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Jewish Social Studies 11.1 (2004) 147-170

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Talmid Chachams and Tsedeykeses:

Language, Learnedness, and Masculinity Among Orthodox Jews

hen I asked a group of boys in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish elementary school "What's the difference between boys' and girls' education?" one boy answered: "Boys need to learn how to be...the talmid chachams [masters of Jewish texts]; girls should learn how to be tsedeykeses [righteous women]." This nine-year-old's response expresses an ideology1 common in Orthodox communities: men are expected to be advanced scholars of Jewish law, and women are expected to be righteous. Both men and women must know and observe the laws, but men must also spend time each day studying the reasoning behind them. This gender expectation pervades many areas of Orthodox life, from leisure activities to educational policy to language use. In this article, I discuss how Orthodox boys and men construct their masculinity partly through linguistic performances of religious learnedness. Using methods from linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics, I show how young men use two linguistic features about twice as frequently as young women: loanwords from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish;2 and word-final /t/ release (for example, righT, [End Page 147] not righ'). The quantitative and qualitative differences in language use help many males to convey the persona of the talmid chacham, the wise and learned student of Jewish law.

Previous literature on Orthodox Jews has pointed out the greater importance of traditional scholarship among men than women.3 Scholars have also highlighted gender differences in language choice, such as men's preference for Yiddish over English or Modern Hebrew,4 and one paper briefly mentions a gender difference in a phonological feature.5 The current study is the first to connect language, gender, and learnedness among Orthodox Jews.

This analysis is based on several months of research in an Orthodox primary school in California, including observations, interviews, and recordings of classroom and social speech. The small school is run by the Chabad Lubavitch branch of Hasidism, which dispatches rabbis and their families to cities around the world to provide the infrastructure and incentives for Jews to become Orthodox. The principal is also the rabbi in charge of the local Chabad community, and most of the Jewish Studies teachers are emissaries who grew up in larger Chabad communities. The students in the elementary school are all being raised Orthodox. Some of their parents are native members of Chabad or other Orthodox movements, and others are baalei teshuvah, Jews who chose Orthodoxy. A number of the fathers are rabbis working in the area as teachers, mashgihim (officials who ensure Jewish dietary standards), or pulpit rabbis. Boys and girls have separate classes starting in first grade, and around age 13 most of the children go away to study in Chabad yeshivahs (religious secondary schools) in other cities, especially New York, Montreal, and Paris.6

To place this community on the Orthodox landscape, the outreach- oriented group called Chabad is just one sect of Hasidism, and the mystical, leader-oriented Hasidim make up only part of the Orthodox world. Non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews are often referred to as Litvish, pointing to the Lithuanian origin of the movement opposing Hasidism, or as Yeshivish, highlighting the centrality of institutionalized Talmud study. As Samuel Heilman has explained, the Hasidic and Litvish communities have come to resemble each other on many levels in recent decades.7 Based on my dissertation research in a non-Hasidic Orthodox community in Philadelphia,8 as well as visits to Orthodox communities elsewhere, I can state that the linguistic resources and social categories presented in this article are used quite similarly by other (non-modern) Orthodox Jews.

In contrast, many modern Orthodox Jews do not adhere to the same gender norms and exhibit quite different patterns of language [End Page 148] use.9 Women's study, even of Talmud and other rabbinic texts, is more accepted among modern Orthodox Jews. An example of the difference between modern and non-modern Orthodox values can be seen in reactions...


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