Judeo-Isfahani is a variety within the Provincial (Velāyati) subgroup of the Median dialects spoken in the immediate vicinity of Isfahan but showing close affinity to Gazi and Sedeh. Historical evidence substantiates the idea that Isfahan itself was home to a population that once spoke Median (Borjian 2011), but that the original vernaculars survived only in conservative Jewish quarters and among Muslims in the countryside. Judeo-Isfahani is thus an older survival, while Persian has moved in more recently. At least since the 1980s, the Jews of Isfahan are probably more numerous in diaspora than in Iran, with the largest communities in the United States, especially Los Angeles, and Israel.
Jews have lived among Persian speakers and in the territory that is now Iran for millennia. The term “Judeo-Persian”, somewhat confusingly, refers to the written language used by Persian Jews for well over a millennium, typically employing the Hebrew alphabet. The Judeo-Persian of these texts is far from uniform, having been used over a long period of time from Cairo to western China as the lingua franca of a dispersed, mobile community. A vast literature exists in the language: poetry, Biblical exegesis, even newspapers. Most recently, 11th century manuscript fragments, many in Judeo-Persian, have turned up in Afghanistan, promising to greatly enhance our understanding of the complex history and wide reach of the language.
Separate from Judeo-Persian, the Jews of Iran also had several distinctive spoken languages, many of them now grouped by scholars under the heading of “Judeo-Median”. Media was the traditional name for the northwest-central area of Iran, including the present-day province of Isfahan, where these languages are spoken. At least five varieties of Judeo-Median have been identified, named after the most prominent town or city where they were once spoken: Judeo-Isfahani (also called Jidi), Judeo-Yazdi, Judeo-Kermani, Judeo-Hamadani, and Judeo-Kashani. Although Judeo-Median speakers typically lived in the region’s towns and cities, the varieties show strong similarities to the rural dialects of Muslim speakers–in both cases, older forms abandoned by urban Muslims were maintained.
The Judeo-Median languages, including Judeo-Isfahani, are classified by linguists as being among the Central Plateau Dialects of Iran, belonging to what is sometimes called the South Median group of the Northwestern Iranian languages. These varieties are distinct from standard Persian to the extent that there is little mutual intelligibility and almost all speakers of Judeo-Median languages today have shifted in their daily lives to today’s standard Persian or the other national languages of where they currently live. Further research, if possible, will be needed to illuminate the connections among the different Judeo-Median dialects themselves and with the other varieties of the Central Plateau Dialect region.
Judeo-Median languages, including Judeo-Isfahani, appears to be increasingly moribund, and the extent to which there are still living native speakers and semi-speakers remains unclear. Already by 1970, according to researcher Habib Borjian, most Jews had left their traditional communities for Tehran and later overseas. Today, most Jews from the region now live in Israel and the United States, with only a fraction left in Tehran and major urban centers such as Isfahan and Shiraz. Many Persian Jews speak modern Persian, with language shift away from Judeo-Median varieties having already begun two or three generations ago with urbanization.
The earliest work on Judeo-Median was undertaken in the late 19th century by Russian linguist Valentin Zhukovskii, whose Materialy collected his research on Judeo-Kashani and on several related Central Plateau Dialects spoken by non-Jews. The work of Ehsan Yarshater, notably in his 1974 article “The Jewish Communities of Persia and their Dialects,” laid the groundwork for much modern research. The research of Ruben Abrahamian and Haideh Sahim has shed further light on Judeo-Hamadani, as has Habib Borjian’s work on Judeo-Kashani and Judeo-Isfahani. All varieties remain very much underdocumented.
Borjian, Habib. “Judeo-Iranian Languages,” in Lily Kahn and Aaron D. Rubin, eds., A Handbook of Jewish Languages, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2015, pp. 234-295.
Borjian, Habib. “What is Judeo-Median—and How Does it Differ from Judeo-Persian?” Journal of Jewish Languages 2/2, 2014, pp. 117-142.
Borjian, Habib. “Judeo-Kashani: A Central Iranian Plateau Dialect,” Journal of the American Oriental Society (JAOS) 132/1, 2012, pp. 1-22.
Sahim, Haideh. 1994. “The Dialect of the Jews of Hamedan.” In Irano-Judaica iii: Studies Relating to the Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture throughout the Ages, eds. S. Shaked & A. Netzer. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 171–81.
Schwartz, Martin . 2012. “Loteraʾi.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, https://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/loterai
Yarshater, Ehsan. 1974. “The Jewish Communities of Persia and Their Dialects.” In Mélanges Jean de Menasce, eds. P. Gignoux & A. Tafazzoli. Louvain, 453–66.
In New York, the main concentration today is in the suburb of Great Neck and the surrounding area on Long Island, where Isfahani Jews share their synagogues with other Persian Jews. Like other Persian Jews, the community now uses Persian primarily, while the younger generation in New York speaks English. In Great Neck, Judeo-Isfahani may have at most several dozen speakers, by and large over the age of 60. According to 2015-2019 American Community Survey data, there are roughly 6,693 Persian speakers in Great Neck and surrounding towns, the overwhelming majority of whom are probably Jewish, and a small number of whom are probably speakers of these quite different languages spoken by regional Jewish communities in Iran.