| Text Messages |

Speech Therapy

If we’re going to find fault with the way frum people speak, I think the issue is more attitudinal rather than linguistic


Writing in a secular Jewish publication about the way frum people speak guarantees lots of curious readers, but it has its risks, too. That much is evident from a recent article at Tablet making a wrongheaded, albeit well-intentioned, argument that “for the sake of Jewry, the Orthodox should give up their private dialect.”

The reference is to “Yeshivish,” which academic socio-linguists describe as “an Aramaic/Yiddish/Hebrew-infused dialect of English used by many Orthodox Americans” (although a certain renowned Toronto-based musico-linguist simply calls it “ah gevaldige zach”).

Over the years, I’ve read a number of articles in the general Jewish media that try to portray how frum Jews speak. They invariably fail, and this latest attempt is, unfortunately, no exception. Reading such pieces, I take no delight in noting that these pieces are off the mark.

The Tablet article, for example, opens with the author sharing his experience at a two-week seminar at Yale with around 35 Modern Orthodox peers, when he was not yet religious. He writes how happy he was

to meet serious Orthodox people my age….But we had a language problem. These kids from Teaneck, Long Island, and Boston…spoke (a mild form of)…Yeshivish....When speaking with me, my new friends were okay — but not great — at using only standard English. And to their credit, they graciously answered questions like, “Dovid, what does al achas kamah v’kamah mean?” … or “Can just anyone bavorn?”

Who am I to argue with someone’s personal experience? But finding kids from Teaneck, Long Island, and Boston using expressions like “al achas kamah v’kamah” is about as likely as finding an Episcopalian doing so. As for “bavorn,” isn’t the answer obvious? Of course anyone can bavorn — if properly licensed. But only Evangelicals can bavorn again.

By and by, the writer takes up the infamous frum “by.” He helpfully explains that it’s “an import from Yiddish… that replaces numerous prepositions in standard English,” and he really ought to have left it at that, but instead, he goes on to illustrate: “‘I heard by the shmorg that the kallah got her sheitel by Shevy’s. Shpitz!’ — or, as we might say, ‘I heard over hors d’oeuvres that the bride bought her wig at Eliza’s. Very ritzy!’” It’s hard to say which of those two is more out-of-touch with the world as we know it.

Then follows this: “Here is a defense of Donald Trump’s sanity: ‘M’heicha teisi are you noyteh to say that Trump has a dybbuk? He’s a groyse friend of Klal Yisrael, and his mechutanim are frum!’ (‘Why are you inclined to say that Trump is a lunatic? He’s a great friend of the Jews and his in-laws are observant.’)”

I don’t recommend he try that out in Willy; if he does, the people he’s talking to will begin whispering to each other, “Shveig, s’iz ah politzei.”

The lesson here is that ethnography should be left to the pros, that is, informed insiders or at least outsiders who once were insiders. The writer seeks to make a case, as one Ortho to another, for abandoning yeshivishe reyd, yeshivishe shprach — or at least that it ought not to be the talk of the town tog u’nacht. But to have any hope of success of convincing his readers, he needs to show them he gets it. Instead, he’s done the opposite.

What is it that concerns the writer about the use of Yeshivish? He writes that there’s only a very short list of

Orthodox personages nowadays whose speeches and essays about Judaism can be understood by anyone with a good command of standard English….Orthodox Judaism — which I believe in, practice, and love, and which I think every Jew has an obligation to believe in, practice, and love — has cordoned itself off from 5 million American Jews. And the most potent instrument of this auto-segregation is Yeshivish, the language in which so much Orthodox life is conducted….

Yeshivish doesn’t trouble me for ideological reasons…. Nor do I think Orthodox Jews should be like other Americans — Jewish difference is Jewish strength…. No, I’m against Yeshivish because it hinders an urgent task of Orthodox Jews in this country: restoring to the Lord’s covenant our rapidly assimilating brethren…. Orthodox Jews have the material resources, the institutional know-how, and above all the love of God and of Torah needed for such a mission…. Anywhere a non-Orthodox Jew might be listening in — an office, a college dining hall, and many more synagogues than you’d think — is a place where a small change in language can invite someone toward Judaism instead of repelling her from it….

His concern about removing impediments to exploring Yiddishkeit is admirable, but as it relates to Yeshivish, somewhat misplaced. Anyone entering a Jewish bookstore nowadays is met by a plethora of books, CDs, and videos in (relatively) impeccable English that are fully accessible to any searching Jew. The same is true online, where entire websites featuring a huge number of outreach-geared lectures and essays by Orthodox personages are there for the asking.

The writer observes that the “unsung exemplars in Yeshivish World…[are] those who do professional kiruv…. Those working for Aish, Chabad, Meor, and the like have to be Jewishly fluent in English or they can’t do their jobs.” Yet there are certainly examples of mekarvim, professional or otherwise, who have drawn many Jews close to Torah the old-fashioned way, through shining personal example, authenticity and intellectual honesty and abundant love of fellow Jews, despite possessing subpar English-language linguistic skills and being accomplished speakers of Yeshivish.

It would be interesting to learn what the experience of those bnei yeshivah who come straight from the beis medrash to staff summertime SEED programs has been like in this regard. By the same token, I highly doubt that the vast majority of frum Jews working in the world at large, or who otherwise have occasion to interact with their nonreligious brethren, use much off-putting yeshivish lingo in their workplace conversations.

Now, there are aspects of this topic that indeed ought to be addressed. Those giving drashos and shiurim in shuls, for example, should be cognizant of who’s listening and make sure to translate adequately for those who need it, whether current baalei teshuvah or potential ones, geirim or anyone else for whom missing the meaning of just a few words or phrases can render the whole thing unintelligible. It might be worthwhile, too, if more books (some already do) and other publications were to offer glossaries alongside articles that might hold a particular interest for newly-frum or non-observant readers.

If we’re going to find fault with the way frum people speak, I think the issue is more attitudinal rather than linguistic. There is indeed a problem — sometimes even in the kiruv world — with non-observant Jews being turned off by hearing the way their coreligionists speak condescendingly or worse about non-Jews and racial minorities. Derisive talk about pet owners and similarly insensitive references are another big turnoff. These are things they shouldn’t be doing even apart from the chilling effect it has on kiruv opportunities.

The questions of whether, as the writer puts it, “Orthodox Judaism has cordoned itself off from five million American Jews,” and if so, what should be done about it, are important ones meriting serious discussion. But his notion that “the most potent instrument of this auto-segregation is Yeshivish” is — how shall I say? — downright modneh. —

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 853. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

Oops! We could not locate your form.