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Fun Facts

Starting in the summer of 2021, the Jewish Language Project has presented "Fun Facts" - interesting insights about Jewish languages - on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and on TikTok starting in 2022 and Threads in 2023. Read the posts below to learn about the existence of languages you've never heard of, written texts from magic to newspapers, words from Hebrew and Aramaic, archaic pronunciations, and evidence of historical migrations and contact between Jewish communities.

 

If you're looking for particular content, you can search the page for keywords using the ctrl+F function on a Windows computer or command+F function on an Apple computer.

 

For future posts, we welcome suggestions from visitors like you.

In late 2022, we started an additional program: Jewish English Lexicon Word of the Week. See the archive here.

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2024

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January 3: Ladino in Cyrillic

Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) has been written in several alphabets, including Latin, Hebrew/Aramaic, Rashi, and Solitreo. Here's an example of Cyrillic-script Judeo-Spanish from the Sephardic community in Bulgaria. The text reads, "La Salidura de Mitsrayim," or "The Exodus from Egypt."

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January 8: From Slavic with Love

The Hebrew word זה zeh "this" is sometimes used as a copula - to link the noun and the predicate, like "is" or "are" in English. 

צלילה זה דבר מסוכן.

Diving is a dangerous thing.

This is likely due to Modern Hebrew's contact with Slavic languages, as they have words that mean "this" and serve as the copula: Russian eto, Ukrainian ce​, and Polish to.

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January 11: Rise of Hasidic Yiddish

Many Jewish languages are endangered, at risk of being lost forever. However, Hasidic Yiddish is not one of them!

Because of the prestige of Yiddish in certain Hasidic communities and reluctance among Hasidim to assimilate into other cultures, Hasidic Yiddish has been on the rise over the last decades, with about 78% of Hasidim able to speak the language. This language is also growing in educational, media, and literary use among Hasidic Jews.

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January 15: Bagel Evolution

The English word bagel comes from the Yiddish beygl, but the 19th-century Eastern European version and the 20th-century American version of this beloved baked good were quite different. See the images above, with the Yiddish beygl on the left and the American bagel on the right.

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January 25: La Regalo

Is 'gift' a masculine or feminine noun? In 18th-century Rome, it might depend on whether the speaker was Jewish! One theory for this is that even though regalo 'gift' is masculine in Italian, Jewish speakers inflected in according to the gender of the Hebrew word for gift, מתנה matana, which is feminine.

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January 27: Linguicide

Among the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were millions of speakers of longstanding Jewish languages.

Most of these languages are now endangered, including Western Yiddish, Judeo-Alsatian, some dialects of Eastern Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Greek, and Krymchak.

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January 29: Jews and Salt

The old Jewish quarters in Moroccan cities are known as mellah, Arabic for 'salt.' This term originated in the 15th century in the Jewish neighborhood of Fez, referring to the salty marshland of that area. Subsequently, other cities in Morocco called their Jewish quarters mellah, including Marrakesh, Rabat, and Tetouan.

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January 31: Out of Egypt

The first records of Jews creating theater are from Alexandria, Egypt, in the second century BCE. Ironically, the subject matter of this Jewish-Egyptian play was the biblical book of Exodus, which (among other things) tells the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt!

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February 5: The Spiel's the Thing

In 15th-century Europe, troupes of actors traveled from house to house, dropping in to perform Purim spiels for family audiences. Players often involved the residents themselves in the performance by turning them into subjects of the court, diners at the king's feast, etc.

Spiel comes from the Yiddish verb shpiln, "to play." Today its meaning in Jewish English encompasses a long speech that often attempts to persuade - definitely not as much fun as a Purim play!

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February 8: Multilingual Greek Theater

19th-century Greek theater often incorporated many other local languages into its scripts, and Jewish languages were no different. Plays like "Erotomanian Chatzianslanis" and "Monseiur Kozis" include Greek and Turkish, but also Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Spanish, and Judeo-Turkish, among others.

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February 12: "Sha!" in the Theater

In the late 1800s through the 1920s, the Yiddish theater was an important gathering place for American Jews, sometimes "even more than the synagogue or the lodge." This idea was underscored by a spectator who, comparing their experience watching an English-language "gentile" play, wrote: "It is not like our Jewish theater. First of all I found it so quiet there... There are no cries of 'Sha!' (שא, Yiddish interjection: 'be quiet'), 'Shut up!,' or 'Order!' and no babies cried -  as if there were no theater at all!"

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February 15: Deyndzheres Minds

When borrowing terms from other languages, Haredi Yiddish speakers tend to incorporate them differently depending on the source language. Because both Yiddish and English are Germanic languages, English words are often incorporated directly into the sentence with no changes. In contrast, Hebrew borrowings undergo some morphological changes to fit into the Yiddish structure. You can see the difference in these examples:

a deyndzheres zakh ('a dangerous thing')

meshukhleldike otos ('latest-model cars')

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February 19: Wili and Sympathy

Haketia, the name for Maghrebi Judeo-Spanish, includes many Arabic loanwords. For example, when somebody gets hurt, the person witnessing the situation might say A Wilí or Wilí-wilí. This exclamation of pain comes from the Arabic ويل (woe, affliction) plus ي (first person singular possessive pronoun). It can mean "I wish I would be hurt instead of you," or simply, as we might say in English, "Ouch!" 

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February 26: Double Jeopardy

Colloquial Modern Hebrew has an interrogative structure that uses both a content question word and a wh-question word (who / what / when / where / why) to assign some rhetorical value to a phrase. For example, the question ?למה מי מת lamah mi met 'why who died?' implies a level of sarcasm/humor/impatience not inherent to the simpler question מי מת 'who died?' This construction is hypothesized to originate from contact with Arabic and Jewish Neo-Aramaic, still spoken in Israel today, where the same pattern can be found.

2023

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Jan. 2: Gabbers Unite!

The name of the subgenre of hardcore techno known as “gabber” comes from a Dutch Bargoens slang term meaning “friend,” which in turn originates from the Yiddish usage of חבֿר khaver (“buddy,” “friend” - from the Hebrew word חבר‎, also meaning “friend,” literally, someone connected to you). In Dutch, a G at the beginning of a word is pronounced like a hard kh sound.

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Jan. 23: Endangered Jewish Languages

Over the past two centuries, most longstanding Jewish languages have become endangered due to nationalistic language policies, migrations, and genocide.

Some endangered languages: Ladino, Judeo-Amazigh, Judeo-Alsatian, Bukharian, Judeo-Italian, Karaim, Judeo-Arabic, Jewish Malayalam, Krymchak, Judeo-Shirazi, Judeo-Esfahani, Jewish Neo-Aramaic, Judeo-Greek.

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Feb. 13: Signaling Solidarity - In Ukrainian

 In the 19th century, most Jews in Ukraine spoke Yiddish. In 2020, most spoke Russian. Since the Russian invasion in 2022, many Jews have begun to learn more Ukrainian, and some leaders have incorporated more Ukrainian into their online writings - acts of solidarity and anti-Russian defiance.

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Jan. 17: Jewish Origin of a French Insult

The French word for "gangsters," pègre, comes from Western Yiddish (and Hebrew) פגר "carcass, cadaver." It entered French slang through the jargon of Alsatian Jewish cattle traders and peddlers, who used it as an insult. During the early 19th century, there were significant contacts between Jewish merchants and the French

underworld, and many Yiddish/Hebrew words were absorbed into French

argot.

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Jan. 30: Rotwelsch

Rotwelsch ("beggars' incomprehensible language") refers to the argots spoken by marginalized groups in the German-speaking world, including thieves and vagabonds. Rotwelsch varieties contain many words from Yiddish and Hebrew. Here are a few examples from Liber Vagatorum (The Book of Vagabonds), a 16th-century work popularized by Martin Luther that includes a glossary of Rotwelsch:

ACHLEN (to eat, from אכל)

GFAR (village, from כפר)

MACKUM (city, from מקום)

Feb. 6: Tu Bishvat - The New Year of the Trees around the World

shbídi pherobá - Judeo-Georgian, 'seven species'

las frutas - Ladino, 'the fruits'

meva xuri - Bukharian, 'fruit eating'

fəth əl-'úd - Tunisian Judeo-Arabic, 'blossoming of the dry tree

mooedeh ilanoot - Jewish Persian, 'holiday of the trees'

tubizvat - Judeo-Italian, 'Tu Bishvat'

khamishoser - Yiddish, 'fifteen'

tubisbat - Judeo-Arabic & Haketia

mzdane 'ilane - Jewish Neo-Aramaic, 'gifts of the trees'

ʂev hindorho - Juhuri, 'the night of the trees'

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Feb. 20: Moroccan Judeo-Tamazight

Jews in Morocco have spoken many languages, including Judeo-Arabic, Haketia (Judeo-Spanish), and Jewish French. In rural Southwestern Morocco, especially the High Atlas Mountains, some Jews spoke a Jewish version of Tamazight. This language is now endangered, but efforts to document it are underway.

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Feb. 27: Judeo-Tamazight in Mulitlingual Texts

Since speakers of Judeo-Tamazight often preserved their language only orally, there are very few texts in this language. One of the first Judeo-Tamazight texts discovered utilized a mixture of Hebrew, Judeo-Tamazight, and Judeo-Arabic. In the 1970s, revitalization efforts resulted in the publication of a Judeom-Tamazight translation of the Passover Haggadah.

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Jan. 9: A Mitzvah Gobbler

Schopfloch is a village in southern Germany where a Hebrew-filled secret language called “Lachoudisch” was spoken. Some residents still remember dozens of words, even decades after Jewish presence there ended. A fun example is Mizwefresser, literally “mitzvah gobbler” - someone of any religion who’s considered too religious.

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Mar. 6: לַלַנגֵי לַלַנגֵי: טוּרַוֵי רַנגֵי רַנגֵי

lalange, lalange: ˠturawe, range range!

Purim, Purim: the mountains, colorful colorful!

Every spring, the snow begins melting off the mountains of Northern Iran, revealing their festive colors just in time for lalange (Purim). This phenomenon gives rise to the popular proverb in Lishan Didan - Jewish Neo-Aramaic from Urmia, Iran.

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Mar. 13: Greek Words in a 12th-century Hebrew Letter

 A woman named Archondou wrote to her son, Fudayl, about her illness: "My eyes hurt very badly, and I give three zuz every week to the doctor, and I cannot move from this place." She wrote to him from Alexandria, requesting that he bring her to Cairo, where he lives. "If God is good to you, do me a favor and come quickly to fetch me out of here so that I do not die." The letter is written in Hebrew, but it also includes several Greek words written using Hebrew characters:

ארכודו, her name, Archondou

אלכסדריא, where the letter was written,

and טילרין, the Greek work for "mattress,"

Modern variants of Archondou's name include Αρχοντουλα, Αρχόντω, or Αρχοντία.

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Mar. 20: Morning Blessings - Women's Alternatives

Observant Jews recite blessings called Birkot Hashachar every morning. The third, as traditionally recited by men, gives thanks to God, "who did not make me a woman." Women's siddurim (prayer books) use various adaptations. Here are three early variations:

Ladino, 15th century

Bendicho tu YY nuestro Dio, rey para siempre que mi fizo cumo su vulentad.

Blessed are You, A(donay) our God, King for eternity, who made me according to his will.

Hebrew, 15th century

BA'I EM'H sheasitani isha v'lo ish.

Blessed are You Lord our God, Master of the Universe, for You made me a woman and not a man.

Judeo-Provencal, 14th century

Bendich Tu Sant Benezent nostre Diew rey dal segle ke fis mi fena.

Blessed art Thou Lord our God king of eternity who made me a woman.

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Mar. 27: Geniza - A Treasure Trove

The word "geniza" has roots in Old Median and Old Persian, with the sounds g-n-z referring to a treasure depository. This derivation is particularly apt because of how a geniza, a specialized repository for the preservation of Jewish texts, serves as a unique and long-lasting treasure trove for language documentation, especially of Jewish languages. The largest known geniza is in Cairo, but there are many others in places like Masada in Israel, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

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Apr. 3: Jewish or Judeo?

"Judeo-French" generally refers to French spoken by Jews in the Middle Ages and written in Hebrew letters. "Jewish French" generally refers to French spoken by contemporary Jews. Jewish French is influenced by the multiple languages that were spoken by Jews in Europe and North Africa before they immigrated to France. This includes some words from Yiddish, such as glatt, 'ultra-kosher,' and farbrengen, 'a leisurely Shabbat activity,' and many more words from North African Judeo-Arabic, such as dakha, 'a funny thing,' hmar, 'a donkey,' and laistor, an interjection meaning 'may God preserve!'

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May 25: Shavuot: Holiday of Shrine Visiting

In regions where Arabic and Aramaic are spoken, such as Iraq and Kurdistan, Shavuot is called 'id-zyara, Holiday of Shrine Visiting. Many Jews in those areas used to visit traditional tombs where biblical prophets such as Ezekiel and Nahum are believed to be buried, and they would spend the holiday there.

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May 29: Yahrzeit: Remembering Loved Ones

Variants of the Yiddish word yahrzeit/yortsayt ‘anniversary of a death’ are found in many Jewish languages, including Bukharian, Judeo-Arabic (Moroccan, Tunisian, Yemenite), Judeo-Italian, Juhuri, Ladino, and Singapore Jewish English. This reflects textual influence rather than contact with Yiddish speakers. The word יאר צײט appeared in several rabbinic Hebrew texts, including Sefer Minhagim (Amsterdam, 1635) and Ganzfried’s popular Kitsur Shulhan Aruch (Ungvar, 1864). The pronunciations range from yar sayat to arṣt (the emphatic ṣ in Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic reflecting the letter צ).

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June 5: Jewish Swedish

After the Holocaust, many survivors moved to Sweden, leading to increased Yiddish influence in Jewish Swedish. For example, the Swedish word hålla ‘to hold’ has taken on the broader semantics of Yiddish haltn, ‘to hold,’ which also means to observe or to keep. Therefore, in Jewish Swedish, someone might say they hålla kosher or hålla Shabbes to indicate that they observe dietary laws or keep the Sabbath.

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June 12: Training Austrian dogs in Hebrew

In Austria in the 1920s and ‘30s, a Zionist dog breeder and scientist named Rudolphina Menzel named her kennel "Bnai Satan" (children of Satan) and taught her dogs commands in Hebrew. In her book new Canine Pioneer, Susan Kahn writes, "While it was common practice to train police dogs in a foreign language so criminals could not communicate with dogs that were pursuing or attacking them, the spectacle of German military and police-dog trainers barking instructions at their dogs in rudimentary Hebrew must have provided Rudolphina with endless amusement and great satisfaction."

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June 20: The Language of Pride

In the 1990s, Israeli activists were looking for a new way to describe LGBTQ+ identities, since the relevant Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew terms had negative connotations. They decided to adopt English terminology, signaling their belonging to a broader, global queer community. The originally proposed word for "gay" was גאה ge’eh, meaning "proud," but international words became more popular: gay, homo, lesbit, bi, trans, and queeri.

The acronym LGBT is להט”ב LaHaTaB, and the community calls itself Hakehila hage'ah - the proud community.

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June 26: Yiddish Fronting

Verbal “focus fronting,” or adding verbal predicates to the front of a sentence for semantic effect, is common in Modern Hebrew. This is likely due to influence from Yiddish, in which this construction is extremely common.

For example:

Yiddish:

װײסן װײסט ער גאָרנישט

As for knowing, he knows nothing

Hebrew:

לקרוא, היא לא קוראת בכלל

As for reading, she does not read at all

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July 3: We've Got Spirit

Jewish summer camps are a great environment to observe traditional Hebrew words take on specialized meanings. For example, the Biblical and Modern Hebrew word ruach רוח means 'wind,' or the 'spirit' or 'ghost' of a person. But at camp, you'll often hear cheers exclaiming "We've got ruach!" This expression layers on meanings of festive spirit or morale.

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July 10: Jewish Russian Intonation

Jewish comedians during the Soviet Era often used a feature of Jewish Russian wherein intonation is changed to make a sentence mean its opposite. In one joke, Stalin receives a letter from Trotsky saying, "You were right I was wrong excuse me," but a Jewish advisor tells him that Trotsky actually had intended to say, "You were right? I was wrong? Excuse me!" Interpreted this way, Trotsky's letter means, "if you really believe that you were right and I was wrong, there is nothing to discuss further."

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July 17: Rashi and Judeo-French

If you've ever read the famous Torah scholar Rashi, you may have encountered some Judeo-French terminology he used, such as "grenouillière" - a swarm of frogs (Exodus 8:2), "espiement" - spying (Leviticus 19:16), and "noces" - nuptials (Jeremiah 2:2). Rashi often translated Hebrew terminology from the Torah and the Talmud into French for his readers who were not familiar with Hebrew, thereby adding elements of Old French to the primarily Hebrew and Aramaic Jewish textual tradition.

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July 24: Hearing People Maintaining a Sign Language

The migration of most Jews from Algeria to Israel, France, and elsewhere in the 1940s-1960s led to the endangerment of Algerian Jewish Sign Language (AJSL). However, hearing relatives of Deaf immigrants are keeping the language alive in Israel. While Deaf immigrants learned Israeli Sign Language as they integrated into broader Deaf communities, their hearing relatives have continued to communicate with them in AJSL and pass it on to younger generations.

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July 31: Iconicity in Sign Language

Algerian Jewish Sign Language is unique among sign languages in that it preserves many iconic signs that over time became more abstract in other languages. The sign for Shavuot, for example, depicts an act of spilling water, as throwing water on one another used to be a North African celebratory Shavuot tradition. The custom itself is lost now but survives in the sign.

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August 7: Deaf or Mute?

In Algerian Jewish Sign Language, the sign for 'deaf' mimics a slicing of the tongue, relating to the ability to speak rather than to hear. This reflects a conflation of speech and hearing in some sign languages - American Sign Language and Israeli Sign Language refer to both the mouth and the ear in their signs for 'deaf.'

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August 14: Insects, Mary or Moses?

Jews in various places have changed expressions to avoid Christian connotations. In Amharic, Ethiopian Jews call a certain type of grasshopper የሙሴ ፈረስ ya-muse faras (Moses' horse), while Christians call it የመርያም ፈረስ ya-maryam faras (Mary's horse). Similarly, the many words for ladybug in Yiddish include משה רבינוס קיִעלע moyshe rabeynes kíele (Moses Our Teacher's little cow) and משיחל meshiekhl (little messiah), Judaized versions of similar terms for ladybug in surrounding languages, such as Russian божья коровка (God's cow) and German Marienkäfer (Mary's beetle).

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August 21: Sounding Outdated in Judeo-Catalan

Aside from their use of Hebrew letters and sporadic Hebrew words, medieval Judeo-Catalan texts are similar to contemporaneous Christian Catalan texts. However, there are a few instances of archaic features, such as crou 'cross' (compared to Christian creu) and far 'to do' (compared to Christian fer). Many Jewish languages retain archaic features due to the (relative) insularity of the communities who spoke them.

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August 28: Vuzvuzim

What do various groups of Jews call each other? One term Sephardim used for Ashkenazim originates from a multilingual encounter: vuzvuzim. When Sephardim and Ashkenazim met in Palestine and later Israel, Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim would ask, "Vuz? Vuz?" (What? What?). Sephardim found this phrase funny and began to use it, along with the Hebrew plural -im, to refer to Ashkenazim. Often the term was used in a derogatory way.

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September 4: Talking About Reading

The Yiddish word לייענען (leynen) comes from Old French "leyer" and replaces the German "lesen," but the Ladino word מילדאר (meldar) comes from the Greek μελετάω (meletao), replacing the Spanish "leer," which comes from the same root as the Old French. So the Yiddish word for reading is derived from a Romance language, and the Ladino word is not.

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September 7: Named for Jewish Holidays

In many times and places, Jews have used names of holidays and months as personal names.

General "festal" names include Yom Tov, Chaggai, and Chagit. Specific holiday names, like Pesach, Purim, and Chanuka, were popular among medieval Jewry. And names of Hebrew months, like Nissan, Sivan, and Ziv (the alternative name of Iyar), are also popular modern-day first names.

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September 18: Micrography in a Medieval Mahzor

Micrography, the art of using a minute Hebrew script to depict figures or patterns on a page, arose in the 9th century. Jewish communities around the world, from Egypt and Yemen to Italy and Germany, have produced texts with ornate micrography illustrations.

According to experts, the Catalonian Micrography Mahzor, a Hebrew prayer book for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, was created in early 14th-century Spain. The Hebrew letters are written in semi-rounded Sephardic style, and the art reflects motifs common in Spanish Jewish art, Islamic art, and Latin art. In the page above, the tiny letters combine to form a picture of a falconer on a horse.

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September 21: Fasting in Ladino  Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews call Yom Kippur dia de kipur (day of atonement) or simply kipur. The pre-fast meal at the start of the holiday is known as tomar tanit, which means 'to take the fast.' The break-the-fast meal is called kortar (el) tanit, which literally means 'to cut the fast.' Both phrases combine Romance-based verbs with the rabbinic Hebrew word for fast, תַּעֲנִית, which appears in Ladino as tani, tanid, tanit, and taanit. The solitreo rendering of the word (shown above) follows the Hebrew orthography, even though Ladino speakers often drop or change the final "tav."

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September 28: Pudding Holiday in Judeo-Marathi

Instead of Sukkot, for centuries Indian Jews celebrated Khiricha San, "pudding holiday. San means holiday in the vernacular Marathi language, while khir is the name of a sweet pudding made of coconut milk and corn. The Khiricha San festival took place in parallel to Sukkot and reflected similar harvest themes. It was customary to burn incense near the dish of khir, say the Shema prayer, and then eat the khir with homemade grape juice and other traditional foods.

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October 17: Sephardic and Ashkenazi Words of Comfort

מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם תְּנוּחָמוּ

Min hashamayim tenuhamu

May you be comforted from above.

 

הַמָּקוֹם יְנַחֵם אֶתְכֶם בְּתוֹךְ שְׁאַר אֲבֵלֵי צִיּוֹן וִירוּשָׁלַיִם

Hamakom yenahem etkhem betokh she'ar avelei tzion virushalayim

May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

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November 2: Let Dreamers Dream

A Judeo-Arabic proverb from Fez, Morocco, says, "The one you see riding a reed branch, tell him congratulations on the horse!" This means, "Do not break the illusions of dreamers."

די ריתו ראכב עלא קצבא קול לו מבארך לעאוד

دي ريته راكب على قصبة قل له مبارك العود

di rīţ-o rākb ˁla ˀəṣba, ˀöl-lo mbārk l-ˁāwd

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November 6: Blessing for Wellness

A traditional way of offering condolences in Lishan Didan (Jewish Neo-Aramaic from Urmia, Iran) is reshxun basime haweni. This expression means, "May your heads be well."

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October 23: Pizza Ebraica

Rome's Jewish Ghetto is the birthplace of one of the city's more unusual pizza varieties. Pizza Ebraica, Italian for "Hebrew Pizza," is a sweet, dense pastry made with almonds, raisins, candied fruit, white wine, and olive oil. Dating back from a time when the word "pizza" simply meant a cake or a pie, Pizza Ebraica was often eaten by Roman Jews to celebrate a newborn baby's circumcision. Because of this, the pastry is also known as a Pizza di Beridde, beridde being the word for bris or brit milah in Giudaico-Romaneso, the Judeo-Italian language spoken by the Jews of Rome.

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November 9: Pity the Nebekh

Amsterdam has a distinctive lingo which is different from other varieties of Dutch. In an election among citizens of Amsterdam for the most beautiful word in that dialect, achenebbisj won by a landslide. It's a conjunction of ach (a Dutch exclamation of pity) and nebekh (nebbish), a Yiddish word meaning 'pitiful,' 'ineffectual,' or 'unfortunate.' Put together, the word means 'shabby.' For example, one could ask, "Why does he live in such an achenebbisj part of town?"

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November 13: Word Worship - Sigd

Sigd, the Ethiopian Jewish holiday celebrating acceptance of the Torah, has linguistic roots common to many Semitic languages. The Amharic word sigd ስግድ means “prostration,” and the same root letters are shared by the Hebrew words לסגוד lisgod ‘to worship/prostrate’ and מסגד misgad ‘mosque,’ as well as the Arabic word مَسْجِد masjid ‘mosque,’ and the Aramaic word סגד sged ‘prostration.’ How’s that for a holy word?

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November 16: Beseder Back Home

Contact between Hebrew and Amharic among Ethiopian immigrants to Israel has birthed what can be called Israeli Amharic, a new contact language. When Ethiopian Israelis go to visit Ethiopia, they often integrate common Hebrew words into their Amharic, like כן ken 'yes' and בסדר beseder 'okay.' This has led to locals starting to say, "here come the beseders," meaning 'those who say beseder.'

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November 27: Sephardic Semantics

Some Hebrew phrases in Ladino originated in religious contexts but gradually acquired a more metaphorical meaning, a common phenomenon in Jewish languages. One example of this is the expression (f)azer ose shalom, meaning "to scram or sneak away." Oseh shalom is Hebrew for "he makes peace" and refers to the conclusion of the Amidah prayer, when one says oseh shalom while taking three steps back. When combined with the Spanish verb azer (sometimes pronounced fazer), "to do," the Ladino expression indicates someone who is stepping backward with the intention to slip out. This conveys a sense of duplicity not indicated by the original liturgy.

Pasado Sea

November 30: When an acquaintance is ill, Sephardic Jews may say, Pasado ke te sea (seyga)! ThisLadino expression, which can be shortened to Pasado sea, means "May it (the illness) be a thing of the past." The expression is a calque from Turkish, which has the saying Geçmiş olsun, "may it pass." This kind of language contact with Turkish is a prominent feature of the Ladino spoken by Jews who lived in Ottoman lands.

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December 7: I Say Manuro, You Say Menorah

While many Jewish languages use the Hebrew words menorah or hanukkiah refer to the candelabrum that holds the Hanukkah candles for all eight nights, there are some variations:

Moroccan Judeo-Arabic: ḥənka חנכה or חנכא - can refer to the holiday as well as the lamp

Farsi: Menoorā or Manoorā

Bukharian: Manūro Манӯро 

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December 12: Giving Light

Yiddish speakers may greet each other on Hanukkah with the phrase, "A likhtikn khanike!" This phrase uses the word likht ליכט (light) in a direct object construction. The meaning could be translated as, "(I wish you) a bright/luminous Hanukkah!" 

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December 14: Scroll of Antiochus

Hanukkah does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Medieval Jews learned about the story by listening to a liturgical text called the Scroll of Antiochus. The Scroll has been translated from its original Aramaic into many languages, including Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Ladino, and Yiddish.

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December 18: Winter Fruit

As winter approaches, many cultures preserve seasonal fruit into sweet & sour delicacies, such as compotes. Jewish communities around the world enjoy these festive stews of dried fruit for Hanukkah and other occasions until new fruit ripens. In the mountains of Iranian Azerbaijan, dried apricot and plum stews were known as aruge in Lišan Didan. In Baghdad, Jews added almonds to make a similar stew called ṭǝršana in Judeo-Arabic. In Eastern Europe, Jews made a stew of prunes and root vegetables known in Yiddish as tsimes.

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December 21: Dawning in Ladino

Kuando se eskurese es para amaneser. This popular Ladino saying means, "When it's dark out, that's because dawn is coming." 

El Amaneser (The Dawn) is also the name of the only continuously published Ladino newspaper in the world. It appears monthly as a supplement to the Turkish-Jewish newspaper Salom (Shalom).

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December 26: Blessing for Bright Eyes

A common way of wishing someone well in Lishan Didan (Jewish Neo-Aramaic from Urmia, Iran) is enkhun bahure hawe (may your eyes be bright). The response is paltetun bahurula (may you come out into brightness). It is most commonly used for congratulations, but it can also be used as an expression of hope.

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December 28: Desmazalado

The Ladino word desmazaldo, meaning "unlucky," demonstrates how Ladino mixes Hebrew words into a primarily Spanish structure. The Hebrew word mazal (luck) is given the Spanish prefix des- (un-) and the Spanish suffix -ado (having a trait).

2022

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Judeo-Persian attracts interest from historians of Persian because it preserves archaic traits and words lost in New Persian. And, like several other Jewish languages, the earliest surviving evidence of New Persian is written in Hebrew letters.

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Jewish Iranian Languages: Judeo-Persian is Persian written in the Hebrew script, whereas Judeo-Kashani, Judeo-Isfahani, Judeo-Shirazi, etc., are non-written Iranian languages that are etymologically distant from and mutually unintelligible with Persian.

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A word made from numbers: Tu Bishvat, the "New Year for the Trees," is celebrated on the 15th of the month of Shevat in the Jewish lunar calendar. Tu is an acronym for the number 15 in the Hebrew alphabet counting system known as gematria, which assigns the numerical value of 9 to tet [ט] and 6 to vav [ו]. Together these letters make the sound “tu.”

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Las Frutas: Among Sephardic Jews, Tu Bishvat is known as Las Frutas, which means The Fruits in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Some communities host a symbolic seder called Frutikas, Little Fruits, including these symbolic foods:
vino - wine
(f)igos - figs
agranadas - pomegranates
azetunas ​​- olives
datiles - dates
mansanas - apples
almendras - almonds

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Many Names for Tu Bishvat:

Judeo-Italian: tubizvat (15th of Shevat)

Judeo-Arabic and Haketia: tubisbat (15th of Shevat)

Tunisian Judeo-Arabic: fətḥ əl-`úd (blossoming of the dry tree)

Tunisian Judeo-Arabic in Djerba: fətḥ əz-zərr (opening of the trees)

Judeo-Georgian: shbídi pherobá (seven species)

Ladino: las frutas (the fruits)

Yiddish: khamishoser (15)

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Ilānot: Jewish communities in Iran and Central Asia have various names for Tu Bishvat:

- Bukharian / Judeo-Tajik from Uzbekistan: Meva Xūri (fruit eating)

- Judeo-Persian from Iran: Ilānot (trees) or Mooedeh Ilanoot (holiday of trees)

- Hulaula / Jewish Neo-Aramaic from Sanandaj, Iran: Mzdane 'Ilane (gifts of the trees)

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Judeo-Isfahani: Though Judeo-Isfahani and Persian are quite different, we can find some commonalities. For example, both languages base the days of the week on Saturday: šanbe in Persian and šabbât in Judeo-Isfahani.

Day                  Persian        Judeo-Isfahani

Sunday            yek-šanbe    ye-šabbâ(t) 

Monday           do-šanbe      di-šabbâ(t) 

Tuesday          se-šanbe       θe-šabbâ(t) 

Wednesday     čahâr-šanbe câr-šabbâ(t) 

Thursday         panj-šanbe   bayn-šabbâ(t) 

Friday              jom-e            ru(δ)-eδene 

Saturday          šanbe           šabbât

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Kashi / Judeo-Kashani: The Central Plateau Dialects of Kashan province were mostly replaced by Persian in the 20th century. They survive in a few rural communities and among elderly Jewish Kashani immigrants in the United States and Israel.

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Jewish Braille: Many languages around the world have systems of Braille that enable blind people to read. Recently, a young language enthusiast created a Braille system for Judeo-Arabic.

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Leche i Miel: To wish someone a good journey in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), you can say kaminos de leche i miel, "ways of milk and honey." This refers to the biblical Hebrew description of the holy land as eretz zavat ḥalav udvash, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ ("a land flowing with milk and honey"). In both languages, the phrase conveys the sweet promise of a different place.

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Love in Juhuri (Judeo-Tat):
Similar to te quiero in Spanish, mǝ ty-rǝ xosdǝnym in Juhuri means “I love you.” The use of the verb xosdǝ (to want) in this context makes many community members erroneously claim that there is no word for “love” in the language.
“Love” is myhbǝt in Juhuri, thus myhbǝt dyl-me (the love of my heart). “A person in love” is oşuq, so oşuq birǝm means “I fell in love, I am in love.” And the Jewish wedding ceremony huppah in Juhuri is called mǝhr, a cognate of Persian مهر (love, affection).

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Te kero muncho bien: This beautiful expression for love is found in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), meaning, "I want all that is good for you." Other affectionate expressions in Ladino are presiado/presiada (precious); mi alma (my soul); and hanum (sweetie), which comes from the Turkish word hanım (lady). Someone who is especially beloved can be called hanumika.

Terms of affection in Jewish languages of Iran: The word jān (soul, dear) is used in Persian and various Jewish Iranian languages, often in the colloquial form joon. The Kurdish cognate, gyan, appears in Hulaula (Sanandaj Jewish Neo-Aramaic) as gyane (soul, dear) and gyani (my soul, my dear) - one of many examples of Kurdish influence in Jewish Neo-Aramaic.

A woman with two souls:
To say that a woman is pregnant, speakers of Hulaula (Jewish Neo-Aramaic) use the expression bakhta tre gyane, which means, “a woman with two souls.”

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Regional Similarities around Kurdistan: Jewish varieties of Neo-Aramaic in towns around Kurdistan resemble each other more than the language of nearby non-Jews, likely reflecting contact and migration among Jewish communities in the region.

Storytelling in Judeo-Yazdi:
Jewish Iranian languages feature relatively few Hebrew words, and most relate to religious items. However, many Jewish Yazdis (from the city of Yazd) begin stories by reciting a formula based on Hebrew: bešem ašem nase onaslia ('in the name of the Lord, we will do and be successful').

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A 12th-Century Jewish Puzzle Inventor:
Abraham Ibn Ezra was one of the most brilliant minds of the Golden Age of Spain. Famous as a poet, biblical commentator, astrologer, mathematician, and grammarian, he may also be considered an inventor of word puzzles! A 1924 JTA article cited Ibn Ezra's creation of a 5-word grid as a precursor to the modern crossword puzzle.

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A Jewish Ukrainian Song:
Jews have spoken the Ukrainian language with words from Hebrew and Yiddish.
Shabes rano ja vstavaju (On Sabbath I get up early)
Taj v bejs-medresh pribihaju (and run into the prayer-house).
Jak v bejs-medresh pribihaju (as I run into the prayer-house),
Tales-tfiln nadivaju (I put on phylacteries and prayer shawl).

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"When melodies are passed down through oral tradition, they require a continuing chain of transmission to keep the melodies alive. My project to notate Persian-Jewish prayer melodies is an attempt to preserve these melodies for future generations of Jews, non-Jews, Persians and non-Persians alike." --Cantor Jacqueline Rafii

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"We don't have many historical records to prove our existence or history. Our languages and traditions are our historical records." --Alan Niku, filmmaker, scholar, and heritage speaker of Iranian Jewish languages

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Where does the word homentashn (hamantaschenhamentashen) come from? The Yiddish word homentashn is a Yiddishized version of a German pastry name, mahntasche. Mahn - in Yiddish mon - is poppy seed, the original (and, some say, best) flavor of these pastries, and tash is a pouch or pocket. Somehow this pastry became associated with Purim, and Jews recognized the similarity between the word mon and the name of the Purim villain, homon (Haman - boo!). Eventually these pastries became known as Haman pouches - homentashn. Some rabbis have continued this wordplay and assigned Hebrew meaning to both words: Haman tash (תש) - Haman is weakened.

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Loanwords in Megillat Esther: Throughout history Jews have borrowed words from many languages, whether they were speaking/writing in Hebrew or a variant of the local language. Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther) is written in Hebrew but includes many loanwords: 

saris (eunuch) from Akkadian

patshegen (copy) from Old Persian and Aramaic

ahashdarpan (satrap - a governor) from Old Persian 

The names Esther and Mordechai are variants of Babylonian deities - Ishtar and Marduk.

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Haman's Ears: The Hebrew phrase oznei haman (Haman's ears) appears in a 16th-century Hebrew play from Italy that puns on the biblical word for 'the manna' - haman. Jews in Italy and Sephardi communities ate ear-shaped fried dough called orecchi di aman (Judeo-Italian) and orejas de aman in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), 'ears of Haman.' The Hebrew version of this phrase was eventually adopted as the Modern Hebrew name for the triangular pastries brought to Israel by Ashkenazi Jews.

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Dialogue in Diaspora: What was Queen Esther's spoken language? Well, her Persian is good enough that Ahashverosh and Haman have no idea she's Jewish. But, based on other Diaspora Jewish language practices, it's likely that she changed her language when speaking with Mordechai, using Hebrew words and other distinctive features.

Purim for Juhuri (Judeo-Tat) Speakers:

Some people claim that Jews of the Eastern Caucasus are descendants of Esther and Mordechai. Whether this is true or not, Purim traditions seem to be deeply rooted in the culture of this community.

Names related to this holiday used to be popular among community members. Along with the traditional names Istir (Esther), Hǝdǝso (Hadassah), and Mǝrdǝxǝj (Mordechai), two additional feminine names were used: Istirǝmǝlkǝ (Esther ha-Malka) and Purim itself!

The holiday has a different name in Juhuri: Homunui or Homunu (perhaps derived from Haman).

And the delicious halva-like sweet prepared especially for this holiday is called hǝdisǝ or hǝsido (doesn’t it sound like Hadassah?)

Şorǝ Homunui gǝrdo! Happy Purim!

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Honey and Onion: The Jewish Neo-Aramaic of Kurdish Jews in Iraq has many influences from Arabic. One example is this saying about the ups and downs of life:
Yom 'asal, yom basal,
"[Life is] a day honey, a day onion."
May we all have more days of 'asal than basal!

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Bring Home a Stone: When borrowing from other languages like Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish, Kurdish Jews have sometimes chosen rhyming expressions, like this one from Arabic: lamma tirja’ min safar, jib walaw ḥajar, “when you return from a journey, bring [a gift] even a stone." The idea is that the gift itself is less important than thinking about family members while you are away.

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Masa, Meza, Mazal: A Ladino refran (expression) about Passover plays on the similar sounds linking three "m" words: Ni pesah sin masa, ni meza sin mazal, "neither Passover without matzah, nor a table without luck."

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Charoset around the World:

חרוסת

charoseth, charosef - Judeo-Greek - Ioannina, Greece

haroset - Judeo-Italian - Venice, Italy

charouses​ - Western Yiddish - Amsterdam, Netherlands 

khroyses - Yiddish - Lublin, Poland 

harosi - Ladino - Sarajevo, Yugoslavia

rharoche - Judeo-French - Bayonne, France

Other words:
hilq, silan, shira - Judeo-Arabic - Baghdad, Iraq

laḥliq - Judeo-Arabic - Tripoli, Libya

dukkih - Judeo-Arabic - Sana‘a, Yemen 

halegh - Judeo-Persian - Tehran, Iran

haliká - Judeo-Hamedani - Hamedan, Iran

ḥəllíq - Jewish Neo-Aramaic - Betanure, Iraq

Charoset Around the World: Map

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The 4 Questions - A Multilingual Version:

The Passover Haggadah asks, Why is this night different from all other nights? These questions may be heard around the world:

Oles ts-allis nichtis trōmi chamets ē matsa? Ki mon tout t'nichta mono matsa. (Judeo-Greek)

Far vos ale nakht fun a gants yor, az mir viln, esn mir bitere grinsn, un az mir viln esn mir zise grinsn, ober di nakht fun peysekh esn mir nor bitere grinsn? (Yiddish)

Dar shab-hā-ye digar mā sabzi-rā dar serkeh hattā yek bār ham nemizanim; vali emshab do bār mizanim. (Jewish Persian) 
Ke en todas las noches nos comientes i bevientes tanto asentados i tanto arescovdados i la noche la esta todos nos arescovdados? (Ladino/Judeo-Spanish)

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Ha Lachma Anya in Judeo-Arabic:

This Aramaic text, found at the beginning of the Seder's Maggid (Telling) section, is one of Passover's most famous refrains. 

Aramaic:

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם. כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל

Ha lachma anya di achalu avhatana b'ara d'mitzrayim. Kol dichfin yeitei v'yeichol

Syrian Judeo-Arabic:

מִתלוּ הָאדָא כִבְז אֶלמַסַאּכִּין אִלַדִי אַכַּלוּ אָּבּהָָתָּנָא בְאָרְד מָצָר. כִּל מִינוּ ג'וּעָאן יִגִ'י וָיָאכּוֹל

Mitlu hadha khibz elmasakin iladhi akalu abhatana be-ard maṣar. Kil minu ju'an yiji wayakol.

English:

This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All those who are hungry, let them enter and eat.

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Happy Passover in Jewish Languages

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Rhaz Gadeïa - Chad Gadya in Judeo-Provençal:

Chad Gadya (One Kid), often sung at the end of a Passover seder, is what's known as a cumulative song: new text is added with each repetition, so that the verses get progressively longer. Here is a Judeo-Provençal version of this Aramaic classic:

 

Es vengu lou Cadoch barourhou

Qu'avé chorhéta lou malarhama

Qu'avé chorhéta lou chorhet

Qu'avé chorhéta lou biou

Qu'avé bégu toute l'aïgue

Qu'avé moussa lou fiou

Qu'avé brula la vergue

Qu'avé pica lou tchin

Qu'avé mourdu lou ca

Qu'avé mandja lou cabri

Qu'avé 'tchéta moun païre un escu, dous escu,

Qu'avé 'tchéta moun païre un escu, dous escu,

Rhaz gadeïa, rhaz gadeïa.

 

Then came the Holy One blessed be He

who slaughtered the angel of death

who slaughtered the slaughterer

who slaughtered the ox

that drank all the water

that put out the fire

that burnt the stick

that beat the dog

that bit the cat

that ate the goat

that my father bought for one crown, two crowns,

that my father bought for one crown, two crowns,

one goat, one goat.

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Mazuma: Jewish languages have had far reach in American non-Jewish communities. A version of mezumen, the Yiddish word for cash, was recorded in use by non-Jews in Kansas in 1916. Mazuma also appears in early 20th-century writing by O. Henry and H.L. Mencken. The word's origin lies in the Hebrew word mezuman – מְזֻמָּן, meaning "prepared, ready" – it's ready money.

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Lekoudesch (from lashon kodesh, holy tongue), a dialect used by cattle traders in Germany, has 300-400 loanwords from Hebrew and Aramaic. For example, the word for no is lou (from lo - לא), and the word for good is dof (from tov - טוֹב). While Jews are no longer prominent in the cattle-trading industry, non-Jews in Germany continue to use these words today.

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Fancy-Shmancy! Have you ever heard an English speaker add shm- to a word to indicate that what’s being discussed isn’t important? This phenomenon is known as “dismissive reduplication,” and it stems from Yiddish syntax. Now, reduplication occurs in English words that have no Yiddish or Jewish context. Isn't that fancy-shmancy!

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Cats & Rats: Kuando el gato se va de kaza, bailan los ratones. When the cat leaves the house, the rats dance. This Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) expression is akin to, "When the cat's away, the mice will play."

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Yiddish Gender Inclusivity: A list of gender-inclusive terms has been created by Yiddish speakers looking to embrace the gender identities and experiences of all speakers. Here are some of the words: 

in between genders: צװישנמיניק

[TSVÍShNMINIK]

nonbinary: אומצװײיִק
[ÚMTSVEYIK]

gender spectrum: די גאַמע מינים
[DI GÁME MÍNIM]

gender-fluid: מין־פֿליסיק
[MÍN-FLÍSIK]

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Merci or Merthe? In Judeo-Shirazi, a language spoken in Southwest Iran, "thank you" is merthe. If you think this sounds similar to the word for "thank you" in French, merci, you're right! The Persian languages are actually influenced by French.

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Yiddish “Camp”: According to research on American English, Yiddishisms such as shmutz, kvetch, and chutzpah are more likely to be used by gay and bisexual non-Jews than by their heterosexual counterparts. One theory is the affinity between queer culture and Jewish stars like Joan Rivers and Bette Midler; Yiddish has become part of a “camp” sensibility. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that in the queer community, Yiddish words have acquired social significance beyond their Jewish origins.

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Mano a ManimThe famous Portuguese dramatist Gil Vicente included a Judeo-Portuguese passage in his 1523 play, Farsa de Inês Pereira: "Alça manim dona, o dona, ha." Manim appears to be the Spanish mano (hand) combined with the Hebrew masculine plural suffix -im. Notably, neither part of the hybrid word manim is Portuguese!

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In the London Spanish and Portuguese prayerbook, a special section of Mi sheberakh blessings, meant to be read on Yom Kippur, recalls the Spanish Inquisition. The Portuguese words translate as, "To all of our brethren confined by the Inquisition," and are followed by Hebrew liturgy requesting that God "bring them forth from darkness to light" (me'afelah le'orah).

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Non komo muestro Dyo: Ein Kelohenu, a prayer of praise that repeats four different names of God in every verse, is generally sung in Hebrew. In recent years, a bilingual Hebrew-Ladino version has become popular even in non-Sephardic synagogues. Here’s the first verse:

Non komo muestro Dyo,

non komo muestro Senyor,

non komo muestro Rey,

non komo muestro Salvador.

Ein kelohenu, ein kadonenu, ein k’malkenu, ein k’moshi'enu.

There is none like our God, there is none like our Lord, there is none like our King, there is none like our Savior. 

Note that it takes Ladino and English 4 or 6 words to express a 2-word Hebrew phrase.

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Gender-neutral pronouns: Contemporary Jews are creating innovative linguistic - and artistic - forms. This Farsi image, by calligrapher Ruben Shimonov, features the gender-neutral 3rd-person pronoun ū with the word aziz ('dear') inside. Colors are inspired by the non-binary flag.

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A Medieval Aramaic Poem for Shavuot:
Jews composed religious poetry in Aramaic long after they stopped speaking the language. Rabbi Meir ben Yitzhak (d. 1095) of Orléans wrote one such poem to preface the scriptural reading for Shavuot, which includes the Ten Commandments. Akdamut Millin (Introductory Words) describes the might of God, the majesty of the heavenly court, and the merit of the righteous. This evocative poem remains part of the traditional Shavuot service.

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Moed-e Gol: The Jewish Persian term for Shavuot is moed-e gol, "Festival of Flowers." Gol means flower in Persian and refers to the widespread custom of celebrating this holiday through beautiful floral decorations and placing garlands on Torah scrolls. However, other explanations say that in earlier phases, gol could have been the Hebrew word gadol (great) or alternatively go'el (redemption).

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A Velada Vigil: The Sephardic tradition of studying sacred texts all night on Shavuot is known as veladaThis is the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) word for guarding or watching. It stems from the Spanish verb velar (to watch over) as well as the Latin velare (to cover or conceal). On the island of Rhodes, the velada included chanting special songs and prayers in Ladino and Hebrew; in the morning, those who had kept the vigil would eat rose-scented milk pudding (sutlach) and savory pies. 

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A Judeo-Greek Hymn on Shavuot: Considered to be Europe's oldest Jewish community, Romaniote Jews spoke Greek and lived in places like Ioannia, Thessaloniki, and Corfu. This Judeo-Greek piyyut (liturgical poem or hymn), composed in the 16th-17th century, was likely sung on the second day of Shavuot. Its opening stanza includes a reference to Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shema, which proclaims God's oneness. 

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Judeo-Syriac: This Geniza fragment - probably from 12th- or 13th-century Cairo - is a rare artifact of a Jew studying Syriac, a Christian dialect of Aramaic. On one side of the paper (pictured right), they practiced writing the Syriac alphabet and the names of the Patriarchs (e.g., Isḥāq/ܐܣܚܩ/אסחק as shown in the pink box). On the other side (pictured left), they transcribed Psalm 20 of the Peshitta - the Syriac Bible translation - into Hebrew script. 

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A Magical Spell in Judeo-Latin: This magical spell to catch a thief is a rare example of Judeo-Latin - Latin written in Hebrew script. The scribe of this fragment (which likely dates to the 12th-13th century CE) probably didn’t know Latin, but the words of the spell were evidently thought to be powerful enough to be written down. The spell begins by invoking Omni potentes sempiternes deus, "Omnipotent, eternal God."

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Qurʾān/Miqraʾ; The word Qurʾān (קראן) in medieval Judeo-Arabic manuscripts usually means the same thing as the Hebrew word Miqraʾ (מקרא): Bible. In this Judeo-Arabic manuscript about the birth of Moses, the 12th-century Spanish poet Moshe Ibn ʿEzra uses the plural “qurʾānāt” (קראנאת - circled at left) to refer to prophetic books in general and “the great Qurʾān” (אלקראן אלאעטֿם - circled at right) to refer to the Torah. The verb root common to both “Qurʾān” and “Miqraʾ” is קרא, which connotes reading in Hebrew and reading or recitation in Arabic.

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A Yiddish Haman in the Cairo Geniza: Three fragments of what is possibly the earliest-known Yiddish prayerbook have been found in the Cairo Geniza so far. Dating to approximately the 15th century, this text was likely a translation from a Hebrew prayerbook. Pictured here is the recently discovered third fragment, part of which includes the Yiddish translation of the Hebrew piyyut (liturgical poem) Asher Heni, which is recited on Purim after the reading of Megillat Esther. The names Haman and Agag, a king of the Amalekites, are circled.

A Spanish Siddur in the Cairo Geniza: A Geniza page from a roughly 16th-century Spanish translation of the siddur (prayerbook) includes the prayer "Yaʿale ve-Yavo," which is added to the liturgy on festivals and Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the month). The underlined phrase says en el dia del rreshodes este, “on this Rosh Chodesh day.” Reshodes combines two Hebrew words (רֹאשׁ - head, and חוֹדֶשׁ - month) into one Judeo-Spanish word. The prayer expresses hope for several divine attributes: gracia, bien, merce, and apiadar (grace, well-being, loving-kindness, and compassion).

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A Judeo-Armenian Glossary: Many Geniza fragments are everyday documents like grocery lists or drafts of personal correspondence. We can only guess at the purpose of this glossary of common (and some not-so-common) Judeo-Arabic words, each word with its Armenian translation underneath—all written in Hebrew script. 

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Kon una flor no se faze el enverano. "One flower does not make the summer." The essence of this Ladino refran is that you should not get ahead of yourself. A similar expression is "Don't count your chickens before they hatch."

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The noble origins of Yenta: The Yiddish women’s names Yenta and Yentl come from Gentil and Gentile (meaning noble, beautiful), names used by French- and Italian-speaking Jews in the Middle Ages. In Jewish English today, yenta generally refers to a gossipy woman or matchmaker - an association influenced by the character Yenta, played by Molly Picon, in the 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof.

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The Yiddish term bedikes khomets, “the search for leavened foods,” is a ritual ridding the home of chametz before Passover. It was also used to refer to Russian police searches for illegal documents in suspected revolutionaries’ homes at the turn of the 20th century - a search for forbidden material.

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"Habib Allah Eliyahu" (Elijah, the Beloved of God) is part of a family of Judeo-Arabic pizmonim (songs of praise) with the refrain habib Allah Eliyahu, sung in Jewish communities throughout the Levant and Iraq. It details the stories of Elijah the prophet. One Aleppian variation - "Eliyahu Bil Karmel" - spells out the sojourning of Elijah in the region, mentioning Jobar, Halab, Beirut, and Istanbul, among other places. 

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Romanized newspapers: Like many Jewish languages, Yiddish is usually written in Hebrew script. However, it has also been written using the Latin and even Cyrillic alphabets. In the years following World War II, many romanized Yiddish publications appeared in Europe, such as posters and newspapers printed in displaced persons’ camps in Germany. The motive was functional, not ideological - alef-beys type was difficult to find after presses were destroyed during the war.

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An Appetite for Books: Yiddish has different words for "book" depending on whether it contains sacred or secular content. A seyfer indicates a "holy book" like the Bible, the Talmud, or a prayer book and comes from the Hebrew word sefer. Bukh comes from the German word buch and indicates non-sacred content. Some Yiddish-speaking butchers borrowed the Slavic-origin term for a cow's third stomach - knihe - which also means "book." Why? Because that organ reportedly resembles a codex-style book. 

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Yiddish Pseudonyms: Many women writers began publishing across the Yiddish diaspora in the early 1900s. They gained such popularity that some male authors published under female pseudonyms. After his poetry was rejected from the newspaper Freie Arbeiter Stimme (Free Voice of Labor), Jacob Glatstein submitted work under the pen name Klara Blum. The poems were then published and praised by the paper’s editor.

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Where do you cry? In Northeastern Yiddish, voynen “to live” and veynen “to weep” are homophones: both sound like veynen. In order to avoid unhappy confusion, speakers use the phrase Vu freyt ir zikh? “Where do you rejoice?” instead of Vu voynt ir? “Where do you live?”

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In mandate Palestine, anti-Yiddish activity included campaigns against showing films in the language—most infamously, a 1930 protest against a presentation of Mayn yidishe mame (“My Jewish mother”) in Tel Aviv, during which members of the Gedud megine ha-safah (Battalion of the Defenders of the [Hebrew] Language) disrupted the film and threw ink and “foul-smelling objects” at the screen.

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Pinchas: What do Nḥaysí, Pilxaz, and Pincie have in common? They’re all forms of the biblical Hebrew name פנחס Pinchas (Phineas), the grandson of Aaron. Nḥaysí is Libyan Judeo-Arabic, Pilxaz is Judeo-Georgian, and Pincie is Jewish Polish. 

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阿無羅漢 - אברהם - Abraham:

Although there was not a significant tradition of Judeo-Chinese writing, the Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, wrote inscriptions and manuscripts in Chinese, sometimes interwoven with Hebrew. In a few cases, Chinese words, especially names, were written in Hebrew letters, such as גן שה zhāng shì (Miss Zhang) in a 17th-century Memorial Book. In other cases, Hebrew names were written in Chinese letters, such as 阿無羅漢    ā-wú-luó-hàn for אברהם (Abraham) in a 16th-century inscription.

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Persian Torah Translation by a Sufi Rabbi: One of the earliest translations of the Torah into Persian (as opposed to Judeo-Persian) was by Sarmad Kashani (1590-1661), a Persian rabbi and merchant who became a wandering naked Sufi dervish in India. Though his many poems often espouse atheist ideas, he and his Hindu companion (some say lover), Abhay Chand, contributed to an early book of comparative religion (Dabestan-e Mazaheb) and represented Judaism at the court of Dara Shikoh, Crown Prince of Delhi. Sarmad was eventually executed for heresy by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.

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Esta arastado komo la aftara de Tisha B'av. "It's dragging on like the haftarah of Tisha B'Av."

This Ladino expression of impatience refers to the tradition of reading from the book of Jeremiah on the Ninth of Av, a day of mourning and fasting that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Sephardic tradition requires reading an elaborate Ladino midrash alongside the Hebrew haftarah; this addition considerably extends the duration of services. 

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Shab-e Noi! (Erev Tisha b’Av / When Pigs Fly): Some Iranian Jews call Tisha b'Av Noi (pronounced No-ee), likely from Noh, Persian for "nine." The phrase "Shab-e Noi!" (Erev Tisha B'Av), and its synonym "Ekhā!" (the Book of Lamentations, read on Tisha B'Av), can convey a particular kind of scoffing, much like the English phrases “Yeah, right!” and “When pigs fly!” These words can also be combined to intensify the skepticism, as in this example:

Son: "I'm going to get a dog for my birthday."

Dad: "Shab-e Noi o Ekhā!"

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La ienti de Zion: The oldest known original work in Judeo-Italian is a kinah (elegy) known as La ienti (or genti) de Zion, "The People of Zion." Intended for use during the Tisha B'Av holiday, this liturgical poem dates to the 12th-13th century and presents the Jewish Italian vernacular in Hebrew characters. The text survives only in two 14th-century manuscripts of maḥzorim (holiday prayerbooks).

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Zumer-time: The Yiddish word for summer, der zumer, is the basis of two delightful phrases:

di zumer-shprenklekh - freckles, literally “little summer spots” 

and

dos zumer-feygele - butterfly, literally “little summer bird.”

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El gameyo no ve su korkova, ve la del d'enfrente. 

"A camel doesn't see his own hump, he sees the one that's in front of him."

This is said of someone who refuses to see his own faults but always points out the flaws of others. Generally, calling someone a gameyo is a way of insulting their intelligence in Ladino.

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Chi nasce muor: This elegiac octave was written by the future Rabbi Leon de Modena when he was only thirteen, in memory of his teacher Moses della Rocca. An example of homophonous translation, it is fully comprehensible both in Hebrew and Judeo-Italian concurrently.

[includes image of original manuscript]

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Onomastic wordplay: Coded Jewish names: Historically, some Jews have used names popular in their surrounding society and interpreted them as similar-sounding Hebrew words. For example, the Yiddish name Shneyer/Shneur comes from the Spanish/French senior, meaning “elder, master,” but Jews interpreted it as Hebrew shnei or – two light[s]. This practice continues among American Jews today: Aiden: Irish for little fire, interpreted as Eden; Amalya: international, interpreted as work of God; Eliana: Greek, interpreted as my God answered; Evan: Welsh version of John, interpreted as rock; Liam: Irish version of William, interpreted as my people; Lila: Persian for lilac tree, interpreted as night; Maya: international, interpreted as water

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Divine inspiration: Many names used by Jews (and others), both ancient and modern, are theophoric, meaning they reference God. Some examples:

Boys:

Azriel (my help is God)

Daniel (God is my judge)

Eliav (my God is father)

Elior (God is my light)

Gabriel (strength of God)

Uriel (God is my light)

Girls:

Ariella (lioness of God)

Batya (daughter of God)

Danya (judgment of God)

Elisheva (God is my oath)

Galia (wave of God)

Talia (dew of God)

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Names that Roar: Names meaning “lion” have circulated among Jews for centuries, in part because of symbolic associations with the tribe of Judah. These might have originally been local names, but they were often coded as Jewish. Some examples:

Ancient Rome: Leo

10th century Mainz: Juda ben Meir, a.k.a.Leontin

11th-12th centuries Byzantine Empire: Leo, Leon

15th century Portugal: Juda Abravanel, a.k.a. Leo Ebreo

16th century Florence: Juda, a.k.a. Leone

16th century Hungary: Arszlan (Turkish)

18th century Istanbul: Aslan

21st century America: Leo

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Name Changing for Healing: In Jewish communities around the world, a gravely ill child would sometimes be given a new or additional name, often one that indicated life, old age, healing, or the child being (ritually) sold or abandoned. The reasoning is that the forces of illness would come looking for a specific person and turn away empty-handed if the name had been switched. Some examples of disease-fooling names in various languages:

Juhuri: Munosh (will [you] live), Ofdym ([I] found), Shende (thrown away)

Ladino/Judeo-Romance: Mercado (sold), Vidal (life), Vita (life)

Vivant (alive)

Yiddish: Alte (old woman), Alter (old man), Bobe (grandmother), Zeyde (grandfather)

Hebrew (multiple communities): Haya (living), Hayim (life), Nissim (miracles), Raphael (God healed)

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Ester, Anna, and 'Abdallah: In many times and places, Jews have drawn baby names from a mix of sources. We can observe distinctly Jewish Biblical (Hebrew) names, local versions of Biblical names, and local non-Biblical names in common usage at the same time. Some examples:

• 10th-century Cairo: Ephraim, Miriam (Biblical Hebrew), Da’ud, Rebekah (local variants of Biblical), ‘Abdallah, Jamila (local non-Jewish: Arabic) 

• 13th-century England: Jechiel, Zippora (Biblical Hebrew), Elias, Anna (local variants of Biblical), Peter, Joie (local non-Jewish: English, French) 

• 16th-century Rome: Aron, Ester (Biblical Hebrew), Giuseppe, Rebecca (local variants of Biblical), Angelo, Allegrezza (local non-Jewish: Italian)

From Nancy to Noa: Top 10 girls’ names among Jewish respondents to the Survey of American Jewish Personal Names by decade of birth.

* indicates that the name is also in the US Top 10 for that decade.

[Includes a chart ranking names in the 1950s, 1980s, and 2010s.]

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From Gary to Ari: Top 10 boys’ names among Jewish respondents to the Survey of American Jewish Personal Names by decade of birth. * indicates that the name is also in the US Top 10 for that decade. [Includes a chart ranking names in the 1950s, 1980s, and 2010s.]

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Schalömchen - Hey There! The German-Jewish greeting Schalömchen is a diminutive form of Shalom. A play on the German Hallöchen, meaning “Hey there,” Schalömchen is a friendly, colloquial salutation that playfully adapts the Hebrew word שָׁלוֹם to a contemporary German context. In 2020, the city of Cologne decorated a tram with the words Schalömchen Köln! as part of an effort to celebrate the 1,700-year anniversary of the founding of the city’s Jewish community.

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Judeo-Spanish Words, Greek Script: This poem was written by Jacob Joseph Sidis of Trikala in 1885, in Ladino, but using the Greek alphabet. [includes table showing Greek-Script Original, Latin Script, Hebrew Script, and English versions of the poem.]

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Carrots and Cabbage for Rosh Hashana: Carrots and cabbage soup are traditional Rosh Hashana foods in Yiddish-speaking communities because of wordplay. Mern means both "carrots" and "to multiply" (as in, may we be fruitful and multiply in the new year). Kol mit vaser (cabbage with water) sounds like the Hebrew phrase kol mevaser (voice proclaiming), a harbinger of good news and the world to come.

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Have a Punny New Year!:

Sephardic Jews have a tradition of starting the Rosh Hashana meal with a series of Yehi Ratsones - blessings that incorporate wordplay, using symbolic foods that echo similar words in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Ladino. In the American Sephardic community, the punning tradition appears in English too. Some examples of these hopeful blessings:

May it be Your will Lord our God and God of our ancestors…

… that this new year will be dated one when enmity, hatred, and a person’s desire for another’s harm, will be brought to an end. (date)

… that as You judge us, may the evil of the decree be squashed, but our virtue called out before you. (squash)

… that enmity, hatred, and a person’s desire for another’s harm, will be rooted out. (leek)

… that in the coming year we may go ahead in all we undertake. (fish head)

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Heads or Tails?: In Judaico-Romanesco, the Roman dialect of Judeo-Italian, a general holiday greeting is bon monghedde (good holiday - the ayin in mo'ed מוֹעֵד, the Hebrew word for holiday, is pronounced "ng").

Here’s a Rosh Hashana-specific greeting:

Che sia un anno di testa e non di coda.

May it be a year of head and not of tail.


This refers to a Hebrew Yehi Ratson blessing, which is based on Deuteronomy 28:13:

וּנְתָֽנְךָ֨ יי לְרֹאשׁ֙ וְלֹ֣א לְזָנָ֔ב - God will make you the head, not the tail. Hence the Italian and Sephardic tradition of eating fish heads or lamb heads during the Jewish New Year.

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Moroccan Judeo-Arabic New Year Greetings:

מועד טוב - maʕid tob

(traditionally male greeting): Good holiday

 יכּון עליךּ לעאם מבארךּ -

ikun ʕlik l-ʕam mbark

(traditionally female greeting): Be the year blessed for you

Language: Judeo-Arabic

Location: Taroudant, Morocco

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Pepitada: A drink traditionally served by Sephardic Jews for kortar tanid (breaking the fast) is pepitada. This milky concoction is made from toasted, crushed melon seeds with vanilla, orange blossom, or rosewater flavoring. Believed to soothe the stomach and rehydrate after fasting, the drink was especially popular in places like Bulgaria, Greece, and Rhodes. Pepitada (also called pipitada) derives its name from pepitas, the Ladino word for seeds that come from melons, squash, and pumpkins. 

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Puns in Holiday Greetings: On Chol Hamoed (intermediary days of) Sukkot and Pesach, people often wish each other “Moadim lesimcha,” (מוֹעֲדִים לְשִׂמְחָה, Hebrew for “times of celebration”). A common reply is: “Chagim uzmanim lesason” (חַגִּים וּזְמַנִּים לְשָׂשׂוֹן, Hebrew for “holidays and times for joy,” quoting from the Festival Kiddush blessing over the wine). A humorous Ladino alternative is “Chagim uzmanim a la stasion” (holidays and times to the station), referring to the common practice of vacationing during these holidays.

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Judeo-Persian letter in the Afghan Genizah: The Afghan Geniza is a collection of 11th-century documents found in caves in the Samangan province of Afghanistan. This fragment is from a letter sent by a woman named Nāzuk bat Yosef to her relative Yehuda ben Daniel. It’s written in Judeo-Persian - Persian written in Hebrew characters.

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From Latin to Aramaic to many Jewish languages: Ushpizin:    

One Sukkot tradition involves the ushpizin (אושפיזין, singular: ushpiz), symbolic guests who are invited into the Sukkah because they represent specific spiritual qualities. This custom can be traced to the Zohar, a 13th-century Jewish mystical text written in Aramaic. The Aramaic word ushpiz comes from hospes, Latin for both "host" and "guest." Like its Latin antecedent, ushpiz shifted in meaning over the centuries: in the Aramaic of the Talmud, ushpiz referred to lodging or an innkeeper (that is, the host). By the medieval period, when kabbalists were developing their mystical philosophy, ushpiz had flipped to mean a guest (the object of hospitality).

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S'chach, a Hebrew word, refers to the roofing over a sukkah. S'chach is used in Jewish languages around the world, including Judeo-Arabic, Haketia, Ladino, Yiddish, and Jewish English.

S'chach typically consists of branches, fronds, or a woven mat laid over the top of the temporary dwelling. The covering is supposed to provide shade during the day but also allow viewing of the stars in the night sky.

Rooted in the Hebrew verb meaning 'to cover,' the shade-giving s'chach symbolizes divine protection in Jewish theology. Indeed, the sukkah's image as the ultimate shelter appears in sacred texts, mystical thought, and liturgy.

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Torah vs. The Evil Eye: In Persian, Jews use the phrases Turā dar miun ("The Torah in between") and Turā moghābel ("The Torah in front of") when talking about death, illness, or anything related to the evil eye. Functioning like the expression "God forbid," these phrases imply an expectation that the Torah has the power to protect people from bad things. Some examples of this interjection: "He went bankrupt, turā dar miun!" or "Turā moghābel, she got coronavirus!"

Hulaula, Jewish Neo-Aramaic from Sanandaj, Iran, uses a related phrase that multiplies the number of Torahs to the lucky number seven: šoa sefar ṭoṛae ga bayn haven (may there be seven sefer Torahs between [us and it]).

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Juhuri alphabets: Like many Jewish languages, Juhuri has been recorded using orthographies based on different writing systems, including Hebrew, Cyrillic, and Latin. This Juhuri poem was published in Hebrew script during the Soviet period in 1927, shortly before an official Latin-based alphabet was instituted in 1929. “Dədəj nə ԧəjilho/A Mother and Her Children,” by Yocheved (Liza) Ravvinovich, appears in a second-grade Juhuri textbook.

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Yiddish note from a 9-year-old typesetter: Tefilah le-Moshe (Prayers to Moses) was printed by Ella bat Moshe of Dessau in 1695 or 1696 at just nine years old. Her father, Moshe ben Avraham, or Moses Wolf, was a printer in Dessau, Germany. Ella worked in her father’s business as a typesetter. She added a note in Yiddish to the Hebrew piece, asking to be forgiven for any errors: 

“The Yiddish letters I set with my own hand - I am Ella, daughter of Moses from Holland - a mere nine years old

- the sole girl amongst six children -

So when an error you should find -

Remember, this was set by one who is but a child”

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A concerned mother: A 12th-century Judeo-Arabic letter from Miryam bat Maimon to her brother Moses Maimonides survives in the Cairo Genizah. Her son was studying at the time in Cairo. She writes: "I know that you’re very busy, but please, I’m not eating, I’m not sleeping. I’m so worried about my son. So please find out where your nephew is and let me know how he is. And if by any chance you discover that he’s not around, maybe he went somewhere else. If for some reason he’s not in Cairo, then you send him a letter and you give him a piece of your mind and include my letter with this."

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Bukharian cradle ceremony: In addition to the Brit Milah, some Bukharian Jewish women celebrate the Gahvorabandon, a ceremony laying a newborn into a special cradle. The ceremony is shared with neighboring Muslim practices. One Bukharian (Judeo-Tajik) song sung for the ceremony is "Bacha-bacha bar jonem" (My child - my heart): "My dear child/My smiling pretty baby, my dear heart/You are my son/You are my, my first born/I'll lay down my life for you, my dear heart." The song is sung by a sozanda, a highly trained female singer. 

A scribe and mother: Miriam bat Benayah was a part of a family of scribes in Sana'a, Yemen, in the late 1500s. Many of the words she may have written are unsigned and may have involved collaborative efforts by many family members. However, one piece at least is directly attributed to Miriam: a Humash that presents each line in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Judeo-Arabic. This type of document is known as a taj among Yemeni Jews. At the end of the piece, she wrote: "Do not condemn me for any errors that you may find, as I am a nursing woman." Jewish women in Sana'a at the time could not often write or read, and Miriam was well-known within the community.

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Malayalam song notebooks:

Jewish Malayalam songs from Jewish women of Kerala, India, passed from mother to daughter both orally and in writing. Among 32 handwritten song notebooks are approximately 300 women’s songs. Although most of the community has left Kerala and many of the tunes have been forgotten, over the past 50 years singers have recorded some of the songs. One 2014 album is called “Oh, Lovely Parrot!&rdqu