Friday, August 28, 1981
THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS
Development of Jewish Vernaculars, Role of Dialects
in Jewish Experience, How Ladino Functioned and Its
Notable Contributions and the Status of Yiddish Today
The Battle of Languages, the Emergence of Dialects, Status of Yiddish and Ladino Today
Recitation of the vow "never to let the sacred memory
tic, was written and spoken in northern France.
of our perished Six Million to be scorned or erased," was
Rashi in his biblical commentaries often ex-
recited in Jerusalem at the Kotel Maaravi, the Western
plained a Hebrew word with a la'az, i.e. a gloss
Temple Wall, on June 18 in six languages.
into Judeo-French. These le'aiim are very impor-
The vows in English and French are representative of
tant to Romance philologists; sometimes the old-
the lingual acquisitions by the people of Israel. It is a
est attestation of a French word is a la'az. When
country where English became the second language due to
Jews were expelled from France in 1394, Judeo-
the British rule there as the mandatory power for 30 years.
French died, but a few of its words survive in
French was viewed for a time as the competing tongue for
second place in the people's preferences because of the hun-
In Italy there are several dialects of Judeo-
dreds of thousands of escapees from Moslem dominated
Italian, also called Italkian, and in southern
countries where French became those nations' tongue due
France there was once a Judeo-Provencal, also
to French rule there prior to their attainment of indepen- - called Shuadit.
dence, such as in Morocco and even in Lebanon.
Treating historically Yiddish and Ladino, Dr.
Then there was the pledge in Russian, because of the
Jochnowitz describes them as "transplanted languages."
recent large influx of Jews from the USSR and the struggle
Those speaking Ladino were forced to leave Spain in 1492
for the liberation of Soviet Jewry.
and Ladino became "a totally independent language. This
To five of the six pledges there were replies, acceptance
of responsibility never to forget the tragedy of the
Holocaust, always to adhere to the slogan "Never Again,"
as an assurance that the Nazi horror will never recur.
There was no reply to the Russian pledge. This awaits the
liberation from the land of the Russian tongue.
The three other pledges were in Jewish languages, in
Hebrew in which the historic proceedings commenced, in
Yiddish and in Ladino.
These are the three tongues now inviting elaboration.
The Hebrew language is now taken for granted. Yet, it
is recognized as the revived. It is one of the miracles of the
redemption and the nation's self-liberation. Only a short
time ago, at the turn of the century, Hebrew was viewed as
a dead language. It was, like Latin, considered a medium
for praying. Yiddish outclassed it. Then came the national
Jewish renaissance, the beginnings marked by pioneering
like those of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who proclaimed that only
Hebrew was to be spoken in his home in Jerusalem when he
settled in Palestine a century ago. His consistent program,
his insistence upon Hebrew as a spoken tongue, were the
beginnings of the great result, of Hebrew becoming a living
language to begin with, and eventually of its domination as
the language of the redeemed state of Israel.
Through the ages Hebrew was revered by Jews as the
sacred tongue, as the Loshen HaKodesh, one of the reasons
why through the centuries it was the language mostly for
prayer; and by Christian scholars who loved the tongue
when they became acquainted with it and knowledgeable
To Jerome, a Latin church father, circa 331-420, is
accredited the statement: "The whole of antiquity affirms
that Hebrew was the beginning of all human speech."
Johann Buxtorf, 1564-1629, a Swiss scholar, thus de-
fined Hebrew: "The tongue of God, the tongue of angels, the
tongue of the Prophets."
Even Martin Luther, 1483-1546, the German Protes-
tant Rtformation leader, had a favorable word for Hebrew.
He is on record as saying: "The words of the Hebrew tongue
have a peculiar energy. 4t is impossible to convey so much
so briefly in any other language."
Johann Herder, 1744-1803, the German author, thus
Shown is the jacket from "The Book of Letters — a
acclaimed the language: "It is worth studying Hebrew for Mystical Alef-bait," written by former Detroiter
10 years in order to read Psalm 104 in the original."
Lawrence Kushner and published by Harper and
These are the sentiments of Christians.
Among the noted Yiddish authors who. acclaimed He-
brew, in which they were equally proficient, was Isaac annotation in his important essay is of considerable inter-
Leibush Peretz, 1851-1915, who said in one of his notable est. Jochnowitz wrote:
works: "The Hebrew language is the only glue which holds
'""In Spain one could never be sure where Spanish ended
together our scattered bones. It also holds together the and Ladino began. Perhaps the Jews of pre-expulsion Spain
rings in the chain of time . . . It binds us to those who built felt they were merely speaking bad Spanish. After 1492, no
pyramids, to those who shed their blood on the ramparts of such mistake was possible. No one could argue that Ladino
Jerusalem, and to those who, at the burning stakes, cried was bad Greek, bad Turkish, or bad Arabic. There are
thousands of people today who speak Ladino better than
Interest in the status of Yiddish demands most serious
any other language."
consideration. So does the remnant of Sephardic Jews who
In his Midstream article, Prof. Jochnowitz gave an
remain in the last rampart of those clinging to Ladino, the historic account of creative literary achievements in
Spanish-Jewish dialect whose disappearance is all-too- Ladino, its prose and poetry. What's the status of Ladino
now? Here is the realism in the Jochnowitz analysis:
The importance of Ladino, its emergence and decline,
The Ladino language has been declining for
is treated with great interest in an article in Midstream
most of the 20th Century. Perhaps one factor con-
(February 1981) by Prof. George Jochnowitz of the College
tributing to this decline was the establishment of
of Staten Island, N.Y. His observations on Ladino are inter-
French-language schools by the Alliance Israelite
linked with tracing of other vernaculars and dialect4 used
Universelle. This organization was established in
by Jews through the centuries. He stated:
1860, two years after the Mortara affair, when an
Just as Latin changed to Spanish without any-
Italian Jewish child was taken from his parents
one quite noticing what was happening, so
after being baptized by a maid.
Ladino developed from Judeo-Latin. This does
The Alliance was concerned with helping Jews
not mean that Ladino is as different from Spanish
everywhere, and starting in the 1890s it built
as French is. It means that as long as there were
schools throughout the Balkans and Middle East,
Jews in Spain, their speech was never identical to
which disseminated French language and cul-
the language of their neighbors.
Many Jewish languages exist or have existed in
Emigration has been a factor as well. Emigrants
widely separated parts of the world. There is a
to the New World in the 1920s and to Israel in the
Judeo-Persian and several varieties of Judeo-
1950s tended to adopt the language of their new
homes. Even in Turkey, Judezmo, together, with
Judeo-Greek, or Yevanic, was once spoken in '
French, is being replaced by Turkish, in accord
many parts of the ancient Near East. Until the
with government policy.
14th Century, Judeo-French, also called Zarpha-
The main blow to the language was the
Holocaust. The Jews of Greece and Yugoslavia
were wiped out. Salonika had been a thriving cen-
ter of Sephardic culture for centuries. In the early
part of the 20th Century it had a Jewish plurality,
and was to a great extent a Judezmo-speaking
city. Few of Salonika's Jews survived World War
There are Hasidic children today whose first
language is Yiddish, and who attend schools
where Yiddish is the language of instruction. We
cannot say the same about Ladino. Scholars rec-
ognize the importance of this language; univer-
sities may occasionally teach it; nevertheir
children are not growing up speaking it. T1
are thousands of native speakers, but very few of
them area_ children. The future of Judezrno as a
spoken language is in doubt.
One of the consequences of Ladino's decline was that
the only Ladino weekly bulletin published in this country
folded in 1951. The Ladino speaking elements declined. In
Greater Detroit, for example, there may not be more than a
few dozen in the thriving Sephardic community who either
speak or understand Ladino.
One would be blind to reality if he or she failed to
acknowledge a decline of Yiddish which was spoken by
more than half the 16,000,000 Jews in the world before the
Holocaust. In this instance, too, the Holocaust accounts for
the murder not only of the many millions of people but also
of their language.
However, Yiddishists are not resigned to fate. They are
not passive. On the contrary, they are militant in their
determination to keep the language alive.
True, there is only one major Yiddish daily newspaper.
In 1915, when the Jewish population in this country was
half the present, there were 12. Yet the one surviving
Yiddish daily, the Jewish Daily Forward, conducts a battle
for life with a determined will to survive.
For a number of years, there was another Yiddish
language daily, the Communist-sponsored Freiheit. Until
recently, its appearance was limited to four times a week.
Now it has been reduced to a weekly and its circulation is
limited. The Jewish Daily Forward, therefore, remains the
undisputed lone Yiddish daily on this continent, those in
other lands, including Canada, having ceased publication.
There is another Yiddish language weekly
Allgemeiner Journal, and it has captured the support of
religious elements. But it is a weekly.
The Forward has been compelled to conduct campaigns
for financial support.
Simon Weber, the dynamic editor of the Forward, a
former Detroiter who a few weeks ago reached his 70th
birthday, engineered important policies to make his news-
paper an organ with a representative status in American
Jewry. He asked for financial support to prevent the news-
paper's collapse, and the response was spontaneous.
In the current campaign for assistance, he has the
directorial aid of Harold Ostroff, the Forward's general
manager. Ostroff assumed leadership in a campaign to
raise $600,000. In his message, "Bad times have befallen
us," Ostroff states an appeal in which he asks support not
only from Yiddish readers but also from the non-Yiddish
speaking American Jewry, asserting that continuity for a
periodical with a vital history must mean a great deal for
all Jews and for the country at large.
Upon the inauguration of the $600,000 appeal for
funds by the Jewish Daily Forward, the New Leader, a
liberal magazine akin in ideological content to the For-
ward, published this editorial:
Some months ago here in New York, represen-
tatives of several prominent cultural, social, frat-
ernal and labor organizations met to discuss the
85th anniversary of an institution they greatly
value. But the talk did not turn on a gala dinner to
mark the occasion; it focused on the critical need
to raise $600,000 by April 22, 1982. And the institu-
tion was not the Metropolitan Opera, or a venera-
ble ballet company; it was the Jewish Daily For-
We have noted before in this space that the
Leader and what is still the world's larg
Yiddish-language newspaper come from the same
mishpokha, we share the same family. Indeed,
since this month the NL entered its 58th year, it
might well be said that in many respects the mag-
azine is the English-language offspring of the
Forward. Certainly when it had the wherewithal,
it was there with assistance to help relieve our
own chronic financial problems. But even if all
this were not the case, we would argue that the
Forward's remarkable contributions to the mold-
ing of American society, and continuing vitality,
have earned everyone's concern about its
At its founding in 1897, the waves of immigrants
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