Culture, Global, Identity

You say Shabbat. I say Shabbos. Let's call the whole thing off.

I posted this at The Reform Shuckle before Shabbat this week. I didn’t expect it to get as many comments as it did, but it’s got a fertile comment stream running now. The proliferation of comments made me think maybe y’all would get something out of it here at Jewschool too. So here we go.
It is fashionable in the Reform Movement world that I grew up in to adhere to Israeli/Sephardic pronunciations of Hebrew. So on Shabbat morning, we would wear a tallit, rather than wearing a tallis on Shabbos. We put the emphasis in the last syllable, not the first. We prayed to Adonai, not Adonoy. Etc.
The first time I can recall noticing a difference was at my cousins’ Conservative shul in St. Louis, where I noticed that Kaddish suddenly sounded wildly different. It sounded like a pit of hissing snakes, as scores of T sounds became S sounds.
Eventually, I came to hold two things be true: One, that the Ashkenazi way that my grandparents pronounced everything sounded silly, and two, that there was an ideological reason to go for the T’s. I became convinced during my four month stay in Israel during high school that the existence of Israel was a sign that the main stage of Jewish history was once again the land of Israel. I thought that Jewish history now only happened in Israel and the rest of us out here in the Diaspora were just a sideshow. Not that I wanted to make Aliyah, but I had some persuasive teachers while I was abroad.
And then came college. And New York. I became disenchanted with Israel and my Zionist fervor became Zionist frustration and defeatism. And after spending a considerable amount of time around New York Jews from non-Reform backgrounds, I found a foreign and distasteful couple of words in my mouth. I found myself recently saying wishing people “Good Shabbos” and complaining when I got to shul, rather than synagogue or temple, that I had left my tallis at home.
But I guess that’s all in line with who I am in relation to Israel and the Diaspora these days. I don’t buy that Jewish history has returned exclusively to Israel. Rather, it has stagnated and become an inbred clot in Israel.
I’m more free to be the Jew I want to be in Texas or New Jersey than I will ever be in Israel.
So. Good Shabbos.

36 thoughts on “You say Shabbat. I say Shabbos. Let's call the whole thing off.

  1. minhag avoseyny b’yodeynu
    the fact is that the so called “ashkenazi” pronunciation favored by YU is actually a uniquely American dialect – ArtScroll actually explains that it both preserves certain aspects of Ashkenazi pronunciation and adds in certain Sephardi stresses.
    Just to bust up other myths – there isn’t, in essence, a single “Ashkenazi” pronunciation. While we have ethnographic sources that document Galician or Litvish Yiddish, how an Eastern European Jew pronounced Hebrew (and Yiddish for that matter) depended largely on regional dialects. Generally, if one learned Yiddish or Ashkenazi Hebrew in the academy (like myself) the YIVO Vilna “klal sprakh” is dominant. Nevertheless, knowing dialectally precise Ashkenazi Hebrew is useful in sensing the artfulness of much 19th and 20th Hebrew literature.

  2. Interesting. Reading this, it dawned on me that my pronunciation is somewhat mixed–I tend to wear my tallit on Shabbos. Why? Because I’m pretty sure none of my secular, Yiddish-speaking relatives owned a tallis, so I never met the word until I started hanging out with people who used Sephardic pronunciation.
    I’m now wondering how long I’ve been unconsciously adjusting my pronunciation depending on who I’m hanging out with at the moment, and to what extent my ear is now tuned so certain words sound ‘right’ one way, and others the other.

  3. For a treatment of how the early preference for Ashkenazi pronunciation shifted in light of Zionist linguistics and how that impacted the American Sephardi population Chapter 2, “Hebrew with a Sepharic Accent in Aviva Ben-Ur’s Sephardic Jews in America: A Diaspora History. Her framing of it as a “test case of impact” is rather odd, but she has a nice narrative about how Israeli hebrew got to be the way it is (mostly a result of mistaken originalism) and some interesting historical tidbits.

  4. Its certainly easier to be a reform Jew in Texas and New Jersey than is Israel. Of course since the Jewish population of Israel is growing unlike the TX and NJ Jewish populations that’s bad news for reform Judaism and good news for Torah Judaism.

  5. “I’m more free to be the Jew I want to be in Texas or New Jersey than I will ever be in Israel.” This sentiment speaks more to your own sensitivities and, perhaps, insecurities than it does to the nature of Jewish identity in Israel. Take it from someone who has lived there for longer than four months: you can be whatever kind of Jew you want to be in Israel. You can live in Mea Shearim or you can live in Tel Aviv. You can go to shul (ahem) or you can not go to shul. You suggest that Israel constrains the possibilities for living a Jewish life, and I would argue that it is exactly the opposite. In fact, it’s even possible to forget, for a moment, that you’re Jewish in Israel! And by the way, who convinced you that “Jewish history has returned exclusively to Israel”? And what does it mean for “Jewish history” to “become an inbred clot”? (Perhaps the place to start would be to explain what exactly constitutes “Jewish history.”) And how did a post about pronunciation turn into a pot shot at Israel?

  6. This is a great post, thanks.
    Every Friday afternoon, when my brother and I go to the deli to get the challah and dips for dinner at our parents’ place, the guy behind the counter says ‘shabbat shalom’, and we reply with a pointed ‘good shabbos’. For us it’s definitely a diasporist response to an Israeli greeting.

  7. I grew up in a Conservative Synagogue. The Rabbi decided to use the Israeli pronunciation. This was in the early 60s. We all switched, including the cantor. I now use the Israeli pronunciation all the time now.

  8. Estyle, it’s not a pot shot at Israel. It’s about pronunciation. As I was writing the post, however, I realized that I couldn’t discuss that without getting into my personal issues with Israel. Expressing my misgivings about Israel doesn’t equal taking a pot shot at Israel.
    You’re actually making my point when you say that in Israel, I can like in Mea Shearim or in Tel Aviv, go to shul or not go to shul. What I don’t like about religious identity in Israel is that it’s so binary. You can either live in Mea Shearim and go to shul (and be Chareidi) or you can live in Tel Aviv and not go to shul (and be Chiloni).
    I wanna live in a mixed, diverse neighborhood with all kinds of Jews and non-Jews. Israel is too polarized for that. I want more choices than a lot of Orthodox shuls, a handful of Reform shuls (that I discovered I didn’t like too much) and one or two Conservative shuls. The range of options here is so much wider.
    And it’s inbred clot because it’s so high on its own successes that it can’t look to the rest of the Jewish world for innovation.

  9. David- Estyle said you can live in one of two options, and that you can go to shul or not. He did not say “you can live in MS and go to shul or live in TA and not go to shul.”I am sure that s/he is aware that you can live in many more places than MS or TA (though really the only alternative to going to shul is not going to shul). It’s true that there are more options for non-Orthodox communities in certain places abroad than in Israel. But those of us who are active members of non-Orthodox communities in Israel do not appreciate being told that we don’t exist. And my building in Tel Aviv, within comfortable walking distance of Ashkenazi Orthodox, Sephardi Orthodox, Reform and Conservative kehilot suggests a more vibrant Jewish life here than you imply.

  10. I spent four months in Israel with the Reform movement, Arie. Which is not to say that I’m an expert, but to say that I’ve been to six or seven Reform shuls in Israel and one Conservative one. And I’m here to tell you that the range of options is here far greater than it is in Israel.
    Plenty of people tell me to quite my moaning and move to Israel so I can help build the Reform future in Israel or some such. Why should I move somewhere that doesn’t accept me and work hard to build something most of the country doesn’t want when I could stay here where I’m perfectly acceptable and the range of options I want is right here?

  11. Dave Boxthorn writes:
    Of course since the Jewish population of Israel is growing unlike the TX and NJ Jewish populations that’s bad news for reform Judaism and good news for Torah Judaism.
    You know what’s growing even faster? The population of Bangladesh.
    “Torah Judaism” FAIL

  12. Pardon my cynicism, but why do you feel that you need to pronounce something one way, all the time? I live in Israel now for several years – when I speak Hebrew, I’ll use the Sephardi pronunciation. My American Ashkenazi orthodox family also taught me to say T instead of S. My yeshivas though taught me to say S. That said, when I’m with people who overwhelmingly use the Ashkenazic pronunciation, i too use it when speaking with them. I have no problem saying Shabbos or Shabbat, or Shabbasim or Shabbatot. Or Kanaina Harah, or Ken Ayin Harah. Or Hagbah or Hagbaha. To me, it’s not that important either way.

  13. If Jewish religious practice is the central component of the Jew you want to be, the Diaspora is great. Zionism was created in contrast to the many Jewish streams, Reform in the lead, who responded to the Enlightenment by putting Judaism in one box in your life called religion, and allowing your language, culture, political structures and so on to be nearly identical to those of the non-Jews among whom you live.
    Not that there weren’t tons of fuck ups along the way that led to the fractured modern Israeli society we have, but there are still tons of elements of language, culture, politics, etc that are Jewish here in a way which should challenge anyone coming from the US and looking to learn critically about their own Jewish identity. So if you didn’t discover anything interesting about your Jewish identity in four months here with the Reform Movement it seems that you spent too much time in shul, not that the shuls weren’t interesting enough.

  14. I partly blame the left in Israel for leaving religion to the Ultra-Orthodox. The left doesn’t fight for religious diversity in Israel because they don’t care.

  15. Ruth, I discovered a lot about myself in Israel. I’d be shocked to find a Jew who could spend a semester there and not learn about themselves. What I learned (and I didn’t realize this until a few years later) is that Judaism is more than a religion. But the culture of Israel isn’t quite my Jewish culture. I found out that Jewish cowboys and bagels and Limmud NY felt much more like mine than Israel ever will.
    And religion is important to me. It’s probably more than half of my Jewiness, but culture is important too.

  16. Back to pronunciation – Sephardi pronunciation sounds foreign and doesn’t fit in the English “flow” of language. You have to stop midsentence and rearrance your whole larynx. So in English – I tend to use Ashkenazi pronunciation. I suspect that’s why the Ashkenazim used it too. (And the Sephardim as well, just for Arabic).
    There are also some hints that Ashkenazi pronunciation was around for longer than we think. וכל בניך למודי ה’ ורב שלום בניך – אל תקרי בניך אלא בוניך!

  17. 1/ ‘You know what’s growing even faster? The population of Bangladesh.’
    On an an absolute basis, yes. On a percentage basis, I’m not so sure.
    2/ “‘Torah Judaism’. Fail.”
    The reform got to name themselves. Why can’t Torah Jews do the same?

    1. Dave Boxthorn writes:
      On an an absolute basis, yes. On a percentage basis, I’m not so sure.
      Ok, you’re right. Still, Israel is getting its butt whooped by the likes of Liberia and Burundi.
      The reform got to name themselves. Why can’t Torah Jews do the same?
      You misread my punctuation. My point wasn’t about who gets to name themselves; it was that (by your logic) the high population growth rates in places like Yemen and Somalia prove “Torah Judaism” to be an utter failure.

  18. BZ and DAMW are responding to Dave Boxthorn as if he were able to relate to their humor. However, his posts show him to be too linear a thinker to understand anything but direct responses.
    So let me respond to his specific question, “The reform got to name themselves. Why can’t Torah Jews do the same?” They can. But they can’t have an exclusive on that name, since we Reform Jews read and follow the same Torah, albeit more intelligently.
    Also, Boxthorn says, “since the Jewish population of Israel is growing unlike the TX and NJ Jewish populations ,” with no facts to back him up. In point of fact, the NJ Jewish population is relatively stable, while the Texas Jewish population has grown over the last several decades.
    The two Davids seem to agree that it’s easier to be a Reform Jew in the U.S. than in Israel, although DB provides no support for his assertion. DW’s reasons apply only to himself — there probably isn’t a reader of Jewschool who doesn’t know several perfectly at-ease Reform olim.
    Meanwhile, DW began the discussion with a description of his finding himself using Ashkenazi pronuciation, despite his upbringing in Sephardi, and related this to his estrangement from Israel in the current political climate there. I suspect that his exposure to a more heterogeneous Jewish community in New York is more likely the cause. And as many of the comments, both here and on The Reform Shuckle, have indicated, there are many of us who go back and forth, or who are fairly consistent in Ashkesfardi.

  19. Amit, that last example simply doesn’t work because the two vowels in question are pronounced differently from each other in nearly all varieties, whether it’s “/a/ vs. /o/” or “/o/ vs. /oi/”.
    “Back to pronunciation – Sephardi pronunciation sounds foreign and doesn’t fit in the English “flow” of language. You have to stop midsentence and rearrance your whole larynx.”
    Erm… what? Many native English speakers speak (and daven) Hebrew in their own native accents. No need for laryngeal rearrangement – especially if you don’t pronounce het/`ayin anyway! We have many French loanwords with the stress on the last syllable – how is Israeli/Sephardi Hebrew any different?
    One example: When we say “Avodah House”, do we say “Ah-vo-DAH” as the organization preserves it, or do we say “uh-VOW-duh” in accordance with the Ashkenazic pronunciation, as with the term “Avodah Zarah”?

  20. Besides, I’m waiting for the time when Americans (and Israelis, for that matter) who claim to use Sephardic pronunciation use it correctly, especially in regards to the tricky issue of sheva.

  21. David – thanks for cross-posting here.
    David’s discussed a discomfort with Sephardic pronunciation apparently stemming in part from disenchantment with Israel, and perhaps in part from an increased comfort level with Ashkenazic prounciation used by some in NY.
    Pronouncing words with joy and comfort when davening and conversing is a wonderful thing. So that’s my goal, though I don’t always achieve it. When I do attain that goal, it’s not always by using the same pronunciations. I too tend to increase my use of Ashkenazic pronunciation after spending time with others who use it.
    I’m wary of choosing my pronuciation becuase “I don’t want to sound like them,” i.e. like Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Israelis, Yekkes, straights, gays, etc. I am like them and they are like me, more than we are unlike. It’s OK to sound like them.
    David also wrote (in response to a question from Larry) in one of his blog comments:
    “My assessment of indie minyans is that [pronunciation’s] a mix and that there’s no ideology behind it.”
    While Sephardic pronunciation is the norm in most indie minyans, I agree that most are safe places to use Ashkenazic pronunciation. I have been involved, however, with indie minyan discussion about a proposed initiative where some cautioned against naming the initiative with Ashkenazic pronunciation, apparently because it would sound too Orthodox.
    P.S. Is anyone moderating? I have a post in the Chava Alberstein thread awaiting…

  22. BZ, my reference point for “more intelligently” was not non-Reform Jews, but Torah Jews according to the Boxthorn definition, which I presume means those who know they are reading what God dictated to Moses at Sinai. Since I find that premise dubious, I don’t think it’s harsh to devalue the intelligence behind such reading.

  23. i agree with what amit said about. if i’m speaking english, the ashkenazi pronunciation does roll better of the tongue with the rest of what i’m saying. however, if i’m speakin spanish (the other official language of Texas, yes i’m serious) then it makes more sense to use Sephardi pronuciations, especially since i can through in some ladinoisms, like the verb “enshabbatirse” (to get ready for shabbat). Sometimes when I daven though, I’ll go for the Temani pronunciation. Cause it sounds prettier, IMHO.

  24. jews in israel speak hebrew, and you are talking about how happy you are speaking yiddish with an american accent.

  25. zionism is for suckers. that should be a t-shirt. or maybe i can embroider that on some kippot. cause here in america, women can wear kippot too. i don’t care about israel, because doesn’t care about me. and that’s the truth. I, like many American Jews, could never get married or buried in Israel. So go have your quasi-theocratic apartheid state, and you deal with the consequences, but leave me out of it. I wash my hands of the entire Zionist enterprise.

  26. Well, DAMW, you certainly opened up a can of worms here! I’m another voice for dragging you back to Israel for some real life experience.
    And as someone from a small-ish city in Texas, I’m surprised at your attitude about ritual possibilities in Israel – sure there are more better options in the shulshopper’s smorgasbord of NY NJ or even the whole Acela corridor from Boston down to Northern VA, but outside of the major Jewish population centers, it’s very hard to find a creative Jewish community anywhere.
    Furthermore, for all your posturing about language YOU STILL DON’T SPEAK THE HEBREW LANGUAGE so how the #$%$ do you know what possibilities exist for Israelis, or how creative they are? You’re judging them on a different scale, as an outsider, etc. Pardon the vitriol, but it’s annoying to be written off.
    It comes down to the fact that America is one of the most religious (as in church going) country in the world. I include Canada in that, along with the US. Israel is much more European. Very few people go to shul or care about religion. More do now than did when I made Aliyah in 1989. As a result, there is a good deal of creativity in shuls now – across the spectrum.
    BTW, there are Ashkenazi shuls where the prayers are said in “Ashkenazis” but the conversation is in Ivrit (eg. with a Sefardi pronunciation).

  27. DAMW, I really appreciate your honesty. Personally, I’m reading something else into this, and correct me if I’m wrong. Growing up, you were told that Israel is your home, the Jewish State, the place where you can best self-actualize as a “real” Jew, etc. Then you went there, and discovered a society that doesn’t function and isn’t structured the way you would like, a culture and language you don’t understand and wouldn’t have chosen, and a bunch of arrogant people who don’t think you’re anything special just because you’re a Jew.
    You thought Israel needed you, that it was waiting for you to help build a model nation. Instead, you’ve discovered that the society and culture in Israel toot along just fine without recognizing your brilliance and singing your praises. You feel like an outsider in Israel because you feel rejected by Israel. So, if they don’t need you, then you don’t need them. You dutifully gathered up your toys and ran back home, still sulking.
    Yes, I’m being patronizing, but let’s stay honest here.
    Does that about sum it up?

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