Jewish Language Project

Promoting research and education on the many ways Jews have spoken and written

Wherever Jews have lived around the world, they have spoken and written in language distinct from their non-Jewish neighbors. Yiddish and Ladino – two of the most widely known Jewish languages – survived as distinct languages for centuries away from their lands of origin. Others are more similar to local non-Jewish languages but still distinct to varying degrees, including Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Tadjik (Bukharian), and Jewish Malayalam.

Because of migrations and other historical events, many of these languages are on the verge of extinction, and most Jews today are unaware of their existence. It is imperative that we document and raise awareness about these languages in the next decade – for the sake of the elderly Jews who are their last speakers and for the sake of Jewish children who would benefit from knowing about their multifaceted heritage.

The HUC-JIR Jewish Language Project addresses these problems by creating online content and by raising and distributing funds for research and cultural production. This initiative was launched in 2020, building on and encompassing several projects led by Professor Sarah Bunin Benor.

 

Mission

To promote research on, awareness about, and engagement surrounding the many languages spoken and written by Jews throughout history and around the world.

 

Vision

  • Every known Jewish language variety will be well documented

  • Resources regarding Jewish languages will be publicly available on the internet, thereby increasing comparative research, postvernacular activities, resources for Jewish educational institutions, and knowledge about the linguistic diversity of Jewish communities around the world

  • Jews will feel a stronger connection to far-flung Jewish communities, past and present

 

Initiatives

  1. 2002-present: Jewish Language Website, an online repository of information and resources, including descriptions of 21 languages, samples of texts and audiovisual materials, maps, lists of translators and researchers, syllabi, and bibliographies.

  2. 2008-2009: Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity, a quantitative study investigating to what extent American Jews and non-Jews use certain words and other linguistic features from Yiddish, Hebrew, and New York English.

  3. 2012-present: Jewish Lexicon Project, a collection of interactive online dictionaries of words used by Jews within several contemporary languages:

    1. Jewish English Lexicon

    2. Léxico Judío Latinoamericano (Jewish Latin American Spanish Lexicon)

    3. Lexikon över Judisk Svenska (Jewish Swedish Lexicon)

    4. Glossaire du français juif (Jewish French Lexicon)

    5. Словаря еврейского этнолекта русского языка (Jewish Russian Lexicon)

  4. 2012-2020: Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps, a mostly qualitative study of how Jewish summer camps have used Hebrew, including in songs, signs, and Camp Hebraized English. The book won the 2021 National Jewish Book Award in Education and Jewish Identity.

  5. 2018-2020: Hebrew Education in Part-Time Jewish Schools, a mixed-methods study investigating why and how supplementary schools teach Hebrew and how students, parents, and others perceive this education.

  6. 2019-present: Survey of American Jewish First Names, a quantitative study investigating to what extent American Jews and non-Jews associate certain names with Jews and which types of Jews use Biblical, Modern Hebrew, and other names. Results coming May 2021!

  7. 2020: Passover Around the World, including a multimedia concert featuring Chad Gadya, Who Knows One, and other Passover songs in multiple languages, a downloadable haggadah supplement featuring phrases and songs in many languages, and audiovisual materials from Passover celebrations in many countries.

  8. 2020: Jewish Languages and Names, a series of online lectures by Professor Sarah Bunin Benor.

  9. 2020-present: Documentation of endangered Iranian Jewish languages, in partnership with the Endangered Language Alliance.

  10. 2021-present: Captioning: Improving auto-captions on online videos in Jewish English.

  11. 2021-present: Jewish Pronunciations: Adding pronunciation recordings to the Jewish English Lexicon.

  12. 2021: Jewish Prayer in Many Languages: From Sephardic Seattle to Syrian Brooklyn - a concert/lecture series with Asher Shasho Levy, co-presented by the Lowell Milken Center for Music of the American Jewish Experience at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and several co-sponsors.

Future initiatives

  1. Fun Facts: Weekly social media posts with fun facts about Jewish languages (summer 2021).

  2. Research consortium for documentation of endangered Jewish languages.
  3. Grants for research on and engagement with Jewish languages.

  4. Database of Hebrew/Aramaic words in Jewish languages.

  5. Content/curriculum for youth, geared toward Jewish day schools, supplementary schools, camps, and youth groups.

  6. Jewish Names Website, including a database of Jewish surnames around the world and a search tool for Jewish baby names.

  7. Additional activities, perhaps including a teaching fellowship for Jewish schools, public programs, conferences, and fellowships for early-career scholars.

People

       Founding Director:

       Sarah Bunin Benor

Dr. Benor is Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (Los Angeles campus) and Adjunct Professor (by courtesy) in the University of Southern California Linguistics Department. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University in Linguistics in 2004. She has published and lectured widely about Jewish languages, linguistics, Yiddish, American Jews, and Orthodox Jews. Her books include Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism (Rutgers, 2012) and Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps (Rutgers, 2020). Dr. Benor is founding co-editor of the Journal of Jewish Languages (Brill) and co-editor of Languages in Jewish Communities, Past and Present (De Gruyter Mouton, 2018).

       Artist/Researcher in Residence:

       Asher Shasho Levy

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Oudist, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist Asher Shasho Levy is a Syrian Jewish musician and scholar of Sephardic heritage and culture, who seeks to spread the beauty of the Sephardic tradition through his writing, recording, research, and concerts. He performs and teaches internationally and is the founder and leader of the Aram Soba Ensemble, a group dedicated to the musical heritage of Syrian Jewry. Studying with elders and scholars in the Sephardic community of Los Angeles, Asher has amassed a large repertoire of liturgical music, secular song in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, as well as piyyutim, pizmonim and baqashot, the religious poetry and song of the Jewish Middle East.

Managing Director of the Jewish English Lexicon: Hannah Kober

Hannah Kober is a Ph.D. student in Educational Linguistics with a concentration in Jewish Studies at Stanford Graduate School of Education. She is interested in the language ideologies and attitudes that ground Hebrew teaching, learning, and advocacy in North America. For her B.A. thesis at Brandeis University, she focused on the learning motivations of Jewish Israeli university students pursuing Arabic studies. She previously served as a Research Assistant on the Hebrew Infusion project at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education and as Program Associate at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Hannah is a Jim Joseph Fellow and a Wexner Graduate Fellow-Davidson Scholar.

Education and Communications Intern: Sofia Rubio

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Sofia is a rising junior at Wellesley College studying Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences with a concentration in Linguistics. Her interests lie primarily in language acquisition and language documentation, preservation, and revitalization. She has experience working at language acquisition and cognitive labs at Yale and MIT and is happy to shift her focus towards language education and graphic design for this project.

Jewish English Lexicon Intern:

Matan Kruskal

Matan Kruskal is a high school senior. After a gap year in Israel, he plans to attend the University of Maryland as a linguistics major. Within linguistics, he is primarily interested in computational linguistics and language documentation, preservation, and revitalization. In addition to being the Jewish English Lexicon intern, he is the founder of the Newton South High School Linguistics Club.

Several people have worked or volunteered for the Jewish Language Project over the years.

  • Tsvi Sadan (Tsuguya Sasaki): design, programming, administration, and moderation

  • Elaine Miller: administration and editing

  • Josh Vogel: programming

  • Shawn Fields-Meyer: design

 

Jewish English Lexicon moderation:

  • Alexandra Casser

  • Isaac Bleaman

  • Eliran Sobel

 

Advisory Board:

  • Jean Baumgarten, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique / École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales / Centre d'Études Juives, France

  • David M. Bunis, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

  • Benjamin Hary, New York University, United States and Israel

  • Julia G. Krivoruchko, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

  • Aharon Maman, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

  • Maria L. Mayer Modena, University of Milan, Italy

  • Bernard Spolsky, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

  • Ofra Tirosh-Becker, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

Sponsor

The Jewish Language Project is an initiative of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Founded in 1875, HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR’s scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications.

Funding

In addition to HUC-JIR, funding has come from the Dorot Foundation, Maurice Amado Foundation, USC Casden Institute, Association for Jewish Studies Arts and Culture Grant, and many individual contributors. We welcome additional contributions.

Press

Over the years, initiatives of the Jewish Language Project have been featured in several publications:

2009: Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity

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2020: Passover Around the World

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2013: Jewish English Lexicon

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2020: Hebrew Infusion at Jewish Summer Camps

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2021: Documenting Endangered Jewish Languages

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Other

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2021: Jewish Names of Pets

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