There are other Jewish languages, as well. Most are unique combinations of local vernaculars with Hebrew and other languages that Jews picked up as they wandered through history. There is Judeo-Turkish, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, and at one point there was even a fledgling Judeo-English.
But listen. Scanning through the years on the Jewish Channel, you’ll notice that we hear one language more often than any other — and it’s one that we haven’t even mentioned yet. Listen carefully, and you’ll notice that the most widely spoken language of Jews over the centuries is Arabic.
Arabic! Jump to the present-day and you’ll find that very few Jews speak Arabic. But for many centuries, millions of Jews spoke Arabic every day. And not just a few words of it, mind you. More often than not, Arabic was their first language. Until recently, millions of Jews lived in Middle Eastern countries — Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco and others. Many of them knew some Hebrew, but their daily conversations were in Arabic. For more than a thousand years, Jews thrived in these lands — they had Arabic names, they had Arab friends, and they often rose to high positions in Arab governments. Sometimes they spoke Judeo-Arabic, but just as often, they spoke the very same Arabic as their non-Jewish neighbors.
After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, life became difficult for Jews in these countries, and most of them moved to Israel. There, children were taught to speak Hebrew, and Jewish knowledge of Arabic soon faded.
Still, there is something idyllic that we hear when we listen to the Jewish past. In contrast to the violence and hatred that so often and so tragically characterize Jewish-Arab relations today, in the past we hear Jews and Arabs speaking, laughing and bickering just the way friends should. If only we could recapture those moments — those shared words of friendship — today.
Our greatest visions of the future can often be what we see in the past. And when it comes to visions of future peace between Jews and Arabs, sometimes what we hear in the past can be pretty good, too.
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville.
The Arabic spoken by Jewish communities in the Arab world differed slightly from the Arabic of their Arab neighbours. These differences were partly due to the incorporation of some words from Hebrew and other languages and partly geographical, in a way that may reflect a history of migration. For example, the Judeo-Arabic of Egypt, including in the Cairo community, resembled the dialect of Alexandria rather than that of Cairo (Blau). Similarly the Jewish Iraqi Arabic of Baghdad was found reminiscent of the dialect of Mosul. Many Jews in Arab countries were bilingual in Judeo-Arabic and the dialect of the Arab majority.Like other Jewish languages and dialects, Judeo-Arabic languages contain borrowings from Hebrew and Aramaic.
In the years following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, most Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews in Arab countries became Jewish refugees, fleeing mainly to France and Israel. Their dialects of Arabic did not thrive in either country, and most of their descendants now speak French or Modern Hebrew; as a result, the Judæo-Arabic dialects are now considered endangered languages.
“Once upon a time, God was everywhere,” Simi Lazmi says in Mugrabian – the fast-disappearing language of Moroccan Jews, also known as Judeo-Moroccan, which is a combination of Arabic and Hebrew, plus Spanish, French and Portuguese.
Simi Lazmi, 71, tells the story of a prince who falls in love with a young woman who has assumed the shape of a donkey. The punch line is: “One man marries a woman, and another marries a donkey.” Simi finishes with a broad smile, and a lively discussion takes place at the table about the lesson contained in the proverb. Is the story feminist in its message, or is it a warning aimed at men, to be careful in their choice of a wife? Simi follows the discussion with interest, but hardly gets involved in it. She has set out a lunch for us, and capped it off with this story in a mixture of Hebrew and Mugrabian. “For me,” she says, “cooking is like reciting a proverb.” She smiles again and explains that neither of these undertakings requires much effort for her. Lazmi-Levihan, 47, writes down each proverb with precision. She describes the struggle she had with her mother before Simi would allow her to document her stories for the doctorate she is completing at Ben-Gurion University. “It created a lot of tension between us. I saw that the proverbs were [indicative of a] hierarchy and that she was endowing me with her power,” explains Lazmi-Levihan. At Simi Lazmi’s home in Sderot, however, Mugrabian is alive and kicking, as the visitors come and go. During preparations for Passover, along with the cleaning, a proverb popped up: “The chicken is about to die, but its eyes are still searching for food.” Yael Lazmi-Levihan hopes to preserve something of this world with her doctorate, but she is not optimistic about the survival of the language. “I’m gathering everything that remains, so it won’t be erased completely”.
“I visited New York, and saw entire nursery schools where the children spoke Yiddish, which amazed me,” Marcus Hanuna says. “I said to myself, ‘We have [a language] too,’ but I couldn’t even manage to locate a dictionary. It became clear to me that just as I had been ashamed of the language, other Moroccans were too. I found a lot of writings in which it was treated with contempt.”
Hanuna fought against scorn and forgetfulness with the best tool of all, a Judeo-Moroccan dictionary, the product of four years of labor: He gathered a sizable number of words, translated them into Hebrew and published it last year at his own expense. A first printing sold out, and the media attention and enthusiastic responses have proven the effort worthwhile. What makes Hanuna happiest is his connection to dictionary users, who seem to have been just waiting for its arrival, however long the delay. Marcus Hanuna holds that Judeo-Moroccan “was a survival tool in the Diaspora. As soon as we got to Israel, it became a language that could not go on.”
Prof. Moshe Bar Asher, president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language and an international expert on Jewish languages in the Maghreb region, estimates that the number of Mugrabian speakers stands at about 50,000 today. Bar Asher performed a service to Yiddish and Ladino by supporting the authority to preserve those languages. He does not make the claim that Mugrabian “has assets like Yiddish.
But it has assets that are worth preserving”.
[Some of the most important books of medieval Jewish thought were originally written in medieval Judæo-Arabic, as well as certain halakhic works and biblical commentaries. Only later were they translated into medieval Hebrew so that they could be read by the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe. ]