Jewish languages are spoken exclusively or predominantly by Jewish populations. Though usually related to non-Jewish languages and at times better described as dialects, “registers”, or “repertoires”, they remain distinct and rooted in Jewish life. Since the ancient disappearance of Hebrew as a vernacular language and the beginning of the diaspora, Jews have spoken several dozen distinct language varieties wherever they have lived — from southern India to Uzbekistan, from Yemen to Morocco, from Portugal to the Caucasus. Hebrew and Aramaic persisted as holy languages largely reserved for prayer and study, and in daily life multilingualism became the norm.
Jewish languages exhibit tremendous variety and belong to a number of different language families (Semitic, Indo-European, Turkic, Dravidian), encoding the history of multiple diasporas across millennia. At the same time, the languages show striking similarities in their structure, in their use of Hebrew and Aramaic elements, their ways of signifying Jewish identity, and their preservation of older elements that related non-Jewish languages may have lost. Much more than mere “jargons”, they are distinctive linguistic traditions that have served as an essential and distinctive aspect of Jewish life and culture for centuries.
Today, with few exceptions, the remaining longstanding Jewish languages are severely endangered, whether destroyed by the Holocaust, persecuted in the Soviet Union, or lost in the thinning of the diaspora and the push towards assimilation. With the exception of Yiddish and Ladino, they remain little documented by scholars and virtually unknown in the wider Jewish community. Individuals and communities seeking to record and maintain their languages, in whatever form, have often had to do so alone.
Due to recent successive waves of Jewish migration, the New York metropolitan area is now a major center of this endangered Jewish linguistic diversity. Some 85,000 New Yorkers, now overwhelmingly from the Hasidic communities of Brooklyn, report speaking Yiddish at home, with the number rising steeply if one includes the greater metropolitan area, the number of semi-speakers, and the growing Hasidic population. Ladino, with a speaker base initially on the Lower East Side and later in the outer boroughs and Long Island, is still spoken and understood by some. Many thousands of Bukhori speakers live in Queens and there are thought to be a few thousand who speak Juhuri in Brooklyn, not far from the Syrian Jewish community where some still speak Judeo-Arabic. Speakers of the Judeo-Median and Jewish Neo-Aramaic languages of Iran live in the Long Island suburbs, including Great Neck and Roslyn.
The Jewish Languages Project focuses on documenting these languages through songs, stories, life histories, and conversations for the benefit of scholars, a broader public, and the communities themselves—bringing Jewish cultural diversity to new audiences and helping to preserve it for generations to come.
The project’s launch in 2013 was covered by two major American Jewish media outlets: The Forward and Tablet Magazine.
ELA has also recently been working with the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) Jewish Language Project, led by Sarah Bunin Benor and home to the Jewish Language Research Website, to begin documenting remaining speakers or rememberers of Iranian Jewish languages in the large Los Angeles community.
Whether you are a speaker yourself, a partial speaker, or know someone who might be, we are always looking for more resources on lesser-known Jewish languages. Please get in touch!