Project Director: Ross Perlin, ELA Assistant Director (Yiddish, lesser-known Jewish languages)
Team: Dr. Habib Borjian (Persian Jewish languages), Prof. Daniel Kaufman, ELA Executive Director (Hebrew, general linguistics)
Jewish languages are spoken exclusively or predominantly by Jewish populations. Though usually related to non-Jewish languages, they remain distinct and rooted in Jewish life. Since the ancient disappearance of Hebrew as a vernacular language and the beginning of the diaspora, Jews have spoken several dozen distinct languages wherever they have lived—from southern India to Uzbekistan, from Yemen to Morocco, from Portugal to the Caucasus. Hebrew and Aramaic persisted as holy languages largely reserved for prayer and study, and in daily life multilingualism became the norm.
Jewish languages exhibit tremendous variety and belong to a number of different language families (Semitic, Indo-European, Turkic, Dravidian), encoding the history of multiple diasporas across millennia. At the same time, the languages show striking similarities in their structure, in their use of Hebrew and Aramaic elements, their ways of signifying Jewish identity, and their preservation of older elements that related non-Jewish languages may have lost. Much more than mere “jargons”, they are distinctive languages that have served as an essential and distinctive aspect of Jewish life and culture for centuries.
Today, with few exceptions, the remaining longstanding Jewish languages are severely endangered, whether destroyed by the Holocaust, persecuted in the Soviet Union, or lost in the thinning of the diaspora and the push towards assimilation. With the exception of Yiddish and Ladino, they remain little documented by scholars and virtually unknown in the wider Jewish community. Individuals and communities seeking to record and maintain their languages, in whatever form, have often had to do so alone. More information is available at the Jewish Language Research Website.
Due to recent successive waves of Jewish migration, the New York metropolitan area is now a major center of this endangered Jewish linguistic diversity. A conservative 2012 census found that 85,000 New Yorkers speak Yiddish at home, but the number rises into the hundreds of thousands in the greater metropolitan area. Ladino, with a traditional speaker base on the Lower East Side and sections of Brooklyn and the Bronx, is still spoken and understood by some. Tens of thousands of Bukhori speakers live in Queens and several thousand Juhuri speakers in Brooklyn, not far from the Syrian Jewish community where some still speak Judeo-Arabic. Speakers of the Judeo-Median languages of Iran live in the Long Island suburbs, including Great Neck and Roslyn.
The Jewish Languages Project has started by focusing on documenting the Jewish languages still spoken in New York—Yiddish, Hasidic Yiddish (emergent but little-studied), Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Median (Iran), Bukhori, Juhuri—and collecting information on other past and present Jewish languages, such as Judeo-Greek and Judeo-Aramaic, whenever possible. ELA is recording songs, stories, life histories, and conversations for the benefit of scholars, a broader public, and the communities themselves—bringing Jewish cultural diversity to new audiences and helping to preserve it for generations to come.