Are Jewish languages having a moment?
If the sold-out crowd attending Prof. David Bunis‘ lecture on “Ladino / Judezmo as a Jewish Language” last Wednesday night is any measure, the answer is a resounding yes.
Bunis gave the enthusiastic crowd a micro-history of the language alternately known as Judezmo, Ladino, Judeo-Espanyol, Franco, Espanyol, Judeo-Spanish, and several other monikers (a full list is available here). With a deft combination of linguistic theory and material evidence, Bunis portrayed the story of Judezmo as it has unfolded over the last several hundred years. I was struck by the extent to which Judezmo has functioned both practically and symbolically in the textual and religious practices of the global Jewish communities where it traditionally thrived.
Language is always intricately connected to identity, as demonstrated by Sarah Bunin Benor’s new ethnographic study, Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism. (More evidence that Jewish languages are having a moment–her book was just nominated for the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature!) A Hebrew Union College professor and creator of the Jewish English lexicon, Benor provides an analysis of ba’alei teshuva (less observant Jews who return to Orthodox religious practice) that offers an accessible look “at the linguistic and cultural process of ‘becoming.'” Her compelling research shows that what we say, and how we say it, helps to define who we are and where we fit in our community.
Judezmo is a case in point of this phenomenon. Bunis repeatedly emphasized the language’s function as a marker of affiliation with the Jewish community–notably, from internal and external perspectives. Speakers of Judezmo perceived it as a Jewish language and called it djudezmo or djudyó (‘Jewish’). At the same time, non-Jewish neighbors who had continuous contact with Jewish communities, such as the Ottoman Turks, also called it “the Jewish language.” (It should be noted, by the way, that Bunis primarily uses the word Judezmo to designate Judeo-Spanish because many scholars from the Sephardic world have referred to it as djudezmo since the field coalesced in the early 20th century, reflecting the popular use of the term in the community itself since at least 1824.)