us another data point and helps us determine what questions to ask about Jewish languages of the past. We can ask people questions about the way they speak today and get a better understanding of socio-linguistic variation.

MM: It sounds like this project can lead to questions about Jewish existence and identity, with regard to assimilation and distinctness, which is interesting within such a comparative framework. You mention endangered languages, and on the website you often discuss postvernacular activity. We have, on the one hand, Yiddish and Hebrew, which aren’t endangered, and on the other hand languages whose speakers are dying out. Does that potential power imbalance come into consideration within the project, within plans to allocate funds for research and activities, which you mention among your future plans?

SBB: Absolutely. My biggest priority right now in raising funds is to work on documentation of these endangered languages. I’m focusing on Iran right now. There are so many languages and dialects — they are not mutually intelligible to each other, so I do think of them as languages — in Iran that haven’t really been documented. I keep learning about new languages because there are so many places in Iran where Jews used to live. In the early to mid 20th century they tended to move to larger cities, so they haven’t lived in those areas much in the last several decades, but there are still elderly speakers of these languages who also know Persian and Hebrew. I think it’s important to record that now so that we can add to our understanding of the history of Jewish languages.

MM: Beyond this historical understanding, what will it give us to engage with these languages in postvernacular ways? I’m thinking mostly about how to attract and engage students: How to bring the postvernacular engagement with endangered Jewish languages to the status of Yiddish? How to balance this power imbalance between them or to communicate the value of this postvernacular activity?

SBB: First of all, offering summer programs, starting from Ladino and going beyond that, would be a huge contribution. That’s something I have planned for the Jewish Language Project down the road. There’s no place where people can learn most of the longstanding Jewish languages, like Judeo-Tat and Judeo-Tajik. The only way to learn them is by reading, listening to music, and talking to native speakers. Those two languages in particular do still have some young people who speak them, but they are shifting. You’re absolutely right to point out the power imbalance, and that’s something I would love to see change. I would love to see opportunities for students to learn these languages, and not just students but enthusiasts, who are interested in the language and the culture.

But that is a huge undertaking, and most people are not going to take the time to learn these languages in depth. And just as not everyone who listens to music writes and performs music, and instead can just take a class in music appreciation, I think the same goes for language. There’s really an opportunity to teach people about all these languages even if they don’t take the time to study them in depth.

MM: As someone who has expertise in the field of Jewish languages and their preservation, what do you think has prompted the large-scale postvernacular activity in Yiddish? Is it just the fact that there still is an active community of speakers, or does it extend beyond that?

SBB: I think in Europe it started as a sense of loss after the Holocaust, which prompted the phenomenon of philosemitism — people becoming interested in the culture that was lost — similar in some sense to the interest among white people in Native Americans in the United States. It’s obviously a different situation, but there are similarities pertaining to histories of genocide and dislocation. But in the United States, I think the interest in Yiddish has to do with the very large population of people who are descended from Yiddish speakers. There has been enough time since the generation of immigration that people are now embracing the language of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Another aspect is that in the United States in the late 60s and early 70s, there was a revival of interest in ethnicity, and it became cool to be ethnically distinct. I think Jews started to embrace their cultural heritage more starting in that period, and it has flowered in new waves in the generations since then.

I do already see postvernacular activity in Ladino. There is Ladino music being made, both in a traditional mode and in a more modern mode. And there have been some Ladino courses offered, mostly in Israel but also in Spain and the United States. And certainly there is a lot of Ladino culture surrounding food. I see a tiny bit of that surrounding Judeo-Arabic —mostly in Israel, not in the United States, because most Judeo-Arabic speakers live in Israel. I see this a little bit for Judeo-Italian in Italy; there is some interest, some theatrical production. And there is some interest in Judeo-Tajik, Bukharian.

But there are many other Jewish languages that don’t have much postvernacular activity. In fact, a lot of Iranian Jews don’t even know about all these languages that were spoken by their ancestors. They might know that they had a grandfather from Isfahan, but they don’t know about Judeo-Isfahani; they don’t know that it’s quite different from Persian. So I’m hoping that the Jewish Language Project will not only serve to document these languages but will also raise awareness about them, including among the very descendants of the people who spoke these languages.

MM: You also mentioned emerging Jewish languages. Does that extend beyond Jewish English? Can you talk a little bit about what this “emergence” looks like?

SBB: The Jewish lexicon project is just a small taste of the emerging Jewish languages – like Jewish Russian, Jewish French, Jewish-Latin-American-Spanish, and Jewish-Swedish. But I want to see more! I want to see Jewish-Hungarian, Jewish-German, Jewish-Brazilian-Portuguese. Wherever Jews live they speak somewhat differently from non-Jews, even if it’s just the occasional additional Hebrew word. I’d really like to see more research on those languages. So in addition to encouraging research on endangered languages, which is the biggest priority right now because of the urgency, I would also like the Jewish language project to encourage research on emerging Jewish languages. I don’t have any funding myself, but I’m in the process of applying for some, and hopefully sometime soon we’ll be able to do a grant competition to fund emerging scholars to do research on both endangered and emerging Jewish languages.

MM: I read your article on the project’s website about Jewish Latin American Spanish, which is a more recent phenomenon, and it was really interesting to think about that in comparison to Ladino. These languages also seem to reflect the communities of origin, absorbing elements from Yiddish, from Turkish, from Judeo-Arabic, wherever immigrants came from. The traditions and ways of life in the new place are also incorporated in the languages, to create sort of a travelogue of immigrant communities over generations, like the rings of a tree when you look inside.

SBB: Exactly, that’s what I find so interesting about Jewish languages and names. I just gave a talk about Jewish names last night. The name Yenta is a Yiddish name, but it comes from Gentile, which was an Italian Jewish name that was common among Jews in Romance-language-speaking countries. When they moved from what is now Italy to what is now Germany, they brought some words with them. Names like that reveal aspects of Jewish history. Jews took those Romance names and words to Germanic lands and to Slavic lands; then they came to America and they still maintained them. “Yentl” is the name of a movie made in the United States. We can look at our language and our names and we can see traces of our history. That’s what attracted me to Yiddish. It’s so rich; learning the language is like reading a very superficial history book — you’re learning about all the layers of the Jewish people.

MM: So for students like myself, scholars or enthusiasts, how is participation possible?

SBB: Certainly you can browse the Jewish Language Project website. There are many videos on the website, some that we have produced like the webinars and various lectures, but also external sources. We hold events from time to time. Right now we have more than usual, because I felt that this would be a useful service to the world during the pandemic and the stay-at-home restrictions. Of course, it would be great for people to donate money. All the money right now is going to the Iranian documentation project. If people want to get really involved, I’m always looking for people to do research. If someone is studying a particular Jewish community and wants to do research specifically about their language and their names, they should get in touch with me.I’m always happy to answer people’s questions and serve as a mentor if it’s useful to them.

MM: How about contributing to the site, to the project? What about language speakers, students who have studied them, or scholars who have knowledge in these areas?

SBB: Yes! If there are scholars who have studied languages that are not yet represented, I would love for them to write new entries and descriptions of the languages. If people are aware of certain resources that should be added, like videos and images, absolutely let me know and we’ll make sure that those get up there. Another good way to contribute is looking at the lexicons, like Jewish English, Jewish Russian, Jewish French, etc. If you’re familiar with those languages and know of other words or see mistakes in existing entries, please do submit those; it’s clear on the website how to do that.

MM: I’m curious about your vision for the field of Judaic studies as a field. It is clear that you really emphasize the production of more public knowledge, which is often a problem in all fields of study. If this project serves as a road map or a key to your vision of the future of the field, how do you see the effect of the study of Jewish languages, both within and outside academia?

SBB: I do hope that my activities inspire people in other subfields of Jewish studies to do more public-facing activity. I’m all for “scholarly scholarship,” but I do think it’s useful to share what we find in our scholarship with the broader population. Some of my colleagues at other institutions are doing similar projects. In fact, the Association for Jewish Studies recently had a grant competition for programs that bring Jewish Studies to a broader audience. I actually got one of those grants for my Passover project, which enabled me to hire the musicians and to create a lot of the Passover resources that are on the website.

MM: It did look lovely. It must have been useful and comforting for the many people who could not come together physically as they were used to during the holiday.

Mayorski, Marina. “Endangered and Emerging Jewish Languages: An Interview with Sarah Bunin Benor.” In geveb, June 2020:
Mayorski, Marina. “Endangered and Emerging Jewish Languages: An Interview with Sarah Bunin Benor.” In geveb (June 2020): Accessed Feb 26, 2024.


Marina Mayorski

Marina Mayorski is a PhD student in the Comparative Literature Department and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.