Description by Yona Sabar
All over the Diaspora, Jews have always developed their own versions of surrounding languages, making changes that reflect their lives and cultures. Perhaps the first Diaspora Jewish language was the Middle Eastern lingua franca, Aramaic. Once widespread, this language survived two millennia in mountain-dwelling Jewish and Christian communities of the Middle East, and today most Jewish Aramaic speakers speak Hulaulá, whose unique sound developed around the city of Sanandaj in Iran. Also called Lishana Noshan, “our language,” this dialect has diverged from its Bible- and Talmud-era roots to include many phrases and loanwords from Indo-European languages like Sorani Kurdish and Persian, fellow Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic, and Turkic languages like Turkish and Azeri. Besides this mixed vocabulary, Hulaulá displays unique phonetic changes that render it difficult or incomprehensible to speakers of other Aramaic dialects. Hulaulá represents the easternmost frontier of native Semitic-speaking Jews, beyond which local populations spoke Judeo-Median and Persian dialects. Today, the majority of remaining speakers live in Israel and the United States. Though younger generations no longer speak it, some have shown renewed interest in learning Hulaulá and even making new contemporary music featuring the language, like in HULAULA’s groundbreaking music video, Ahu Khanem.
Until recent efforts, there was limited public knowledge of the existence of Jewish languages besides Yiddish and Ladino. Even among Jewish communities in Israel and Iran, Jewish Neo-Aramaic was constantly minimized. With renewed interest in Jews of the Middle East, the restoration and resurrection of particular Jewish languages like Hulaulá can serve as an example of the universal need for cultural preservation, especially as underrepresented cultures begin to receive recognition. This work is particularly urgent—many Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects have already gone extinct — but the fact that some native speakers of Hulaulá are still alive gives us the opportunity to illuminate this language among students of Jewish culture. Truly, language is the most detailed look we can get into a culture, even if no Jews remain in Sanandaj today. For young Jews who may never get to visit their ancestral home in Kurdistan, meet their grandparents, or feel connected to a place culturally or physically far from their current homes, the emerging ability to learn this language can connect them to Judaism in the way their Ashkenazi friends do by learning Yiddish or eating European Jewish foods. Creating new songs and culture in this language is only the first step.
Food For Thought:
For history buffs: Hulaula has many loanwords from other languages. What can we learn about the Jews of Sanandaj by finding commonalities and differences with the surrounding Jewish and non-Jewish languages?
For linguists: What phonetic changes might have led the word “Yehudah/Yahadut” to morph into words as diverse as Judah/Judaism, Yid/Yiddish, Juhuro/Juhuri, Yahood/Yahoodi, and Hula/Hulaulá?
For anyone: What cultural features connect you to your own ancestors? What other features of Kurdistan’s Jewish community would be essential to gaining an understanding of its culture?
Listen to the Sounds of Jewish Neo-Aramaic
A brief introduction to Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Post-vernacular engagement by Alon Azizi and Adi Kadussi, Israeli descendants of Jewish Neo-Aramaic speakers
Harav Eliyahu reciting Bereshit in Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Shimon Cohen, Aziz Barazani, and Yosef Cohen speaking the Erbil dialect of Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Rakhma speaking the Lishana Deni dialect of Jewish Neo-Aramaic
The Aramaic language has been around for over three thousand years, beginning in the 11th century B.C.E as the official language of the first Aramean states in Syria. A few centuries later it became the official language, or lingua franca, of the Assyrian and Persian empires, covering vast areas, and gradually splitting into two major (groups of) dialects, Eastern and Western.
Biblical Aramaic, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, and Rabbinic Aramaic
The first attested Jewish Aramaic texts are from the Jewish military outpost in Elephantine, ca. 530 B.C.E. Other Jewish Aramaic texts are the Books of Ezra (ca. 4th cent. B.C.E.) and Daniel (165 B.C.E.).
Names of language:
Biblical Aramaic, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, Rabbinic Aramaic, Judeo-Aramaic, Neo-Aramaic, Jewish Neo-Aramaic, Lišanət Targum, Lišana Deni, Hulaula, Lišan Hozaye
Territories where it was/is spoken:
-originated: Babylonia, Iraq
-heyday: Kurdistan (Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria)
Estimated # speakers:
- 1900: 25,000 (?)
- 2019: 500? mostly elderly in Israel
Hebrew alphabet with some modification
Mostly translations (tafsirs) of Bible, midrashim, and piyyutim
Modern Semitic/Aramaic dialects
Starting around 250 C.E., Bible translations such as the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan began to appear. The division into Eastern and Western Aramaic is most evident in the Palestinian (Yerushalmi) Talmud (Western, completed ca. 5th century C.E.; and Midrashim, ca. 5th-7th centuries C.E.) and the Babylonian Talmud (Eastern, finished ca. 8th century C.E.).
With the Islamic conquests, Aramaic was quickly superseded by Arabic. Except for some occasional bursts such as the Book of Zohar and other kabbalistic literature (ca. the 12th cent), it almost ceased as a literary language, but remained as ritual and study language (see below). It continued its life as a spoken language until our days by the Jews and Christians of Kurdistan ("Eastern") and three villages (mostly Christians and some Muslims) in Syria ("Western"). Syriac-Aramaic is still used as a ritual language among many Near Eastern Christians.
The oldest literature in Jewish (and Christian!) Neo-Aramaic is from ca. 1600 C.E. It includes mostly adaptations or translations of Jewish literature, such as Midrashim (homiletic literature), commentaries on the Bible, hymns (piyyutim), etc. Jewish Neo-Aramaic may be divided into 3-4 major groups of dialects, some mutually intelligible, and others not or hardly so. In some towns both Jews and Christians spoke Neo-Aramaic, but using distinct, sometimes mutually unintelligible dialects. Most Neo-Aramaic-speaking Jews emigrated to Israel in the early 1950s, and their language was superseded by Hebrew.
Aramaic is a close sister of Hebrew and is identified as a "Jewish" language, since it is the language of major Jewish texts (the Talmuds, Zohar, and many ritual recitations, such as the kaddish). Aramaic has been until our present time a language of Talmudic debate in many traditional yeshivot (traditional Jewish schools), as many rabbinic texts are written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. Jewish Neo-Aramaic is both an "extension" of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (as can be seen from its hundreds of reflexes in Jewish Neo-Aramaic), and a Neo-Jewish language. The Jewish Neo-Aramaic texts are written in a Hebrew alphabet, like most Jewish languages, but the spelling is phonetic, rather than etymological (e.g. כמשא 'five', rather than חמשא, and שואא 'seven', instead of שבעא). As in other Jewish languages, many Judaic and even some secular terms are borrowed from Hebrew, rather than being inherited from traditional Jewish Aramaic, e.g., Hebrew עולם 'world', rather than Aramaic עלמא. The Hebrew loanwords were one of the major features that distinguished Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects from their Christian counterparts, in addition to minor or quite major grammatical differences.
Speakers of Jewish Neo-Aramaic have used a variety of terms to refer to their language, which varied from region to region and reflected internal dialectal differences. Conscious of the historical connection of the language with earlier literary forms of Jewish Aramaic, some refer to the language as lišanət targum ‘the language of the Targum.’ Many refer to their language simply as ‘our language’ in their particular region’s dialect, e.g., lišana deni (Zakho and surrounding region), lišanət nošan (south-west Kurdistan), lišana noša (western Iran), lišana didan (north-west Iran, including Urmi, Salmas, and Shino), lišān dideni (Barzan region). Some names reflect the consciousness of it being a specifically Jewish language, e.g., lišan hozaye ‘the language of the Jews’ (Zakho), and hulaula (the Kurdistan and Kermanshah provinces of western Iran, including Saqqiz, Tikab, Bokan, Sanandaj, and Kerend), which is an abstract noun meaning ‘Jewishness/Judaism’ (< *hūḏāyūṯā) (Khan 2018).
Translations of Torah into Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Recordings of Songs in Jewish Neo-Aramaic, c. 1980s-1990s
Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon (pre-modern)
Facebook group for Sanandaj Hulaula Lishana Noshan
YouTube channel about Jewish Neo-Aramaic
To cite: Sabar, Yona. n.d. Jewish Aramaic. Jewish Language Website, Sarah Bunin Benor (ed.). Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. https://www.jewishlanguages.org/jewish-aramaic. Attribution: Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International.