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

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 talit, rather than wearing a talis 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 Kadish 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 talis 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.


51 responses to “You say Shabbat. I say Shabbos. Let’s call the whole thing off.

  1. Wait! Didn’t you just give me grief for this?

  2. Apples and oranges. Goot shabbos is not Ashkenazi Hebrew, it’s Yiddish. Reform didn’t pick up Sephardi Hebrew until after it began identifying with Israel/Zionism after the establishment of the state — and at least one Classic Reform congregation I know of still davens (although they would hate the word) in Ashkenazi. And I know one Reform rabbi who leads the service in Sephardi, but switches to Ashkenazi for Mourners’ Kaddish.

    Meanwhile, the companion of the talit is the kipa, but the companion of the talis is the yarmulke.

    Might I suggest that the Sephardi pronunciation is normative for the modern spoken language of Hebrew, where the Ashkenazi pronunciation is largely used for liturgy and text study (with the discussion of the text most likely to be in Yiddish). I’d be interested to know which pronunciation prevails in the indy minyan world. And if the choice is construed ideologically or is just happenstance from the background of the minyanaires.

    • My assessment of indie minyans is that it’s a mix and that there’s no ideology behind it.

      • And here I think we should distinguish between:

        1) actually speaking Hebrew, and/or praying or reading Torah. For this, people tend to be consistent one way or the other, with Israeli pronunciation most common, but some people consistently using Ashkenazi Hebrew (at least for praying and reading Torah, not so much for speaking).

        2) throwing individual Hebrew words into otherwise English conversations. For this, people are much less consistent. For example, I generally use Israeli pronunciation, and say “Shabbat”, “tallit”, etc., but like most people, I also say “kosher” and “bris” (both of which appear in English dictionaries).

    • The Rabbi most likely switches to “Ashkenazi” for kaddish because kaddish isn’t written in Hebrew. It’s written in Aramaic.

      • Larry Kaufman

        Whatever it’s written in, he says Yisgadal, and we say Yitgadal. And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the native speakers of Aramaic said Yithgadal. But I would be surprised to learn that the rabbi’s switch is based on the Kaddish being in Aramaic….it’s more likely a tribute to the Yisgadal pronunciation of his own dead.

        • “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the native speakers of Aramaic said Yithgadal.”

          I don’t know whether they do or don’t, but I would be cautious about inferring ancient phonology from modern speakers.

  3. When I started Hebrew School in 1965, ours was either the 1st or the 2nd year that they taught Sephardi Hebrew at our Conservative congregation. This gave my dad no end of grief because he was unable to help me with my Hebrew homework since I was constantly telling him he was doing something wrong. All those S’s, lazy vowels, and emphasis on the wrong syllable. Over time, he got more used to it and managed a mix of Ashkenzi and Sephardi pronunciations. And I got to feel superior by speaking Hebrew “the way they do it in Israel. “

  4. Larry Kaufman

    I started Hebrew school a generation before Harold did, at a private school that even in the thirties was teaching it as a modern, spoken language using the Sephardit pronunciation. When the school ceased operation, I switched to the communal system, which involved switching my t’s to s’s and my ahs to aws. I don’t remember when I switched back, but by the time I formally became Reform, Sephardit was in bloom and seemed totally natural.

    The Reform temple up the street from mine was led by a rabbi who had come from Hitler’s Germany, and who used Ashkenazi to show respect to the memories of those who perished in the Shoah. One Shabbat when the two congregations came together for services, at their place, I had an aliya, and out of respect for minhag hamakom, recited the brachot in Ashkenazi. Afterwards, I got bawled out by my rebbetzin, who had expressed shock to the hostess rebbetzin when she heard the service begin in Ashkenazi and had cited my early use of Sephardit as a signal of how backward our hosts were. Then I went and embarrassed her with asher noson lanu and no-sain haTorah.

    Although I don’t share David’s Zionist defeatism, neither do I believe in shelilat hagolah — and my prediction is that denominationalism will morph internationally into the Orthodox and everybody else, with the Orthodox, whether in Israel or golus using Ashkenazi, and the rest of us, whether in Israel or in the galut, using Sephardi.

    • Larry I can’t make heads or tails of your last sentence. Can you re-state that?

      • Larry Kaufman

        1. The Diaspora is here to stay, and that’s a good thing.

        2. There will be two Judaisms, Orthodoxy and Everybody Else.

        3. Orthodoxy will use Ashkenazi Hebrew. The Rest of Us will use Sephardi.

        4. Orthodoxy will speak Yiddish. The Rest of Us may hang on to a few Yiddishisms (like Gut Shabbos) but the only baggage attached will be nostalgia.

        • And Sephardim (Which are kinda-Orthodox) are….?

        • In parts of the world dominated by Ashkenazi -descended Jews, there will be the Orthodox and everyone else, but if I’ve learned anything from Carlos Zarur, it’s that among the non-Ashkenazi there have been, are, and will be Jews and Jews alone.

          I think it’s already the case the Orthodox and the rest of us use a mix of Sephardi and Ashkenazi.

          And very very very few Orthodox still speak Yiddish at all. That’s fading fast.

          • My impression is that among MO/Dati Jews, they use primarily Israeli pronunciation. It’s the Lubabavitchers, other chasids, and charedim that use more Askenazi Hebrew, right? And the non-Zionist sects like the Satmar and Neturai Karta actually still use Yiddish as the langua franca, yes?

        • The majority of Orthodox Jews in Israel uses Sephardi Hebrew, both when buying bus tickets and davening.

          Only the most hard-core Haredim uses Yiddish when shopping and Ashkenazi Hebrew when davening.

  5. I loved this post. Can we hang out soon? We need to talk…

  6. My full-blooded Ashkenazi apikorus husband would disagree with you about not being able to be the kind of Jew that he wants to be in Israel. He’d love to just passively observe Judaism the way you can only do there.

    My own relationship with Yiddish and Ashkenazi Hebrew is more complicated: I would resent Yiddish–and by extension Ashkenazi Hebrew–because of the number of relatives I have who confuse a particularly odious east-coast Ashkenazi culture (think ‘Jewtopia’) with Judaism. Except for one thing–years ago I fell completely and irrevocably in love with klezmer.

    For some time, I tried to avoid the Yiddish issue by claiming I couldn’t sing and play at the same time, and as an accordion player I’m always at least chording or oom-chucking. But every time I went to a workshop with an accomplished klezmorim, he or she told taught that even if you were just playing, you had to ‘sing’ with the instrument–and the phrasing wasn’t going to be right if you weren’t singing in Yiddish. Eventually, my love for klezmer won out over my prejudice over Yiddish, and now I joyfully belt out “Asher nason lanu..” during one of our freylich medleys, even though I would never do so at an aliyah.

    The variation in Hebrew and Judaic languages just makes us that much richer…

    • I tried to escape that east coast thing for a while too, especially once I moved to Jersey and fell into the orbit of the New York Jews.

      I said Good Shabbos this week, but tomorrow, on the Reform end of Pesach, I’m gonna make mufleta. I hope that says something about where I am now.

  7. Randi’s comments remind me of a story my mother z”l used to tell, about the three women in the Kosher butcher shop. The first one says, “I think I’ll make a kugel for dinner.” The second one says, “Ve pronounce it kigel.” And the third chimes in, “Ve are vun-hundred percent Americans. Ve call it poodying.”

    I’m no expert on Yiddish dialects, but I think kigel is Litvak and kugel is Galitzianer. (And poodying is perhaps Jewtopian.) And one’s own dialect allowed feeling superior to those who pronounced difficulty. This being Shir Hashirim season, we can remember from one of its author’s other books, there is nothing new under the sun.

      • David, your grandma’s side of the family said kiegel instead of kugel, pipik instead of pupik, shiel instead of shul, and so on. The families they married into–including your grandpa–made merciless fun of them.

        I think Larry is right that it is a Litvak pronunciation. But who knows? My grandfather claimed to be a Litvak with Sephardic ancestry. So go figure.

        • Where do you think the Litvaks came from, Dad? A whole lot of what became the Polish/Lithuanian bulk of Ashkenazi Jewry were expelled from Spain before.

        • Litvak with Sephardi ancestry? Was the name Epstein (Cohen only) or Horowitz/Gurevitz (Levi only) by any chance?

          Litvaks say “kugel” properly. It’s those durned Galitzo-Poylishers who say “keegel”.

          • Sorry I brought it up. My mother’s family came from Kobrin (Belarus) and my father’s from Bershtifke (Kiev gebernye), and both said kugel. And do I remember the song lyric correctly — you say tomah-to, I say tomay-to, let’s call the whole thing off?

          • The name was Weldt. However, my grandfather claimed the name was originally Velde. And at the time they emigrated to the US, they were living in what is now Belarus.

    • Other way around. Galitzianer accents are always mocked for diverting from the normative (Ashk, Seph, Yem, Ital) pronunciation of “u”, merging it with “i”. (Hence, “hu” and “hi” being both pronounced as the latter.)

  8. What is up with your obsession about purity? If you speak Israeli style you can’t use some Ashkenazic words or pronunciations? Chas v’shalom we should ever be inconsistent? I guess that when we speak English we should never throw in any Yiddishisms or words borrowed from other languages using that logic. But our ability to communicate will be the poorer for it.

    I suspect, however, the more important issue isn’t language and grammar but your relationship to Israel, which is conflicted at best. That I can’t help you with.

    • I think you’re reading something into this that I didn’t mean and, judging by the comments, no one else read what you’re thinking either.

      This was meant to be a meandering description of how I’ve pronounced things over time.

      But, you’re right about the Israel thing. If the only reason to think of one pronunciation as more correct than the other is that it’s how they do it in Israel today and I don’t feel to good about Israel today, my logic dictates that I shouldn’t feel bound by their style.

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  10. There may be an ideological undercurrent in the struggle between Ashkenozish and Israelit in the non-O American Jewish world, but SOME of us would gladly abide by the Diqduq Abotenu. (Hets and `Ayins included!)

    It’s amazing how having one of your practices becoming normative (pronunciation, albeit Not Quite) does to a people.

  11. Also, let’s not forget the inverse: Using Ashkenozis as a means to identify with Orthodox ideology. I’ve known several BTs who grew up learning the Israeli pronunciation switch to “sov” (without changing qamatz, for some reason) after becoming frum.

  12. i’m more or less orthodox, but i’m not a zionist and i’m very pro-yiddish language, pro-yiddish culture, and pro-jewish diversity. i grew up with sephardi israeli pronunciations and being vaguely embarrassed by all the “yisgadals” and “shabboses” and whatnot. it was associated with something old, weak, outdated… i.e. eastern european jewish culture, my grandparents, the holocaust, etc. i liked feeling like i was being “authentic” by pronouncing things the israeli way. then i learned about how and why yiddish came to be an embarrassment to much of liberal judaism and how zionism impacted the transition in american shuls to the use of israeli hebrew. i learned about how much of my eastern european jewish heritage was worth preserving and how the yiddish language was dying out in non-chasidic communities. and it gave me a sense that i was actually being more authentic to MY OWN history to use ashkenazi pronounciation and openly embrace the way yiddish intersected with my judaism. i’m not sephardi and i’m not israeli, so why would i take on those traditions (unless i moved to israel)? just as non-jewish white people in america have internalized this idea that they don’t have any “culture” (and often have no knowledge of the various cultures their families were part of before assimilation) and therefore feel the need to steal/borrow from other cultures… ashkenazi jews have come to be ashamed of our own culture and traditions and feel the need for something better/different/more exotic. i reject that concept. and i do think it’s tied into trying to move beyond the holocaust, a zionist political ideology, and the idea of masculinizing ashkenazi culture. i’m not saying all of those things are always bad, but i think they are connected to the reason this shift happened.

    fwiw, i go to orthodox shuls exclusively (except on very rare occasions). the chabad shul i go to has sephardi and ashkenazi congregants. i’ve heard some sephardim use ashkenazi pronounciation, and soe use sephardi. all the ashkenazim use ashkenazi. the very zionist modern orthodox shul i go to varies depending on the ba’al tefilla… sometimes it’s someone who uses exclusively sephardi, some ashkenazi, and some (as in this week) use a combo that makes me happy in an odd way because it reflects the way i daven (influenced by my upbringing in a liberal jewish movement) and makes me feel less bad that i’m inconsistent sometimes. so sure, i guess you could say i’m one of those (in Bar Navi’s words) “BTs who grew up learning the Israeli pronunciation switch to “sov” … after becoming frum.”

    • T, I share your sentiments, although we are of different backgrounds and religious beliefs. that the delegitimization of Yiddish is related to “trying to move beyond the holocaust, a zionist political ideology, and the idea of masculinizing ashkenazi culture” is well documented and supported does not give us much of an opportunity to turn back the hands of time which have attempted to wipe out Jewish ethnic and cultural diversity.

      David, I think what you’re arriving at is near the conclusions I’ve recently discovered. Deep within me is a Yiddish soul aching to break free. For too long we have taught Jewish history from Biblical times to the fall of the Temple, skipping to the Holocaust and founding of the State of Israel. What happened in between and what do we stand to lose by exposing it? Centuries of Judeo-Arabic cooperation and cultural contact. Thriving shtetl life in Eastern Europe and epochs of successful cohabitation amongst Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the Pale of Settlement. A painful reminder of a world where Jews needn’t hyper-masculinate because they were not conscripted into service for a nationalism they were happily excluded from.

      The mainstream media, both Jewish and secular, will tell you that Yiddish is dying, or died long ago. Yiddish, assaulted from all sides, is immediately connected to a defeatist paradox. Its own speakers ushered in its demise, robbing subsequent generations (some of our grandparents, our parents and us) of a natal understanding of yiddishkayt. What the Nazis started, hard assimilation (Israel) and soft assimilation (America) completed. We cannot resuscitate I.B. Singer, Sholom Aleichem or Avrom Sutzkever, but we cannot just lay them to rest.

      For the time being, it is important to offer bits of secular Yiddish culture to remember where we came from. Klezmer, the most accessible form of Yiddish culture, will continue to be prevalent and acceptable in the Jewish mainstream. But what of the socialist/anarchist/Marxist writings? These must be excavated to recall the roots of Jewish utopianism. What of the Yiddish theatre troupes performing Goldfaden plays and operettas?

      Yiddish will, for the time being, take its place as a portion of a comprehensive, faceted Jewish identity. Just as we have eco-Jews and music-Jews and a combination of everything in between, so will we have Yiddish-Jews.

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  15. The wish for a peaceful and happy Sabbath comes from the heart and not from the textbook! I would venture to say that most anyone comprehends the greeting and the spirit in which it is offered no matter what the idiom. Let’s call the whole thing off, indeed!

  16. Thank you for the above comments, which are so thoughtful, informative, and respectful. This is the kind of learned conversation which makes me so proud to be a Jew. It is a conversation which honors G-d.

    Language, “feeling superior,” culture: these are all sensitive subjects. Somehow, we can discuss these topics in a way that draws us closer together. That is our practice.

    Thank G-d. Because around the world, people are literally killing their brothers and sisters, over less.

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