Statistics on Jewish languages today
How many speakers are there? Ethnologue statistics on Jewish language vitality
How many people speak Judeo-Tajik (Bukharian)? Judeo-Greek? Yiddish? Ethnologue: Languages of the World provides statistics about contemporary language use. This brief article presents and discusses the statistics they provide about Jewish languages. Ethnologue uses a scale to determine stages of vitality/endangerment:
Ethnologue only provides information for language varieties they consider separate languages, rather than dialects, although they recognize that determination as complicated and controversial. So Jewish Malayalam and Jewish English are not included, even though they may, at times be so different from non-Jewish varieties of Malayalam and English as to be unintelligible. For languages included in the list, statistics are complicated by the difficulty of determining who is a speaker. Does one have to speak the language fluently to be counted? In many Jewish communities, individuals have acquired a standard version of the local language but maintain elements of their ancestors' distinctly Jewish variety. Would we consider contemporary Jews in Italy and Greece to be speakers of Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Greek? Finally, we do not have up-to-date research on every Jewish language listed on Ethnologue. Because of these complications, the statistics here should be taken as provisional.
We have compiled Ethnologue's statistics for Jewish languages, as of March 2020, with an additional column by Sarah Bunin Benor regarding post-vernacular activity (Shandler's term for engagement with a language even without proficiency), such as communities gathering to celebrate the language and artists creating music, theater, or film. If you have suggestions for revising these statistics or can contribute information about additional languages, please contact Ethnologue.
To cite this article: Benor, Sarah Bunin. 2020. "How Many Speakers Are There? Ethnologue Statistics on Jewish Language Vitality." Jewish Language Website. https://www.jewishlanguages.org/stats.
Contemporary Jews' engagement with Jewish languages
(excerpts from Benor, Sarah Bunin. Forthcoming. "Hebrew and Diaspora Jewish Languages.")
Did you notice anything unusual here? We did! We wondered why there were actually increases in speakers of some languages over time (look at Bukharian, Juhuri, and Jewish Neo-Aramaic. Scholars hypothesize that this is due to population growth, lower infant mortality rates, and increased life expectancy in these communities in the 20th century.
Fragments and connection. This is how contemporary Jews in America and other countries tend to engage with Hebrew and historical Jewish Diaspora languages like Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic. Rather than use these languages for day-to-day communication, they use fragments of them for particular occasions, enriching and Judaifying their primary spoken language. They also learn about Hebrew and some of the other languages, feeling various degrees of connection to them as part of their multifaceted Jewish identities. These fragments and connections lead to new language varieties, such as Jewish English, Jewish French, and Jewish Latin American Spanish, which are comparable in many ways to the historical languages of the Jewish Diaspora. In this chapter, I focus on how these trends play out in the largest Diaspora Jewish community, the United States, with some data from other countries.
Although most American Jews speak English as their primary language, there are a few exceptions to this trend: immigrant and Hasidic communities and individuals ideologically committed to speaking and/or transmitting a language. Throughout American history, many immigrants have spoken their native language to their children, whether or not the children responded in English. Initially Jews spoke various Sephardic languages, such as Jewish versions of Spanish (Ladino), Portuguese, and Dutch. A subsequent wave of Jewish immigrants spoke German. The majority of Jews who immigrated from 1880 to 1920 spoke Yiddish, but some also spoke German, Ladino, and Arabic. More recently, Jewish immigrants have spoken Russian, Farsi, Israeli Hebrew, Latin American Spanish, French, and Bukharian (Judeo-Tajik) (Benor 2018). In various periods, smaller immigrant Jewish communities arrived speaking languages like Italian, Greek, Hungarian, and Juhuri (Judeo-Tat). In all periods, most immigrant communities shifted to English within a generation or two, sometimes maintaining fragments of their immigrant language as a marker of their ancestral identities. We see similar trends in other countries, although the Jewish educational systems in some places, such as Latin America, have enabled maintenance of Yiddish longer than in the United States, as well as higher competence in Israeli Hebrew.
One immigrant group has maintained Yiddish for several generations in homes, schools, and communities: Hasidic Jews. While Lubavitcher Hasidim tend to speak English, most other Hasidic sects use Yiddish as their primary language of communication, as well as for some instruction in schools. The pattern of language use is gendered: boys and men tend to use more Yiddish, while girls and women tend to use more English. Many community members are ideologically committed to maintaining Yiddish, as it distinguishes them from non-Hasidic Jews and non-Jews. Even so, they tend to be comfortable with heavy influence from English in their Yiddish, especially in lexicon (words). Many conversations in Hasidic communities involve “translanguaging” – seamless intertwining of Yiddish and English, a practice common in bilingual communities. We see similar trends among Hasidim in the UK, Antwerp, Australia, and Israel (Glinert and Shilhav 1991; Bogoch 1999; Glinert 1999; Isaacs 1999; Baumel 2006; Fader 2009; Assouline 2017; Bleaman 2018; Matras, Gaiser, and Reershemius 2018; Nove 2021).
Outside of Hasidic communities, some other Jewish families maintain immigrant languages in the third generation and beyond, although this is rare. In some cases, descendants of immigrants whose families had shifted to English gain an interest in their ancestral language and learn it as adults, sometimes becoming committed enough to raise children in that language or create artistic works that incorporate the language. This is most common for Yiddish, but there are scattered examples for Ladino and other languages. People ideologically committed to maintaining Yiddish are known as “Yiddishists,” and, in contrast to Hasidim, they tend to be stricter about language separation, avoiding influences from English in their Yiddish speech and writing (Shandler 2006; Bleaman 2018; Fox forthcoming). These groups – immigrants, Hasidim, and those ideologically committed to a language – are exceptions to the trends discussed in this chapter, as they use their language not only in fragments but for everyday communicative purposes with fellow speakers.
In the 19th century, the most widely spoken language among Jews internationally was Yiddish. Jews who migrated from Eastern Europe to the Americas, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Palestine (and later Israel) brought Yiddish with them. While their descendants rapidly acquired the surrounding language, many maintained elements of Yiddish and a sense of connection and nostalgia for this language of their ancestors (Shandler 2006). This leads to a discourse of Yiddish as an endangered language (Avineri 2014). In fact, of all longstanding Diaspora Jewish language varieties, Yiddish is by far the most stable, as it is the primary language of most Hasidic communities. In addition, it is the Diaspora Jewish language that inspires the most young people to learn the language – and the most postvernacular engagement.
Yiddish postvernacular engagement takes many forms: nostalgic writings about the language, Yiddish singalongs, klezmer concerts, Yiddish clubs around the world, books and audiovisual materials that teach the language (most recently through the popular language learning app Duolingo) or select words and phrases (most famously, Rosten’s 1968 Joys of Yiddish), translations of Yiddish literature into English and other languages, translations of English children’s books into Yiddish (e.g., Sholem Berger’s 2003 translation of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, Di Kats der Payats), and material objects from games to lapel buttons to refrigerator magnets. Through these cultural forms, individuals engage with Yiddish differently than they engage with their primary spoken language. They learn it, purchase it, celebrate it, and mourn its lost vitality (Shandler 2006; Avineri 2012; Rabinovitch, Goren, and Pressman 2012; Friedman 2015; Glaser 2017). They convene metalinguistic communities around a language they love, whether or not they can speak that language (Avineri 2012).
Yiddish metalinguistic communities can be informal – a few friends gathering to speak Yiddish, discuss Yiddish, or read Yiddish literature – or incorporated as nonprofit organizations, constituting a sector of the diverse Diaspora Jewish organizational infrastructure. Some of the most prominent public-facing Yiddish-based organizations include YIVO, a research institute and educational organization focusing on Eastern European Jewry (https://www.yivo.org/About-YIVO), the Yiddish Book Center, which rescues and distributes Yiddish books and educates the public about Yiddish culture (https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/about-us), National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, which produces plays and concerts in Yiddish (https://nytf.org/about-us/), and the Workers Circle, which advocates for progressive Jewish engagement and Yiddish language and culture (https://www.circle.org/about-us. This is just a small sampling of the many Yiddish-oriented organizations. See more in Margolis 2021). In addition, some organizations and publications are geared toward Yiddish speakers, and these engage with the language in both vernacular and postvernacular ways. Examples include Yugntruf (lit. Call to Youth), which advocates for Yiddish use among young people (broadly construed) (https://yugntruf.org/about-us/?lang=en), the feminist Yiddishist podcast Vaybertaytsh (lit. women’s commentaries/translations) (http://www.vaybertaytsh.com/about-1), the Forverts (Forward), a long-standing Yiddish newspaper that ceased its print operations in 2019 but is still active online, and the Congress for Jewish Culture, which publishes Yiddish and English books and presents theatrical and literary events (http://congressforjewishculture.org/. In addition, the Yiddish Farm began as an agricultural-based Yiddish immersion program for young adults but now serves as an outdoor education center for nearby Hasidic Yiddish-speaking communities (https://yiddishfarm.org/)). These and other groups often express concern about intergenerational transmission of Yiddish language and culture (Friedman 2015; Fox forthcoming), and they make ample use of the arts, especially song and klezmer music (Wood 2016; Glaser 2017) but also literature, theater, dance, and visual art.
Yiddish education was relatively strong in the mid- to late 20th century in Canada, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires, but it has diminished gradually as the generations have progressed. In these locales, as well as in Australia, Israel, and Russia, Yiddish enthusiasts engage with the language in both vernacular and postvernacular ways. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the international Yiddish-oriented metalinguistic community known as “Yiddishland” found new ways to interact online, and online Yiddish classes surged in popularity (Margolis 2021; Rokhl Kafrissen, personal communication, 9/21). In addition, Yiddish plays an important role in heritage tourism in Europe. Tour companies, bookstores, and restaurants, such as in Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter in Krakow, use Yiddish and Hebrew words and lettering on signs and promotional materials to attract Jewish customers from abroad, and klezmer music remains popular (Gruber 2011; Lehrer 2013; Burdin 2021).
While the international center of Yiddishland in the 21st century is New York, activities surrounding Ladino are centered in multiple countries, especially Israel, Spain, Turkey, Argentina, the US, and France (Harris 2011; Balbuena 2012; Romero 2012; Kirschen 2015; Kirschen 2018; Schwarzwald 2021). This international network of Ladino enthusiasts manifests in various print and online publications, such as El Amaneser from Istanbul, Aki Yerushalayim from Israel, and an internet forum called Ladinokomunita (Brink-Danan 2011; Bunis 2016). Like some of the Yiddish organizations, Ladinokomunita is both a vernacular and a postvernacular metalinguistic community: it is conducted solely in Ladino, and many of the conversations are metalinguistic, focusing on orthographic and spelling norms, the acceptability of various loanwords, and which name to use for the language (Brink-Danan 2011). Many institutions promote Ladino language and culture, such as Israel’s National Authority for Ladino and Its Culture, Spain’s Centro Sefarad-Israel, Argentina’s Centro Cultural Sefarad and Centro de Investigación y Difusión de la Cultura Sefardí (Center for Research and Diffusion of Sephardic Culture), and the US’s Sephardic Studies program at the University of Washington. These groups host programs, conferences, and events, including on the annual International Day of Ladino (Schwarzwald 2021; personal communication, Rachel Amado Bortnick and Bryan Kirschen, 9/21).
Until the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person Ladino engagement could be found in several metropolitan areas. In Washington, DC, a group called Vijitas de Alhad (Sunday visits) met to share Sephardic food and Ladino song and literature (Guttman 2012). In Seattle, Los Ladineros (the Ladino ones) met to speak and read Ladino (FitzMorris 2014). And in Florida, the Sephardic Federation of Palm Beach County hosted Ladino classes, conversation groups, and its own Vijitas de Alhad (Kirschen 2019). During the pandemic, several online Ladino classes were offered, and YouTube videos and Zoom meetings (including those offered by Ladino21 and Enkontros de Alhad (Sunday Encounters)) attracted thousands of attendees from around the world (Personal communication, Rachel Amado Bortnick, 9/21; https://esefarad.com/?tag=enkontros-de-alhad; https://en.ladino21.org/about).
While the dominant form of Judeo-Spanish today is Ottoman Ladino, the North African variety of Judeo-Spanish known as Haketía plays an important postvernacular role in several Jewish communities, especially in Morocco, Venezuela, Israel, and Canada. This takes the form of Haketía songs, comedy sketches, a website and Facebook group called “Voces de [Voices of] Ḥaketía,” and loanwords used within Spanish, English, and Hebrew (Pinto-Abecasis 2017; http://www.vocesdehaketia.com/; https://www.facebook.com/vocesdehaketia/?paipv=0).
Most of the people who speak, write, read, and otherwise engage with Ladino are middle aged or older, but a few young activists bring the language to younger audiences, as seen in the songs and books of singer Sarah Aroeste and the online courses and resources of Bryan Kirschen’s “Ladino Linguist” and Carlos Yebra López’s Ladino21. In addition, one summer camp exposes children and teens to elements of the language. Sephardic Adventure Camp near Seattle is geared toward the descendants of Ladino-speaking immigrants from Turkey and Greece. Campers sing songs and prayers in Sephardic Hebrew and Ladino, watch Ladino-word-of-the-day skits, and get extra points in color war for using a Ladino quote on their banner. This is similar to the way Hebrew is infused in other American Jewish summer camps, but here Ladino is promoted as an element of their unique Sephardic culture (Benor 2019; Benor, Krasner, and Avni 2020).
Even in communications and events not focusing on Ladino, Sephardic organizations often use Ladino words and phrases, especially greetings and closings. An example is the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America, La Ermandad Sefaradi, which emails a High Holiday greeting: “Anyada Buena i Dulse” (a good and sweet year), with a “Mersi muncho” (thank you very much) in a section requesting donations (Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America, email sent 9/2/21).
Sephardic synagogues and communities around the world maintain some Ladino for liturgical purposes, such as Bendigamos and Ya Komimos (Grace after meals), Ketuba de la Ley (marriage contract of the law, recited on Shavuot), and several elements of the High Holiday liturgy (Shasho Levy 2021. Examples from the US at https://www.jewishlanguages.org/liturgy). In addition, select Ladino prayers and songs and have become staples of (Ashkenazi-dominant) American Jewish communities. Some synagogues sing the Ladino version of Ein Kelohenu, Non Komo Muestro Dyo (There is none like our God), at the end of each Shabbat morning service. And around Chanukah, many schools and other Jewish venues include Flory Jagoda’s Ocho Kandelikas (Eight candles) among a large repertoire of Hebrew and Jewish English songs, sometimes with a Yiddish song or two.
In contrast to Yiddish and Ladino, Judeo-Arabic has very little metalinguistic infrastructure. One Israel-based research institution, the Society for Judaeo-Arabic Studies at the Ben Zvi Institute, focuses on the medieval phase of the language (Hary 2016). Several researchers, especially in Israel and Europe, study medieval Judeo-Arabic texts and modern spoken dialects. But, to my knowledge, there are no organizations dedicated specifically to modern Judeo-Arabic documentation, maintenance, education, or engagement. There is an active Hebrew Facebook group called "משמרים את השפה העיראקית" (Preserving the Iraqi Language), where participants ask questions about vocabulary and share musical clips, for example.
The language is still spoken by elderly Jews in the small communities remaining in Morocco and Tunisia and by elderly immigrants in Israel, France, Canada, and the Baghdadi Jewish Diaspora. But because of stigma surrounding their language and pressure to assimilate to local norms, their descendants generally did not maintain their language. Some families maintain ritualized fragments of Judeo-Arabic in their Passover celebrations, such as the Misharotam skit about leaving Egypt, common among Jews with ancestry in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt, and the Hagda Qsem Allah section among Moroccan-origin Jews (Choua 2021. See examples from the United States, England, and Latin America at https://www.jewishlanguages.org/other-parts-of-haggadah.) Among Syrian-origin Jews in Mexico and the United States and North African-origin Jews in France, their in-group English, Spanish, and French are laced with many loanwords from their ancestral varieties of Judeo-Arabic (Dean-Olmsted 2012; Aslanov 2016; Dean-Olmsted and Skura 2018; Isaac Choua, personal communication, July 14, 2021. See also Arabic-origin words in the Jewish English, French, and Latin American Spanish lexicons: https://www.jewishlanguages.org/dictionaries.) Some Israeli films include Judeo-Arabic, such as Turn Left at the End of the World (2004) and Farewell Baghdad (2014), and in Montreal, some plays have been produced in Judeo-Arabic, such as one featuring the famous Moroccan-born Canadian actor Gad Elmaleh (Hary 2016).
A small but growing number of young descendants of Judeo-Arabic speakers are embracing an earlier version of their ancestral language by studying medieval Judeo-Arabic texts by Maimonides, Saadia Gaon, and others. A related trend is learning Arabic language and texts that are not from Jewish traditions (Isaac Choua, p.c.; Cyril Aslanov, personal communication, 9/21). Because the Arabic of Jews in Syria and some other Middle Eastern locales was quite similar to that of their Muslim and Christian neighbors, this engagement with a standard language can serve as a way of connecting to their ancestors or continuing their familial traditions. In other Jewish communities, such as Baghdad, Iraq, Judeo-Arabic differed more significantly from local Christian and especially Muslim varieties (Blanc 1964).
The most significant manifestation of this trend is music. Some Jews whose ancestors emigrated from Arabic-speaking countries research and perform songs in Arabic, as well as songs in Middle Eastern Hebrew set to Arabic melodies. This stems from a tradition of Jews being prominent in the music industry in Muslim countries, and it can be seen today among Mizrahi musicians in Israel, such as the New Andalusian Orchestra, Shimon Bouskila, Ziv Yehezkel, Dudu Tassa, and Neta Elkayam (Hary 2016; Dardashti ms). While most of these musicians perform North African styles and dialects that are not specifically Jewish, A-wa, three Israeli-born sisters of Yemenite origin, sing what may be more distinctly Jewish Arabic from Yemen in a hybrid contemporary style (Cyril Aslanov, p.c. See Shachmon forthcoming on Yemeni Judeo-Arabic). Many Jews outside of Israel consume some of this music. And some also perform, such as Enrico Macias, an Algerian-born performer who became famous in France in the 1960s, and, more recently, Asher Shasho Levy in Los Angeles, who raises awareness about diverse musical and liturgical traditions (Cyril Aslanov, p.c.; https://www.jewishlanguages.org/passover).
A few organizations focus on Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, celebrating and educating about the past and present of these communities. However, in contrast to Yiddish and Ladino organizations, they only occasionally feature Judeo-Arabic loanwords. Rare examples include Diarna, an organization whose name is Judeo-Arabic for “our home” (https://diarna.org/), and JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), which uses words for various Middle Eastern and North African foods in some of their programs (https://www.jimena.org/).
Bukharian / Judeo-Tajik
Bukharian, also known as Judeo-Tajik or Bukhori, is a language in the Persian family originally spoken by the Jewish communities of Central Asia, especially the areas that are now Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Of the longstanding Jewish languages, Bukharian is now spoken by the second largest numbers in the middle-aged generation, following Yiddish. An article from 2018 estimates that there are 220,000 Bukharian Jews in the world, mostly in Israel and the U.S. Of the community members over age 40, the author suggests that about 70% understand the language and 40% can speak it (Tolmas 2018). Several cultural products cater to those who speak Bukharian. Publications in Hebrew, Russian, and English include 1-page Bukharian inserts (E.g., http://bukhariantimes.org/). Israeli radio hosts a daily half-hour show in the language. And there are theatrical, comedic, and musical performances in Israel, the US, and Austria (Tolmas 2018; Ruben Shimonov, personal communication, 9/21).
Among descendants of Bukharian speakers who no longer speak the language, there is some post-vernacular engagement. In the Bukharian Jewish community in New York, centered in Rego Park and Forest Hills, Queens, a musical ensemble called Shashmaqam attracts audiences with traditional Bukharian song, instruments, clothing, and dance (E.g., wedding songs/dances at https://youtu.be/FKkJ_tciClc). Some families sing Bukharian songs at their Passover seders (E.g., Who Knows One: https://youtu.be/2Nt2UHsLS6M). And various organizations geared toward college students and young professionals incorporate Bukharian words in their group program names, such as the MEROS (heritage) Center for Bukharian Jewish Research and Identity at Queens College Hillel, which hosts a monthly Bukharian cultural event called “Choikhona” (teahouse) (Pinhasov-Malaev 2018). And lecturers like Robert Nudel Iskhakov, Manashe Khaimov, Imanuel Rybakov, Ruben Shimonov, and Chana Tolmas share information about Bukharian Jews, including their language, with broad Jewish audiences (E.g., Khaimov 2019; Benor and Shimonov 2021. Shimonov, p.c.).
Juhuri / Judeo-Tat
Juhuri or Judeo-Tat, also in the Persian language family, is spoken by the community known as the Mountain Jews in what is now Azerbaijan and the Dagestan region of Russia. Over the past century, Juhuri has slowly been replaced by Russian and other languages. However, as of 2000, it was still the primary spoken language in one Jewish town, Qırmızı Qəsəbə, Azerbaijan (Clifton et al. 2005). Outside of this town, in immigrant communities in Israel, Russia, and elsewhere, the language is spoken mostly by elderly Jews. But there is some postvernacular activity, including music (E.g., Yossi Ben-Yochai: https://youtu.be/0DFKwGl-B2s) and theater (E.g., “Şüvər sə zəni” (Husband of Three Wives), staged by the Mountain Jewish Musical Theater in Israel, recorded by Sholumi, the Center for the Preservation and Development of National Traditions, Language Identity, Cultural and Historical Heritage of Mountain: https://youtu.be/orAupcpmofE). The Russia-based Academy of the Juhuri Language compiles audiovisual resources about the language and culture in Juhuri and Russian (https://www.facebook.com/akademiajuhuri/about/?ref=page_internal; https://stmegi.com/library/). Despite some stigma and lack of support by Israeli language policy, nostalgia for the language remains important to contemporary Mountain Jewish identity (Bram 2008; Shalem n.d.).
While most longstanding Judeo-Italian dialects are no longer spoken, some elderly Jews still speak the Judeo-Roman dialect. Younger Jews in Rome today use some words and phrases in their mostly standard Italian, and Judeo-Roman theatrical productions are staged there (Rubin n.d. E.g., “O fijo de nisciuno, Commedia Giudaico Romanesca”: https://youtu.be/AeDzpCG854k).
Similarly, Jews in Greece have assimilated to contemporary Greek language norms (even if their language was previously intelligible to Greek speakers), and they have mostly replaced the traditional Romaniote Hebrew/Aramaic loanwords with ones from Modern Hebrew. Greek-origin Jews in America have expressed interest in learning about this historical language variety. Some descendants of Greek Jews (and others) in Israel have adopted a “Greek” identity by listening to and discussing Greek popular music and, sometimes, by learning Greek and using elements of it in their Hebrew (Krivoruchko 2011).
The language of Jews in Kerela, India, Jewish Malayalam, is endangered, but some younger Jews of Indian descent, mostly in Israel, engage in post-vernacular activity, especially singalongs and a performance troupe that sings women’s wedding songs in Jewish Malayalam (Gamliel 2018. E.g., “Dahan Center - Cochin Jews: Identity and Heritage - Women's Choir.” https://youtu.be/h8qLOS7Phac).
The many dialects of Jewish Neo-Aramaic in the Kurdish region (known by many names, e.g., Lišan Hozaye in Zakho, Iraq, and Hulaula in Western Iran, both of which mean “Jewish”) are still spoken by some elderly Jews, mostly in Israel. There are radio call-in shows in the Sanandaj dialects and plays in the Urmi dialect of Iran, and there are monthly cultural gatherings with poetry readings and stand-up comedy in the Lišana Deni dialects of Iraq. These cultural activities are diminishing as speakers age (Khan 2018), but the 2020s have seen some additional cultural activity, including new music recording and a new language revitalization organization in Israel, the Lishana Institute. While there is little interest in Jewish Neo-Aramaic among the younger generations, much work has been done to document the language (E.g., https://nena.ames.cam.ac.uk/, https://www.lashon.org/en/kurdistan).
Aside from the languages discussed above, other longstanding Jewish languages inspire little engagement beyond academic research. Publications on Jewish languages include information on Jewish varieties of Berber, Catalan, French, Georgian, Iranian, Karaim, Krymchak, Persian, Portuguese, Provençal, Slavic, Syriac, and Turkish, mostly from earlier eras (Kahn and Rubin 2016; Baum 2014; Shapira n.d.). Judeo-Provençal did inspire some post-vernacular activity in the late 19th century: the republication of Harcanot et Barcanot, a Judeo-Provençal play from 1825 that takes place in the late 18th century. Although the language was mostly obsolete by then, readers would have recognized some phrases from their grandparents’ speech (Nahon 2021).
Jewish Iranian languages such as Judeo-Shirazi (Persian family), Judeo-Yazdi (Median), and Judeo-Kashani (Median) are endangered because most Jews in Iran shifted to standard Persian (with Hebrew loanwords) in the 20th century (Borjian 2014). There may have been a transitional variety of Persian among Jews in Iran that incorporated elements of the longstanding regional Iranian Jewish languages (Alan Niku, personal communication, 8/20). But because of the stigma surrounding the regional languages and the prestige of standard Persian (Farsi), most Iranian Jews in Iran, the United States, Israel, and elsewhere do not engage in nostalgia or post-vernacular activity surrounding these languages, and documentation efforts find little communal support (Borjian 2014; personal communication, Endangered Language Alliance, 4/20).
Recent publications have also analyzed languages that Jewish immigrants have brought to Israel in the past few decades, especially Jewish varieties of Amharic, French, and Russian (Teferra 2018; Ben-Rafael and Ben-Rafael 2018; Perelmutter 2018). Because Ethiopian, French, and Russian waves of aliyah occurred primarily in the 1990s or later, when Israeli Hebrew was well established, Israeli language policy has allowed more opportunities for language maintenance among these groups than among earlier waves. Even so, the children of these immigrants have learned Israeli Hebrew, and it is unlikely that their descendants will maintain their ancestral languages.
Academia and Beyond
Scholarship on Jewish languages is not confined to the ivory tower. Some academic conferences and publications, such as those about Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic, attract broader audiences and sometimes engage musicians and language activists (See research institutes, academic societies, academic journals, and the bibliography at https://www.jewishlanguages.org/resources). In addition, several organizations geared toward endangered languages have Jewish language initiatives. In Israel, Mother Tongue / Lashon records many immigrant Jewish languages (https://www.lashon.org/en). In New York, the Endangered Language Alliance has focused on Ladino, Juhuri, Bukharian, and Iranian Jewish languages (https://www.elalliance.org/projects/jewish-languages). Wikitongues and The Living Tongues Institute have a joint initiative to document all endangered Jewish languages (https://wikitongues.org/projects/jewish-languages/; https://livingtongues.org/jewish-languages/). The HUC-JIR Jewish Language Project, which I run, promotes research on and awareness about Jewish languages, past and present (https://www.jewishlanguages.org/jewish-language-project). Finally, several academic institutions in various parts of the world offer classes in some of these languages, especially Yiddish, but also a few in Ladino and Judeo-Arabic. In 2021, Oxford University started offering free online courses on twelve languages in their Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages (https://www.ochjs.ac.uk/language-classes/oxford-school-of-rare-jewish-languages/).
With the exceptions of Hasidic and immigrant communities, Jews around the world speak variants of their local languages, maintaining connections to and fragments of other languages spoken by their recent ancestors, especially Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic. Because Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia mostly immigrated to Israel, activities surrounding languages like Judeo-Arabic, Jewish Neo-Aramaic, and Jewish Malayalam are centered there. Jewish communities in Italy and Azerbaijan/Dagestan maintain elements of their ancestral languages even as they have shifted to the local languages.
Language is just one of many cultural dimensions that contemporary Jews use to identify themselves and others not only as Jews but as specific types of Jews with particular ethnic, religious, and political orientations. We see similar trends in other cultural domains, such as food, music, and visual art. While Jews tend to adopt local cultural practices, they enrich them with multiple sources of influence: the textual tradition (manifesting in prayer, kashrut, and holiday observance), Israeli practices (e.g., food, music, and film/TV), and various immigrant traditions (e.g., foods like kugel and borekas and music like klezmer and shashmaqam). By exploring language and other cultural practices, we gain a better understanding of contemporary Jews’ identities and orientations.
To cite this article: Benor, Sarah Bunin. 2021. "Contemporary Jews' engagement with Jewish languages." Jewish Language Website. https://www.jewishlanguages.org/stats.