About the project

Project head: Prof. Yehudit Henshke, University of Haifa

Academic steering team:

  • Prof. Moshe Bar-Asher, President of the Academy of the Hebrew Language
  • Prof. Meir Bar-Asher, head of the Academy for the Hebrew Language
  • Prof. Benjamin Hary, New York University, USA
  • Regius Prof. Geoffrey Khan, University of Cambridge
  • Prof. Judith Olszowy-Schlanger, the Sorbonne, Paris

With the support of:

  • The Ben Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East
  • Humanities Faculty, University of Haifa

With the generous assistance of:

  • The Joseph & Racheline Barda Chair for the Study and Research of Jewish Heritage in Egypt
  • YH Dimri Construction & Development Ltd
  • Dr. Albert Dov and Nancy Friedberg

Background

Living for centuries among the nations of the world, the Jews became a multilingual people. Hebrew served as their language of religion, prayer and learning, while the local vernaculars – Arabic, German, Italian, Spanish, etc. – served as their spoken languages. It was the fascinating encounter between Hebrew and the local vernaculars that gave rise to the Jewish languages. These tongues, which carry with them invaluable cultural assets – of poetry, prose, halacha u-minhag, folklore, etc. –  and which were passed orally from one generation to the next, have unique characteristics in terms of their grammar, vocabulary, semantics and syntax, as well as their cultural content.

The Jewish languages, dozens in number, belong to various language families: Semitic, Hellenic, Romance, Germanic, etc., and often preserve unique and ancient features of the local tongues. Socially isolated, the Jews preserved linguistic trends and characteristics that vanished from the speech of the general population. German Jews, for example, preserved central German dialects even after migrating to far regions of eastern Europe; similarly, Jewish Spanish (Ladino) preserves an ancient Catalan dialect which continued to be spoken in Turkey, the Balkans, Morocco, and every other country to which its Jewish speakers migrated. The same is true for the Arabic of the Jews of Baghdad, which is clearly distinct from the dialects spoken by the city's Muslim and Christian residents. All signs indicate that the Jewish dialect echoes the language spoken in the city during the Middle Ages, while the languages of the Muslims and Christians changed under the influence of other dialects.

Following various historical developments and catastrophes of the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century (pogroms, the Holocaust, migrations, Zionism and immigration to the Land of Israel), the Jewish languages declined and many of them ceased to be spoken, so that today these languages face a very real danger of extinction. It should be noted that Israel is home to a large and unique concentration of speakers of these languages; hence, the main goal of the project proposed here is to record and preserve as much as possible before these speakers pass away and the languages and their cultures are lost forever.

The value of these languages cannot be overstated, for, as noted, they contain unique linguistic and cultural features of great importance, which were passed down orally and were never recorded in writing. These spiritual treasures are still alive here in Israel, and we must save and preserve them before the tide of history sweeps them away.

Endangered languages

The phenomenon of language death is not unique to the Jewish people. The loss of languages and cultures is a global concern, and many national and international projects worldwide are dedicated to addressing it. However, regarding Jewish languages, most of whose speakers are concentrated in Israel, very little has been done. Therefore it is our duty as Jews and Israelis to take the initiative and act immediately to preserve these dialects.

Sadly, some Jewish languages have already been lost after the last of their speakers passed away. This is why I emphasize yet again the importance of immediate and speedy action to document the remaining Jewish tongues.

The Jewish languages

Below is a list of critically endangered Jewish languages that must be recorded with great urgency in order to preserve them. It should be borne in mind, however, that each of the languages on the list represents a number of different regional dialects   Hence, in planning the recordings, the unique characteristics of each country of origin must be taken into consideration, in order to best take advantage of the available speakers from each community.

The languages are:

  1. Judeo-Arabic, with its various dialects: Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
  2. Judeo-Persian: Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan (Bukhara), Tajikistan and the eastern Caucasus.
  3. Judeo-Aramaic: Kurdistan (western Iraq, western Iran and southern Turkey).
  4. Judeo-Georgian.
  5. Yiddish (Non-Haredi).
  6. Judeo-Spanish (Ladino).

The importance of the project

The recording and preservation of the Jewish languages is of immense importance, both from the academic perspective and from the public, social and individual perspectives. From the academic point of view, it is a supremely important enterprise of documenting ancient languages and dialects from across the world. It will greatly enrich the study of world languages, past and present, and will thus have considerable impact on linguistic research in Israel and worldwide. Obviously, the study of Hebrew in particular will benefit, for the Jewish tongues often contain a significant Hebrew component, which bears the clear imprint of ancient traditions, while also exhibiting linguistic creativity and change arising from the centuries-long contact with the local languages. Other fields of study, such as literature, culture, anthropology, folklore, and others, will benefit as well from this rare treasure that has never been systematically recorded. 

As for the public, social and individual level, , Israel's melting-pot policy and other factors have caused many of its citizens to become estranged from the ancient traditions of their communities of origin. Documenting and preserving these traditions can contribute greatly to reestablishing familiarity and affinity with these Jewish cultures, which nurtured the founding fathers and first citizens of the state. It will also contribute to consolidating and strengthening the identity of Israelis whose communities of origin have barely been studied and do not have a dominant presence in Israeli society.

The goals of the project

The project has immediate and urgent goals, as well as long-term goals. The first and most urgent goal is the establishment of a broad, comprehensive and efficient apparatus for recording speakers of the Jewish languages from across the state of Israel. The importance of this goal cannot be understated, because time is working against us and rich languages and cultures are rapidly vanishing as the speakers pass away.

Another goal, which emanates from the first, is to record and preserve the oral cultural tradition that was passed down from generation to generation. Hence, in the process of recording, emphasis will be placed on documenting materials of cultural importance such as poems, ballads and laments, midrashim, folktales and legends, personal and communal histories, etc. The center will also undertake to find and collect other relevant recordings and materials that are in the hands of the public for the purpose of copying and preserving them.

As stated, these languages are rapidly disappearing and there is a real concern that in the near future they will no longer be understood. Hence, the center will undertake to transcribe and translate the collected materials, so as to render the recordings accessible and comprehensible.

Donations for the project and the website are more than welcome and every penny will be used to record and preserve the endangered Jewish languages. The donation can be accompanied by a dedication.

 

 

Interested in learning more? Further reading.

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