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(RNS) Whether they call it a temple, synagogue or shul, you can tell a lot about Jews by what they call their house of worship.
So says a new survey of American Jews — and non-Jews — that says one’s place on the religious spectrum can be pinpointed, in part, by the use of Hebrew and Yiddish words and phrases.
The survey, by researchers at Reform Judaism’s flagship seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, found that the use of Hebrew and Yiddish is changing, reflecting “subtle self-definitions” of new generations of American Jews.
The survey found that some Yiddish-origin words and phrases like klutz (clumsy person) and shpiel (lengthy speech) have become part of the American conversation. Non-Jews with strong Jewish ties tend to flavor their speech with Yiddish words and grammatical constructions, including terms like “mensch” (good person), “heimish” (cozy) and phrases like “I don’t know from that.”
For years, Yiddish has been seen as a kind of endangered linguistic species, an old-world export that Jewish grandmothers (bubbes) carried in their suitcases from Eastern Europe. The 1,000-year-old language nearly died at the hands of the Holocaust, anti-Jewish pogroms and assimilation.
In many ways, that’s still true as words like “macher” (big shot) and “naches” (pride) fade from view. But younger Jews, and non-Jews, are picking up the language in unexpected ways.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the survey found that non-Jews are more likely to use less mainstream Yiddish words when they have Jewish friends, have worked with Jewish colleagues or dated Jews.
Researchers found that language differentiates Jews not just from non-Jews, but from each other. Factors like denominational affiliation, Sabbath observance, age and ties to Israel play a role. The word “temple,” for example, tends to be used by Reform Jews, while Conservative Jews favor “synagogue” and Orthodox Jews prefer “shul.”
Sociolinguist Sarah Bunin Benor of Hebrew Union’s Los Angeles campus knew something was afoot when she noticed the popularity of the word “schmooze.” She heard things like, “There were lots of bigwigs there. It was a great opportunity to schmooze,” or “He spent the whole party schmoozing the vice president.” The Yiddish word, which means “to chat,” was taking on new meanings of “to network,” “to kiss up” and “to chat up.”
In 2008, Benor teamed with Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist of American Jewry at the seminary’s New York campus, to conduct an online survey of how American Jews incorporate Yiddish and Hebrew into everyday English. The results were released this month (November).
The survey asked in part about pronunciation, such as who favors Israeli pronunciations such as Shabbat, or Ashkenazi ones such as Shabbos. Researchers also probed the use of Yiddish words, such as “keppie” (an affection term for head), grammatical constructions (“Enough already!”) and Hebrew words such as “yalla” (come on).
They sent the Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity to about 600 people, expecting 2,000 to 3,000 responses. Within six weeks, more than 40,000 people worldwide took the survey. The researchers focused their analysis on 25,000 Jews and 5,000 non-Jews who were native English speakers and who grew up and live in the U.S.
The Yiddish words and phrases that are gaining favor tend to be associated with religion, such as “bentsh” (bless) and “daven” (pray).
Researchers believe some Yiddishisms have “become markers of religiosity,” especially among younger Jews, and are spreading from Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox communities to non-Orthodox religious communities through overlapping social circles.
The results can’t be generalized to the entire American population because they’re not a representative sample. Yet they’re important, Cohen said, because using language to study how people speak “allows us to look at how social groups are changing even if they are unaware of it.”
Changes in speech patterns aren’t limited to young people: 51 percent of respondents said they’re using more Yiddish and Hebrew words than they did 10 to 15 years ago.
The researchers explain this trend two
ways: Jewish language is becoming more distinct, and many U.S. Jews are becoming increasingly observant.
“It’s just a fact that (Yiddish) had one of the biggest influences on English of any other language in the 20th century,” said Miri Koral, executive director of the California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language near Los Angeles, and a lecturer in Yiddish at UCLA and American Jewish University.
While most Yiddish speakers in the U.S. tend to be older or Orthodox, the language retains broad appeal, several experts said.
Miriam Isaacs, a visiting associate professor of Yiddish language and civilization at University of Maryland, said some of her students fall in love with Yiddish after hearing a word or two.
“Besides having all these words for human character, it’s also a language that lends itself to affection,” Isaacs said.
“It’s not associated with war. It’s not associated with power; it never had power. It always was about the weak and the helpless and the lovable and the small and the diminutive. Maybe people want that. Maybe they’re tired of endless war-mongering and power-mongering.”
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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