Jewish English Professor Researches 'New Language's' Evolution - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

Jewish English Professor Researches 'New Language's' Evolution

Main Content
Friday, November 9, 2012

This article was published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and in ArkansasOnline November 3, 2012.

By Laura Lynn Brown


A scary foreign concept - a dybbuk, the Yiddish word for an evil spirit that inhabits a living person’s body - is a central plot device in the recent box office hit The Possession with Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.

The word’s presence might be more heartening than frightening, though, for people interested in the migration of Yiddish and Hebrew words into the English mainstream.

That migration was the focus of a research project for Sarah Bunin Benor, associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

Benor was a student at Columbia University, taking a class on Romance languages, when something outside the classroom caught her ear. “I realized that the Jews around me were speaking a new Jewish language, or at least dialect: Jewish English,” she said. “And I decided this is what I want to do with my life: study Jewish languages.”

In her study “Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity,” with colleague Steven M. Cohen, she learned some interesting things about who sprinkles their language with words from the old tongues.

Older Jews are more likely to use Yiddish words.

Younger Jews, especially those who’ve spent time in Israel, are more likely to incorporate Israeli Hebrew words.

Non-Jews with Jewish friends are more likely to enrich their language with non-English words.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Yiddish began as, and remained primarily, a spoken language.

For nearly 1,000 years, it was the primary language of European Jews. According to the UCLA Department of Germanic Languages, 80 percent of its words had German roots, 15 percent were from Hebrew and the remaining 5 percent were acquired from Slavic, Latin and Romance languages.

Assimilation and persecution have undermined the Yiddish language.

On the eve of World War II, there were 13 million Yiddish speakers worldwide, according to the Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora (although other sources put the number at 10 million or less).

But the Holocaust killed, by some estimates, 5 million Yiddish speakers and World War II scattered most of the rest, uprooting them from Europe.

The children and grandchildren of these Yiddish speakers generally adopted the languages of their new home countries, and as the older generation died out, the Yiddish language declined.

And in 1948, when the Israeli state was created, it adopted Hebrew as its official language and discouraged the use of Yiddish.

In the post-war years, Yiddish continued declining. Some have called it an endangered language.

But Yiddish is experiencing a resurgence, partly among ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in the Northeastern United States and Israel, the Jewish Virtual Library says. University departments in Yiddish studies are also involved in spreading interest.

Hebrew is primarily a written language; the Old Testament of the Bible, which contains the sacred Jewish Scriptures, is written in Hebrew.

“Many Yiddish words have become common outside of Jewish communities,” she said, such as “klutz” (a clumsy person), “shpiel” (or spiel, a long, involved story) and “pastrami.”

“Most Jews I know tend to be OK with non-Jews using Yiddish origin words, even tickled” rather than offended, she said, though the words sometimes lose some meaning in translation.

“For example, for most Jews, schmooze means ‘chat,’” she said. “For most non-Jews, schmooze means ‘network, kiss up.’”

For anyone who’d like to browse and see whether they’re using “Jewish” words correctly, a searchable lexicon has been recently made available at

For Jews, identity is partly at the heart of enfolding foreign words into common speech, Benor says. And as with any language acquisition, it can even be playful, especially with Orthodox Jews she terms BTs, for “ba’alei teshuva” (literally “those who return”).

“One BT man reported that when he used Yiddish words and intonation patterns, he felt like he was wearing a costume,” Benor says. “He did it not because he wanted to pass as ‘frum’ [religious] from birth but because it was fun for him.”


When linguist Benor and sociologist Cohen sent out the survey, they were hoping for 2,000 responses. They ended up with 40,000, largely from people forwarding it to one another. The survey is still open at and has 50,000 responses, she said.

Rabbi Jacob Adler of Temple Shalom in Fayetteville, a Reform Jewish congregation, thinks the biggest determinant of such language usage is whether someone was exposed to it in youth.

“My grandmother - it was her language. She grew up with it,” he said. “My parents’ generation heard it at home. My generation doesn’t use it at all.”

When foreign words find their way into another language, it’s often because they succinctly convey a definition or idea that the language has no good word for. Yiddish is “a very expressive language, especially for describing human characters,” Adler said. For example, “mensch,” an honorable, decent person.

Most people will have heard the terms “schlemiel,” sometimes defined as the clumsy person who spills soup on others, and “schlimazel,” the unlucky person who tends to get soup spilled on him. Less well-known is “tsitser,” the one who “stands by with the towel and doesn’t do anything,” he said.

Adler cautions that some words that have gained currency are considered vulgar in Yiddish. “You wouldn’t say them in polite company” (or use them in a family newspaper), he said. “I’ve heard non-Jewish people using them not knowing how offensive they are to the Jewish ear.”


Adler learned some Yiddish growing up in Rhode Island, with one of his grandmothers living four houses away. He also remembers many of his great-grandmother’s sayings - such as a Yiddish proverb that translates as “Soap and water are the cheapest things.”

“It means there’s no excuse for not having a clean house,” he said.

In Adler’s experience, Jews in Northwest Arkansas are less likely to have had that generational trickle-down effect, whereas during the year he taught at Tufts University in Boston, students would “get” words like “nudnik.”

“It’s hard to define,” he said, but it generally refers to “someone who has some weird theory and is telling it to you at great length.

“I could say, ‘Jim is a nudnik’ and they’d understand. Here I’d just get blank stares.”

Benor became so interested in how people new to Orthodox Judaism learn the traditional languages that she has written a book about it. Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism, by Rutgers University Press, will be released Nov. 15.

Benor did field research among communities in Philadelphia where English, Yiddish and Hebrew are embraced. One draw of Orthodox Judaism is the ritual, but another is the communal life, she thinks - a way of life that goes against the tide of an increasingly individualistic society.


“The attraction of people to Orthodox communities is often the ritual and the fact that things are scheduled in a different way,” she said. “But also the tight knit communities are a huge draw. People go to the homes of Orthodox Jews and they see these large, tight knit families and see these neighborhoods where everybody knows each other, and they invite over people they’ve never met because they think they might need a meal.”

Citing Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, she said, “Because of that decline there’s definitely a hunger in people... and I think a move to a more traditional community fulfills that need for many people.”

In assimilation into the community, language is just one more method of adopting an identity, akin to “all the distinctive cultural practices, the way they dress, the dances they do at weddings, the food they eat.”

“Some people when they become Orthodox don’t want to learn these things. But other people have the view that it’s important for integrating into the community,” she said. “They want to sound Orthodox, as if they had always been Orthodox. Most people are probably somewhere in between.”

Some blended “Jewish English” is common in her home, said Benor, who has three daughters, ages 4, 7 and 10. Her children attend a Conservative Jewish day school, and she visits Conservative and nondenominational congregations.

One word heard at home is “dugma” or role model: “Be a dugma for your little sister.”

“I wonder if they even know that some of these words are from Hebrew or Yiddish.”

Religion, Pages 12 on 11/03/2012

Print Headline: Jewish English

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.