How do you say "American" in Jewish?
It's Arrival Day, everybody! Unpack your luggage!

American Jewry is a many-layered thing. Even limiting myself to prescriptivism and staying away from historical prediction, I could still talk about any number of issues that are burning a hole in my tallis: tracing a route between assimilation and fundamentalism; Jewish poverty and public health; what sort of Jewish school I hope against hope will exist by the time my daughter's old enough to attend.

Today, though, I'll finish up by talking about Jewish languages.

Ashkenazic Jewry (of which most American Jews are descendants) has through its long history been characterized by what's been variously termed "internal bilingualism" (Weinreich) or trilingualism (Dovid Katz) - Yiddish as the vernacular, and both Yiddish and Hebrew/Aramaic as written (and to some extent spoken) languages.

Such diglossia is a thing of the past for American Jews. The Chasidim and us wacky Yiddishists aside, American Jews speak, read, and write only English. (Immigrants from Israel are a special case.) This is not surprising -- such language shift happened long ago in Western Europe, and (some argue) was in full swing in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

What's relevant to American Jews in particular is that the language to which most of us have assimilated is -- English. We speak the world's most widespread language, and, thus, the world's most widespread Jewish language. (Two Jews meeting on the street who know only that the other is Jewish, but not what language she speaks, would understand each other most reliably in English.)

What does this mean for us? Recall what I posted earlier from Michael Walzer on pluralism in America -- political allegiance is shared, while cultural specificity is manifold. I think the same model can and should be applied to us American Jews. English is our own much as it is the world's language, but it is not by any stretch our only language. It is in the best interests of the English speaking world to make it possible for smaller languages to continue to exist. Similarly, the Anglophone, American Jewish establishment should see that it is in our best interest as Jews to preserve a linguistic-cultural mix that has been our content and context since our earliest days.

This mix is difficult to specify, and it must, of course, change with the priorities of the community. But a mix should always be available. (This is something that was suggested by Amnon Ophir, the principal of Prozdor when I was teaching there. For various reasons he was not able to follow up on it.) American Jews should be able to receive education in a Jewish literary or spoken language, whether it be loshn-koydesh, Ivrit, Yiddish, Ladino, or some other tongue. Such availability should not depend on ideological stance or political fashion: if I want to learn any Jewish language, I should not be told (or signalled by the absence of institutional funding) that other languges are more appropriate for study. Of course, most will want to study loshn-koydesh or Ivrit, but who knows what sorts of broadening a greater spectrum might foster?

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