The Jewish Language Project, an initiative of HUC-JIR, works to promote research on, awareness about, and engagement surrounding the many languages spoken and written by Jews throughout history and around the world.
For most of history, well-known documents in Jewish languages were penned by men. At various points, however, Jewish women have recorded their voices in writing and in song. A new online, interactive exhibit, “A Millennium of Jewish Women’s Voices,” highlights and honors these voices across time and across the Jewish Diaspora.
The items shared in this exhibit span over a millennium and 20 different languages, some with multiple dialects. Jewish women have written in many genres, including letters, literature, translations of religious texts, memoirs, songs, and dictionaries. The exhibit also includes works authored by men intended for women’s use, such as prayer books translated into vernacular languages so that women, sometimes literate but not proficient in Hebrew, might understand the meaning. Oral traditions are often overlooked in favor of written work, but they represent an important literary form that women pass from generation to generation.
“When people think of Diaspora Jewish languages, they likely think of Yiddish,” co-writes Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor, Founding Director of the Jewish Language Project, HUC-JIR Vice Provost, and Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and Linguistics. “Although the collection includes old documents in Yiddish, like Tkhines and Glückel of Hameln’s memoir, we opted to focus most of the exhibit on lesser-known, underrepresented, or endangered languages… Some of the women featured in the exhibit are famous (in certain circles) in their own right… However, most of the women whose writings are included in the exhibit would have been unknown in the historical record were it not for these surviving fragments of their writing.”
Two online events complement the exhibition. The first event, “Women’s Voices: Introducing an Online Exhibit of Jewish Languages,” moderated by Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor, with speakers Abby Graham, Federica Francesconi, Hilah Kohen, Laura Arnold Leibman, and Renée Levine Melammed, drew nearly 300 people live, and about 100 views on YouTube within a week.
This Sunday, November 13, at 1:00 pm ET, the Jewish Language Project will host another event highlighting the exhibit, “Living Traditions: Women’s Songs in Endangered Jewish Languages” with Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, Miléna Kartowski-Aïach, Laura Elkeslassy, Judith Cohen, Ruth Davis, Sara Manasseh. This event will feature archival and contemporary performances of women’s songs in Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Amazigh (Morocco), Judeo-Malayalam (India), Ladino, and more. Click here for more information and to register.
The materials presented in the exhibit and accompanying events are only a selection of Jewish women’s work. The older items in the exhibit are rare in their survival, and many others may have once existed. The contemporary works stem from lesser-known, underrepresented, or endangered languages, such as Yemeni Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Berber, Juhuri, and Karaim. Modern women’s literature and songs in languages like Yiddish and Modern Hebrew have not been highlighted in this exhibit because they are already substantially documented and present in modern scholarship.
We invite you to browse the exhibit and attend this Sunday’s event. Dr. Benor is available for interviews: email@example.com.