I’m 10, and growing up in the suburbs. I go to temple, not synagogue, and definitely not shul. I wear a yarmulke (rarely), not a kipa. We don’t “daven” — we pray, or worship. My dad calls me a vahntz (lit., Yiddish for cockroach, but meaning “rascal” [I hope]). He teaches me a Yiddish phrase meaning “It helps like giving medicine to a corpse.”
After college, I become more observant. I start attending a havura, not for “services,” but for Shaharit or Minha. I don’t reach for a prayer book, but a siddur. Studying Humash (never “the Bible”) I learn the phrase “kol v’homer,” meaning “all the more so,” as in, “If watching thirtysomething is forbidden on Shabbat, kol v’homer it is forbidden on Yom Kippur.”
I’m married, with little kids, and living in Israel. Even when speaking English, we refer to something terrific as yofi and an unmanageable mess as a balagan. Davka fills a huge hole in our vocabulary, meaning an action that precisely underlines the irony. (“I have to get a flu shot and davka the clinic goes on strike.”) The kids call us Abba and Ima (rhymes with Lima).
I move to New Jersey, to a neighborhood popular with Orthodox Jews. A “drash” is not only the rabbi’s sermon, but a word meaning any good explanation. (“You’ve heard Mark’s drash on the health-care bill?”) When someone tells you to talk tachlis, it means he wants details. My American-born neighbors speak what I’ve come to call the Jewish future present tense, as in “You’re here for Pesach?” On the Little League team, the infielders are named Matan, Yoni, Ezra, and Noam.
And that is my Jewish biography in language. For years I’ve thought a good linguist or sociologist could tell everything there is to know about me by studying my Jewish vocabulary. It turns out, I’m almost right. Hebrew Union College has just released a survey of “American Jewish Language and Identity.” Sarah Bunin Benor, an assistant professor of contemporary Jewish studies, and Steven M. Cohen, the go-to Jewish demographer, did an e-mail survey. Their 25,000-strong sample of Jews isn’t random, but rather a revealing snapshot of the speech patterns of “Jews with strong Jewish engagement and social ties.”
The results are a little like a Malcolm Gladwell book — somewhat obvious when you think about it but still really interesting. Older Jews are more likely to sprinkle their language with Yiddish phrases like heimish, macher, and nu (homey, big shot, and, well, nu). Younger Jews, especially those with stronger Jewish ties, have brought more Hebrew into the Jewish-English vocabulary, with words like yofi, balagan, and davka. And when you dig down into the younger religious population, Yiddish stages a comeback.
The study also suggests how Jewish and gay come together: Non-Jewish gay men and women are more likely to use Yiddish words like “kvetch” and “shpiel” than non-Jewish heterosexuals. Both Jewish and gay are seen as “proud minority statuses,” Steve Cohen told me. “The linguistic issue reflects and reinforces the social construction of identity.”
But just as a gay man uses a little Yiddish to reinforce his otherness, a traditional Jew may drop in a Yiddish phrase to mark a boundary. “Language use not only differentiates Jews from non-Jews; it also differentiates Jews from other Jews,” the authors write.
The survey results, then, can be seen as another sign of the continental drift within the Jewish community, and our separation into groups and sub-groups. Diversity is good, I suppose. But I also hear in how we speak the ways in which we no longer speak — that is, to each other.
I’m in this weird place, personally and professionally, where I slip in and out of different Jewish identities. With old friends and family and non-Jews, my Jewish vocabulary is no richer than “klutz” and “chutzpa.” In my synagogue, stocked with Jewish professionals and frequent travelers to Israel, I can get away with a phrase of untranslated Hebrew. And I can decipher my town’s Orthodox synagogue listserv without an English-Yeshivish glossary.
The HUC study suggests that a core of engaged Jews, like me, is using more Hebrew and Yiddish words than a previous generation. But in that previous generation, I’m willing to bet, more Jews shared a common vocabulary and a common set of references.
I love my Jewish journey, and every new word I use is a souvenir of where I’ve been and gone. But I’m also a kvetch, and in some ways I regret what we’ve lost, davka, along the way.