Monday, December 10, 2007

Hebrew and politics

Many years ago, when I was a member of the Ritual Committee of a previous synagogue, one of the synagogue members asked permission to chant a haftarah in Ashkenazi Hebrew. Why this was such a big deal that it even had to come before the Ritual Committee was beyond my comprehension. The rabbi had to explain it to me: Apparently, the founding rabbi of the synagogue, being one of the first Conservative rabbis to support the Zionist movement, insisted, as a matter of principle, that all rituals be read or chanted in Sefardi Hebrew because that was the official pronunciation of the State of Israel. (Last I heard, all services were still being led in Sefardi, but the chanting of the haftarah in Ashkenazi was permitted because that was deemed an individual choice rather than representative of the official policy of the congregation.)

I was reminded of that incident about a month ago, when there was an article in the (New York) Jewish Week concerning a decline in the teaching and speaking of Hebrew in the United States. (Naturally, I can’t find the article. It’s almost impossible to find an article through the Jewish Week’s “search” function.) When I was a kid, it wasn’t the least bit unusual for a kid going to a Jewish sleep-away camp to speak almost nothing but Hebrew for her or his entire camp stay. My impression is that “Hebrew immersion” in sleep-away camps is much less the norm, these days. And the article stated that it’s far less the norm, nowadays, for yeshiva students to graduate high school fluent in Hebrew other than what they need for study. The article posited that it’s because Israel developed a reputation as a secular state that the study of modern Israeli Hebrew became less acceptable in some Orthodox circles.

Now along comes David/Trep and publishes a post about Jewish seasonal music, for a change, complete with a recording—ripped straight from a record (remember those?)—of Gershon Veroba singing his own version of Hanerot Hallalu. (See lyrics in Hebrew, plus English translation, here). I have a Veroba CD, "Reach Out," (reviewed here) that includes a somewhat rearranged version of that same song, and I was struck by the fact that the original was recorded in Sefardi Hebrew, but the new recording is in Ashkenazi. Is it becoming so "pahss nisht" (I think that means "it isn't done") for Orthodox Jews in some circles to be so publicly Zionist?

Egg-on-face update: Here's a comment to Trep's post from trumpeter Jordan Hirsch:

". . . As for the story, it's really rather simple.Gershon was working in those days with a very fine blues guitar player, Steve Simanowitz. (Who last I saw him is running a farm somewhere in Vermont or New Hampshire). Steve convinced Gershon, who grew up singing and davening in Havarat Ashekenazit, or Ashkenazis, if you will, that Sephardic pronunciation would supplant Ashkenazic and Gershon should get ahead of the curve. As anyone who listens to Yaakov Schwekey and Avraham Fried will tell you, um...not so much. Anyhoo, I guess when Gershon re recorded the song, which is sung in my house as well, he did it in his natural style. Anyway, that's how Gershon explained it to me.

Posted by: jordan Hirsch Dec 11, 2007 7:17:19 PM

I believe that my premise is correct, but, apparently, my illustration is not. Mr. Veroba, I apologize.


Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

short answer: yes.

Mon Dec 10, 11:07:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...


On the plus side, if this comment is any indication of the likely length of your future sermons, they're going to be very popular. :)

Looks like I probably won't make that lecture being sponsored by YCT tomorrow. I forgot I'm already booked for bikur cholim--I promised to visit a sister congregant who just got home from rehab after surgery.

Mon Dec 10, 11:17:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Oops--for the benefit of the rest of my readers:

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbincal School (Steg's current stomping ground) is sponsoring a Chanukah lecture tomorrow.

December 11, 2007
8:30 pm

Exploring the Halakhic, Historical and Spiritual Connections Between Hanukkah and Sukkot.

Congregation Ohab Zedek
118 W. 95th St
New York, NY

Mon Dec 10, 11:23:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Warren Burstein said...

When I was a kid, it wasn’t the least bit unusual for a kid going to a Jewish sleep-away camp to speak almost nothing but Hebrew for her or his entire camp stay.

I went to Massad Bet in the 70's, it was officially a Hebrew speaking camp, and perhaps their press releases said someone would "speak almost nothing but Hebrew", but we mostly spoke English. We spoke Hebrew when speaking to the senior staff. Once in a while to our counselors (probably after they had gotten lectured by the senior staff on use of Hebrew). To one another we spoke English.

Tue Dec 11, 06:36:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Warren, I was born in '49, so the folks I knew who went to Hebrew-speaking camps went during the 50s and 60s. It seems to me that the change in attitude occurred later.

Tue Dec 11, 10:05:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

By way of illustration, one of the college-student J-bloggers remarked, a few months ago, about overhearing a conversation between two Israelis and being surprised that s/he was able to understand it. I was struck by the fact that a person with over 12 years of full-time (not Hebrew School)Jewish education under his/her belt should be surprised. I would have thought that, for a Jewish day-school graduate, the ability to speak and understand Hebrew would be a given.

Tue Dec 11, 10:36:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

On this unrelated post by DovBear, Lurker said something that I think is germane to our current discussion:

"I am reminded here of a statement once made by R. [Rabbi] Yaakov Kaminetsky, quoted by R. Berel Wein in a lecture: "The Christians stole the Tanakh [Bible] from us, the maskilim stole the Hebrew language from us, and the Tziyoinim [Zionists] stole Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] from us". While I suspect that R. Kaminetsky didn't intend the statement as entirely serious, it is nonetheless a justification of sorts for the fact that the "frum" [Orthodox] world has neglected and marginalized the importance of studing Nakh, Hebrew, and making aliyah ["going up," i.e., moving to Israel].

R. Kamintesky was trying to make excuses for the inexcusable. He was wrong, of course: The fact that Christianity absorbed the "Old Testament" into their canon does not mean that the Tanakh is no longer the center of our own literary heritage. The fact that the haskalah movement fostered a renaissance of Hebrew does not mean that it is no longer our national language and lashon hakodesh [the holy language]. And the fact that secular Zionism pioneered the resettlement of Israel does not mean that living in Eretz Yisrael is no longer a fundamental pillar of Judaism.

The thing is, R. Kaminetsky was the leader of a school of thought that recoils in horror from anything bearing the fingerprints of non-Jews or secular Jews -- even those things that are integral parts of our own heritage. In other words, he was a haredi fundamentalist. So I am not so surprised to hear such a statement coming from him."

And there you have it, standing on one foot: fluency in Hebrew, specifically the Sefardi pronunciation of Hebrew that became the official pronuniciation of the State of Israel, is too secular for *some* right-wingers (Chardalim, [Chareidim Dati Leumi/ religiously-right-wing Zionists,] obviously excluded).

Tue Dec 11, 04:39:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Elie said...

Although I agree with most of the sentiments expressed in this post and particularly the quote in your last comment, I guess I somewhat disagree with the premise of Modern Israeli Hebrew being somehow more "correct". I don't see the modern "Ivrit" pronunciation as having much authenticity or pedigree, and certainly not much connection to Biblical or even Mishnaic Hebrew. They're about as related as the English of Chaucer is to modern urban slang. It always saddens me when I see people of Ashkenazic heritage abandoning the pronunciation that had been used in their family for generations and even centuries, and adopting Modern Israeli pronunciation for tefila and Torah reading/study.

For an excellent essay on this subject, see this link:

Wed Dec 12, 09:40:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Elie, I suppose that, for me, Hebrew pronunciation really *is* a political issue, and not a matter of what's more authentic. I switched to Sefardi when I joined my former congregation. But I'm sticking with it not only as a Zionist statement, but also for a practical reason: Since I learned as an adult some 75% percent of whatever Jewish knowledge I now have, I learned most of what I now know (prayers, biblical quotes, etc.) in Sefardi. About the only parts of the service that I knew in Hebrew as a child and teen were the first paragraph of the Sh'ma and those parts of the service that were usually said or sung aloud in my parents' synagogue. I recited all the silent prayers in English. So, aside from the home rituals for Erev Shabbat and Yom Tov, Chanukah, and the Seder, I grew up knowing only the barest basics in Ashkenazi. When I decided, in my late twenties, to learn the weekday Amidah in Hebrew, it took me several months, and the speed with which I can learn new prayers hasn't improved much since then. For me to switch back to Ashkenazi at this late date would be even more difficult, by far, than it was when I switched to Sefardi at about 24. As for switching back and forth between Ashkenazi (for prayer and study) and Sefardi (for general conversation and Israeli songs, etc.), which many people do quite easily and well, I find it rather difficult, personally--I had enough trouble making the switch in the first place.

Wed Dec 12, 10:44:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Elie, thanks for the link--that's a fascinating article. You mean good old fashioned "yasher koach" might actually be the correct pronunciation??! So modern Israeli Hebrew actually preserves the errors of *both* the Ashkenazi and Sefardi pronunciations??! A plague on both our houses, apparently. :)

Note to Steg: This is a must-read for a correct-Hebrew fan like you!

Wed Dec 12, 12:07:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Elie and/or Steg (or anyone else who wants to chime in), do you think that maybe the B'nai Edot haMizrach (Children of the Communities of the East, from North Africa and Western Asia) have it right? Their pronunciation often differs quite noticeably from either Ashkenazi or, er, Modern-Israeli-style Sefardi. For example, they have a "w" sound in their pronunciation, which they use for (some instances of?) the letter "vav."

Wed Dec 12, 12:18:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I have just updated this blog, and included an apology to Mr. Veroba--a friend of his has posted that his native pronunciation is *Ashkenazi,* and that he originally switched to Sefardi for professional reasons, not the other way around!

Wed Dec 12, 12:29:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

in general, ‘Eidot Hamizrahh preserved more distinctions between Hebrew *consonants*, while ‘Eidot Hatzafon (Ashkenazim in particular, not so much the Italkim) preserved more distinctions between *vowels*.

It's generally said that the Yemenites preserved more distinctions between sounds on the whole, but that doesn't mean that the exact quality of the sounds is "more authentic" or closer historically to the time of the Masoretes — for instance, only someone with very little knowledge of linguistics could claim that ג was originally pronounced like an English "J"

Fri Dec 14, 06:42:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

That's fascinating, Steg. I had no idea. Thanks for the information.

I just looked at your comment again. "Eidot HaTzafon" (Communities of the North)? I've never heard that term before! You taught me something new. Thanks again!

Sat Dec 15, 06:18:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Batya said...

I think that the Hebrew level is going down re: day school grads.

By us, here in Israel, it's not the pronunciation which people debate, it's the nusach, the text variations.

Mon Dec 17, 03:48:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Batya, I've always thought that "nusach" referred to traditional synagogue tunes, which vary from one community to another, and/or prayer book texts, which have some variation from one community to another. Are you referring to the text differences between Nusach Ashkenaz, Nusach S'fard, and Nusach shel haS'faradim, if that's the correct term (not the same as Nusach S'fard, which is a mix of the other two), not to mention the various nusachim (nusachot?) of the B'nai Edot HaMizrach (Children of the Communities of the East, from North Africa and Western Asia), and those of small communities such as Italki? Or did you have something other than the siddur/prayer book in mind?

Tue Dec 18, 07:59:00 AM 2007  

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