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2010-2011 Critical Terms in Jewish Language Studies

Jews are famously considered to have always been multilingual, inhabiting interlinguistic communities, reading and writing in several languages, translating into and out of various languages, idioms, and vernaculars. In this manner, the varied linguistic forms of Jewish communities register histories of collective belonging and displacement. This year’s Frankel Institute theme will consider the myths, fantasies, and anxieties of linguistic multiplicity in the history, culture, folkways, and politics of global Jewry. Jewish lingualisms may offer models for more precise conceptualizations of what we mean by multiculturalism, as residues of social interaction grounded in the lived experiences of Jews of divergent times and locations. Methodologically, this theme calls for approaches that complement even as they move beyond those of influence, cultural borrowings, and acculturation to include even paradoxical perspectives on the material conditions under which Jews have lived, imagined, and created.
The question of language, as affect and effect, is as old as Israelite and Jewish civilization itself. Certainly Aramaic and Hebrew, the languages of the Ancient Near East, Hellenic Judaism and the translations of the Bible first announced by the Septuagint are central to this consideration. So, too, are the multilingual milieus of the Talmuds and their later commentators. However, Jewish polyglotism includes not only distinct languages used for divergent purposes and locations, but also the historical emergence of hybrid idioms as diasporic modes of collective expression. The mixed languages of Ashkenazim and Mizrahim in modern periods have included not only the well-known cases of Yiddish and Ladino, but also Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Persian and many other merged cultures and languages. Productive dissonance between “the Holy Tongue” and “la’az”—the many languages of the “strange peoples” among whom Jews have dwelt—has produced liturgical, cultural, and historical debates that illuminate hybrid diasporic and national Jewish cultures of the present day and the past..
Literary renderings of Jewish experience have drawn upon verbal strangeness and recombinant vernaculars to highlight speech situations as various and contradictory as alienation and assimilation, patriarchy and feminist critique, popular consumerism and revolutionary utopias. Since conflicts over language are generally understood to be symbolic contests over power, authority, and belief, scholars in fields as diverse as sociolinguistics, literary and film criticism, biblical archeology, anthropology, and history have considered how changing speech forms index social and ideological conflicts. Similarly, longstanding and recent cultural theorists’ engagements with the possibilities and limits of translation have moved thinkers of Jewish culture and politics to consider familiar Jewish problematics in unexpected places. Moreover, recent engagements with globalization, transnational capital and institutions, new media and digital cultures, immigration and refugeeism, and national language politics have infused language studies with great urgency.
The theme of Jewish languages brings together scholars from a variety of disciplines to consider overlapping questions. What, in the 21st century, is a Jewish language? What isn’t? What has it ever been? When do such distinctions signify substantive boundaries, and how might they matter? What forms of complex affinities and dissonances exist among mixed Jewish languages of diverse times and locations? What has fueled debates about the relative privileging of certain languages and the stigmatization of others among and by Jews? What are the implications of linguistic conservation, revival, and extinction for global Jewry? What are the politics and aesthetics of translation and typography in Jewish cultures?
The rubric of Jewish languages and their cultures invites scholars and artists to consider how the questions and implications of distinctively Jewish tongues motivate collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to narrative and literary form, biblical and Talmudic studies, gender and sexuality studies, history, and visual culture.

The 2010-11 Institute Annual is available online, and features essays by all of the fellows highlighting their research on "Critical Terms in Jewish Language Studies".


David Aaron
Hebrew Union College
"Language, Holiness, and Identity: The Concept of l'shon haqodesh from the Late Biblical Era through the Closing of Talmudic Era Literatures"

Karen Auerbach
University of Southampton, England
"Jewish Publishers of Polish Literature: Integration, Language Choice, and Cultural Identifications (1850-1939)"

Monique Balbuena
University of Oregon
"The New Faces of Ladino in Latin America Today: Language Revival and National Identity"

David Bunis
Hebrew University
"Expressions of Emotion in Jewish Languages"

Marc Caplan
Johns Hopkins University
"The Weight of an Epoch: Yiddish Literature and German Culture in the Interwar Era"

Elliot Ginsburg
University of Michigan
"Ve-yesh sod la-davar (The Word's the Thing): A Thick Description of Jewish Mystical Prayer Practices"

Benjamin Hary
Emory University
"The History of Judeo-Arabic"

Richard Kalmin
Jewish Theological Seminary
"Aramaic Targumim in Jewish and Christian Mesopotamia"

Joshua Miller
University of Michigan
"Jewish Languages"

Anita Norich
University of Michigan
"Jewish Languages"

Avraham Novershtern
Hebrew University
"The Image of Yiddish in American Yiddish Discourse"

Rokem Na'ama
University of Chicago
"The Divided Horizon: German-Hebrew Bilingualism in the 20th Century"

Dan Shapira
Bar Ilan University
"Turkic-Karaite Biblical Translations"

Ruth Tsoffar
University of Michigan
"Cannibal Ideology: Sexuality, Ethnicity, and Colonialism in Hebrew Cultures"

Tsur Yaron
Tel Aviv University
"Language, Colonialism, and Nationalism - The Case of North African Jewry"

Kalman "Kal" Weiser
York University
"From Yidishe visnshaft to Yiddish Studies: Max Weinreich in America"

Hana Wirth-Nesher
Tel Aviv University
"Multilingual Jewish Writing: Hebrew-English Cross Scripts"