- On Jewish Languages, Names, and Distinctiveness
When Gerson Cohen sat down to prepare his 1966 Hebrew Teachers College commencement address,1 he was faced with a decision: in which language should he deliver the speech? Hebrew would have been an appropriate choice, given the Hebraist orientation of Hebrew Teachers College. English would also have been appropriate, given that it was the primary language of Cohen and most of his audience members (and perhaps the only language of some of the graduates’ guests). Cohen decided on a compromise: he began his remarks in Hebrew (unfortunately the transcript begins after these opening words, so we do not know what he said), and then he gave the bulk of his speech in English. But his English was not simply English; it incorporated a number of Hebrew words, such as “Torah,” “shekel,” and “alef”; hybrid Hebrew-English words like “mishnaic” and “geonic”; and several phrases quoted from rabbinic literature and Ah.ad Ha’am, uttered in Hebrew and then English translation (for example, “shelo shinu et malbushehem, they even retained their distinctive form of clothing”).
Cohen’s choice of language was not just practical; it also reinforced the message of his speech: that the graduates should look positively at “the age-old problem of assimilation,” including Jews’ adoption of local names and language. He implied that the newly minted teachers and scholars should address their less Jewishly educated American Jewish communities in English rather than Hebrew: “As young men and women trained to read and understand classical Jewish sources in their original languages, you will also contribute to the unending chain of Hebrew literary creativity and to the revitalization of Hebrew thought and expression. [End Page 440] I hope that you will do so in popular as well as in professional terms, so that the best of your thought and research is made available to all levels of the community.” By delivering his address mostly in English, he demonstrated that a scholar can discuss traditional Jewish sources in an erudite way in a language other than Hebrew. And by incorporating elements of Hebrew into his English, Cohen modeled for the graduates of Hebrew Teachers College the appropriate use of “Jewish English,” which they might proceed to use with their students.
In this essay I argue that the existence of Jewish English and other diaspora Jewish languages offers evidence for Cohen’s analysis of “assimilation”2 as an important factor in Jews’ historical vitality. I also argue that the distinctiveness of Jewish English—the incorporation of Hebrew words and other distinctive features—calls for a tweak to Cohen’s message: Jews have survived not only because they have assimilated to local cultural norms but also because they have distinguished themselves. Indeed, in the decades since Cohen’s speech, both the names and the Jewish English of religiously engaged American Jews have become increasingly distinct, incorporating more and more influences from Hebrew and Yiddish—a development I view as evidence of American Jewish vitality.
Near the beginning of his address, Cohen cites Bar Kappara’s sermon: “Owing to four factors were the people of Israel redeemed from the land of Egypt: they did not alter their names (i.e., Egyptianize them); they did not change their language; they did not spread malicious gossip; and they were free of sexual license.” It makes sense that a rabbinic sermon would focus on issues of morality, such as sexual behavior and gossip. But why are language and names important enough to mention? Bar Kappara composed these words because of his anxiety about the Jews around him assimilating culturally rather than maintaining distinctively Jewish language and names. Cohen counters this stance, saying, “To a considerable degree, the Jews survived as a vital group and as a pulsating culture because they changed their names, their language, their clothing, and their patterns of thought and expression.”
However, even naming conventions reveal this dynamic of distinction folded into assimilation. Yes, Menachem went by Paregoros in the Greek [End Page 441] milieu, but he used his Hebrew name in Hebrew documents (as Cohen points out). In Eastern Europe, Tzipoyre-Feygl and Tzvi-Hirsh combined European and Hebrew names...