The Jewish Language Project has offered several online lectures about Jewish languages and names. Videos of past events can be viewed on this page.

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Past events

Click on the images below to watch the videos of each event.

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In April and May 2020, the HUC-JIR Jewish Language Project, in partnership with JewishLive, presented a series of online lectures by Professor Sarah Bunin Benor on Jewish Languages and Names:

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April 16, 4-5pm PDT / 7-8pm EDT:

Do American Jews Speak a Jewish Language?

Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, and – Jewish English? Is it possible that Jews today continue the centuries-old tradition of speaking distinctly from their non-Jewish neighbors? This talk looks at several features common among Jewish languages of the past and discusses whether American Jews use them. From the tradition of translating biblical and rabbinic texts to the incorporation of Hebrew words, most of these features are common among religiously engaged American Jews. A major exception is the use of Hebrew letters to write the vernacular. Through analysis of language, we can gain a better understanding of contemporary American Jews and how they compare to Jewish communities of the past.

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April 23, 4-5pm PDT / 7-8pm EDT:

Mensch, Bentsh, and Balagan: Language as a Marker of Jewish Identity

Using quotes and images, this talk highlights the diversity of American Jews by focusing on the diverse uses of “Jewish American English” – enriched by Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, Russian, Farsi, Arabic, and other influences. Jews use subtle variation in language to signal their textual knowledge, religious denomination, ancestral origin, and orientation toward Israel. Songs by Mickey Katz, Seymour Rechtzeit, Country Yossi, and Journeys demonstrate the similarities and differences of two types of Yiddish-influenced English: Yinglish and Yeshivish. “Jewish language” serves not only to distinguish Jews from non-Jews but also to distinguish Jews from Jews.

April 30, 4-5pm PDT / 7-8pm EDT:

Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language & Culture of Orthodox Judaism

There is more to becoming Orthodox than observing religious laws. Newly Orthodox Jews, or ba’alei teshuva (lit. ‘those who return’), encounter a very different culture, including new ways of talking, dressing, and acting. Focusing on the Yiddish and Hebrew words used by English-speaking Orthodox Jews, this lecture explores how “BTs” integrate into the community partly by taking on these new practices. Based on Dr. Benor’s first book, this talk is appropriate for all audiences, regardless of prior exposure to Orthodox Judaism.

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May 7, 4-5pm PDT / 7-8pm EDT:

Ruach in the Chadar Ochel: Language at American Jewish Summer Camps

Lecture by Sarah Bunin Benor, Jonathan Krasner, and Sharon Avni, co-sponsored by the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. At most American Jewish summer camps, programs are conducted primarily in English, but the environment is infused with Hebrew signs, songs, and cheers. Hebrew-English sentences are common: “Madrichim [counselors], please bring your chanichim [campers] to the teatron [theater] immediately after the Birkat [Grace After Meals].” Why do some camps infuse Hebrew in these unusual ways? How are other languages used, including Russian, Yiddish, and Ladino? How do participants feel about this language mixing? This talk draws from Benor, Krasner, and Avni’s forthcoming book, Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps, based on over 200 interviews and visits to 36 camps.

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May 14, 4-5pm PDT / 7-8pm EDT:

Jewish Surnames and Name Changing Around the World: Diversity and Unity

What makes a family name Jewish? Did immigrants change their names at Ellis Island? This session answers these and many more questions about Jewish family names. Participants will learn the origins and meanings of patronymic (father-based) surnames like Abramovitch, Isaacs, and Yaghobian; geographic names like Ashkenazi, Dardashti, and Shapiro; and profession names like Hakim, Melamed, and Fingerhut. They will learn about Jews changing their family names in the 20th century, especially in the United States. They will come away with an understanding of the cultural diversity and unity of the Jewish Diaspora.

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May 21, 4-5pm PDT / 7-8pm EDT:

Jewish Personal Names Around the World: Tradition and Creativity

From ancient to present times, Jews have given their babies Hebrew and/or local names, demonstrating both their Jewish distinctiveness and their integration into local societies. This lecture offers a glimpse into this history, from the ancient Middle East to medieval Cairo, from Renaissance Rome to modern Poland. Then participants will learn how these trends continue among contemporary American Jews. When Jews today select names for their babies, they are sending a message about their specific type of Jewish American identity. The lecture ends with an (adorable) foray into American Jewish pets’ names. When Jews give their dogs and cats names like Babka, Rashi, Ketzele, and Golda Meow, they highlight some aspects of Jewishness that are important to them.

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May 29, 12-1pm PDT / 3-4pm EDT, part of JewishLive's Shavuot lineup

Pastrami, Verklempt, and Tshoot-spa: Non-Jews’ Use of Jewish Language in the United States

Jews in the United States use many Hebrew and Yiddish words in their English conversation. To what extent do non-Jews pick up these linguistic markers? This multimedia talk explains how words like klutz, shpiel, and kibbitz have become part of the broader American lexicon, sometimes popularized by comedians. Politicians use Hebrew and Yiddish words in diverse ways, from Bill Clinton’s “Shalom, chaver” to Michele Bachmann’s mispronunciation of chutzpah. A much more sinister use of Jewish language is white nationalists mocking Jews with words like Goyim and Shoah. Several video clips are shown, from James Cagney as a Yiddish-speaking Irish taxi driver to Barack Obama “getting all verklempt” while honoring Barbra Streisand.

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Editor: Sarah Bunin Benor      Last update: 2020-10-20

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