I just received the new issue of the Jewish Quarterly (London) with a new article of mine in it. (With other interesting material as well, of course.) Unfortunately, I doubt anyone in this country has heard of it, and their web site is sorely lacking. Please buy the new issue (Spring 2004, Number 193), but failing that, here's my piece.

New York’s Jews, religious and secular: Some unwelcome questions

The most popular synagogues in Manhattan are those that bestride the bounds of denominational identity with verve, creativity, or brazenness – or out of sheer necessity, because they have no other choice. Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the “gay shul,” is liturgically too traditional for the Reform movement, and too homosexual for the Conservatives. B’nai Jeshurun, which packs hundreds of single young worshippers on Friday nights into the sanctuary it shares with a church on the Upper West Side, is definitely not Orthodox (look your best for the attractive davener next to you), and, since it uses musical instruments at the Shabbat service, can’t be Conservative either.

Then there are the grass-roots mini-minyanim which have sprung up so that like-minded young people can find friendly faces to daven among. Perhaps the oldest of such minyanim, Kehilat Orach Eliezer (KOE), is an Orthodox prayer group meeting on Saturday mornings and holidays, which seems to tremble chronically on the edge of schism and ideological transformation, too liberal for other established Orthodox synagogues and too conservative for the other smaller groups that have sprung up. For example, Kehilat Hadar, a minyan of some hundred attendees, coming together regularly in temporary quarters, is marked by liturgical conservatism and a love of singing. Darchei Noam is a minyan that calls itself Orthodox, and indeed there is separate seating at its services – but its extensive women’s participation would be out of place at most Orthodox synagogues. Kol Zimrah, a minyan that takes its inspiration from the Reconstructionist and Chavurah movements, is another newcomer to this scene, not to mention a couple of other such groups in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Why do so many twenty- and thirty-somethings find a need to daven outside the strictures of organized, denominationally centered synagogue life? What does this say about Jewish life in New York, both among religious Jews and among those still hardy and independent-minded enough to identify themselves as secular?

There are two reasons for the mini-minyans, one prosaic and one philosophical. The first is demographic homogeneity. Many of these new prayer groups are frequented by twenty- and thirtysomethings who prefer to socialize – and to pray, sing, and enjoy a kiddush – with those of similar age and marital status. Anyone over the age of thirty-five who attends such a “demo-homo” minyan will often feel out of place, not because the daveners themselves are unfriendly, but because they are not in the in-group. But what will happen to those currently active in such mini-minyanim in five or ten years, when they are either older and married, or, worse still in the Upper West Side taxonomy, older and unmarried? Will they still feel comfortable presiding over a second-generation, newly arrived crop of fresh-faced, Conservadox Ivy League graduates?

But there is a more charitable explanation for this phenomenon. Committed, intelligent young New Yorkers are more and more coming to find that the institutional orientation of American Judaism does not overlap with their own interests and commitments. Luckily for them, New York is preserving its reputation as a sort of laboratory, where beakers of young Jews, bubbling away in dark, hip corners, produce innovative substance that can be exported to the rest of the country.

Each of the large denominations has justified its existence to the present day on the basis of a handful of issues. The Reform movement liberated its members from the yoke of halachah, only to refashion that yoke according to the individual will, and then, most recently, to place that new yoke over its own necks, a la Sinai, with communal consent. But where do social action and the ethical imperative, the highest and irreplaceable mitzvot of Reform Judaism, fit in this new rightward tilt? The institutions of Modern Orthodoxy came out of an urge to prove the success of strict halachic practice within the framework of modern American life. But neither the strict halachists (who are attracted to the fundamentalist Orthodox groups of Brooklyn), nor the adherents of modern scholarly-intellectual practice (who are splitting off into their own minyanim and seminaries) are satisfied with the trends of their movements. Will there be a modern Orthodoxy in fifty years? And the monkey in the middle, Conservative Judaism, is having its strength sheared from it by Reform on the left and Orthodoxy on the right; egalitarianism, the burning issue of Conservatism’s 80s and 90s, is now taken for granted even by the movement’s neighbors on both sides. Is there a Conservative passion left for the next millennium that will not consume the bush planted by Schechter and Heschel?

It goes without saying that many lay Jews are not proficient in the inside-baseball differences that characterize Jewish interdenominational squabbling – after all, it’s pretty late in the century, and somewhat late in American Jewish life, to blame the widely recognized American Jewish apathy and ignorance on one particular group of Jews. But many involved New York Jews go one step farther: their flexibility and experimentation in matters doctrinal, halachic, and cultural are precisely at those junctures where organizations and institutions have planted red flags. They walk across the minefield not even looking at the danger signs. So Maimonides’ thirteen principles, the authorship of the Torah, and the binding nature of mitzvot are topics freely discussed by Orthodox and non-Orthodox scholars at a number of forums. Recognition of intermarried couples and of homosexual relationships, a danger zone for the Conservative movement, is approached more and more often, albeit quite gingerly and only in lay organizations. And the Reform leadership, seemingly heedless of a disconnect with the membership such as is bedeviling the Conservatives, is inching ever closer to an appreciation, if not a binding understanding of halachah.

If committed, religiously observant New York Jews don’t respect the denominational boundaries of the last fifty years, how can they be pinned down? While their principles vary, of course, one can try to summarize their approach. Institutions require strict divisions between “in” and “out” – an intermarried Jew must be thrown out because there is a chance that his or her spouse might find their way into the community, which would then, ipso facto, no longer be Jewish, or at least be less so. The truth, individuals and communities know, is somewhat more complicated, because those intermarried couples who bother to associate with a Jewish community are often more committed than couples in which both members are Jewish. This explains why New York’s Jewish cultural institutions, which play the role of venues for ideas that synagogues cannot entertain without unlooked-for repercussions, provide myriad discussion and support groups – not to combat intermarriage, as Jewish communal leaders would characterize the main goal of American Jewry, but to integrate such couples into the larger community.

At the same time that denominational boundaries are being crossed, the influence of two very large, nearly homogeneous communities is strongly felt. The fact that most Jews are to be found under the influence of one or both of these groups will determine to what extent post-denominational Judaism will succeed in the city. On the one hand, fundamentalist ultra-Orthodoxy, a group notable both for its internal power struggles (one would not be amiss in classifying Brooklyn Chasidim, for example, as three, six, or even ten “denominations”) and for its sociocultural homogeneity, like a giant mini-minyan. On the other hand are the Jewish secularists, who would probably not acknowledge, even if it were pointed out to them, their affinity with both Eastern European and Israeli mass-market, urban Jewish cultures.

Most of the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox, though not all, are Chasidim, and many of the Chasidim, though again not all, are Yiddish-speaking. Though their oft-proclaimed adherence to the traditions of their ancestors occasions much admiring or scornful comment about the “shtetls [sic] in Brooklyn,” such statements betray an ignorance of the thoroughgoing yet disciplined innovation that is the source of these communities’ energy. Mass communication, popular culture, best-selling merchandise, rock-star personalities: the success of the Chasidim in creating a new culture on American soil, and their ability to convince themselves and others of their absolute fealty to the “old ways,” owes everything to these modern phenomena. At the same time, however, the uniquely Chasidic home-family nexus made possible by these modern walls of Yiddish (or merely English-language ultra-Orthodox) mass communication and consumption is also liable to be influenced precisely by the accoutrements of modernity that have made it possible. Chasidic rebbeim, for example, are ever more frequently inveighing against the influx of non-Chasidim into their communities, and the use of the Internet to popularize extra-fundamentalist tendencies. These troublesome tendencies, however, are either already used by the Chasidim or are about to enter their repertoire.

Surprisingly, then, the ultra-Orthodox communities of New York, who the city’s other Jews view with a mixture of fascination, envy, and trepidation, are confronting the same problems as the by now well-established, even traditional, American Jewish denominations. Institutional success leads to cooptation of the institution’s elements by those who would not have been originally allowed inside the tent, at the same time that looser boundaries of definition give rise to the fear that the institution will lose its native constituency. Add to this that Brooklyn’s Chasidic population is growing the fastest of any New York Jewish population (and therefore of any group of American Jews), and the question for New York Jews is obvious: if the Chasidim maintain their bloc, how will that affect the rest of us? And, by the same token, what can we expect if the Chasidim fragment, as has happened in other historical circumstances?

There are a number of Jews in New York who will understandably complain at being left out of the above summary. They call themselves by a variety of names – “just Jewish,” “cultural Jews,” “secular Jews” – but what they aren’t is clearer than what they are. They neither attend synagogue regularly, nor participate frequently in religious ritual, nor involve themselves in the minutiae of traditional observance. What, then, does a cultural or secular Jew do in New York? All manner of things, because New York is possibly the only city in the world where a non-religious, Jewish cultural diet can be pursued twenty-four hours a day, six (or even seven) days a week. Flyers and schedules for concerts (from Jewish hip-hop to klezmer to folk-inflected classical), lectures, classes, discussions, art exhibits, theater, readings, etc., etc., lie thick as manna upon the Manhattan ground.

Though it was only in the twentieth century, in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, that Jewish secularism became a live option, it has quickly become the modus operandi that feels most familiar to the Jewish urban dweller. Early in the twenty-first century, however, it appears that such an option cannot live on for long as an independent choice on the committed Jew’s menu. This observation is made with regret, for a counterbalance is sorely needed to the tendency of American Jews to see their Jewish life as primarily “Judaism” – a religion bled dry of extra-legal content found somewhere between Protestantism and Catholicism. However, Jewish culturalism (if one can call it that) suffers not just from this Americanizing tendency, but the very assimilating nature of urban cultural life. That is, the questions cultural Jews have to answer include not only the same one that all Jewish religious denominations have to answer: what makes their Jewish life different and valuable in comparison to other groups? As they produce and consume an enviably rich and varied cultural output, Jews who identify themselves predominantly with non-religious Jewish culture must ask themselves: what makes their cultural life Jewish? If the denominations find it difficult to deal with their one question, rare is the cultural Jew who bothers to answer both. Let’s hope, for the sake of Gotham’s Jews, that they forthrightly discuss these matters across their picket fences, subway lines, and bagel counters.
The alluring Shabbes siren

Any first-hand reports on the high-volume music made by the Sabbath klaxon of Yeshiva Toras Emes Kamenitz?


Mango for lunch

This fruit is so fleshy as to be almost fleyshik.

If you think I'm writing off-topic, the mango bears a close relation to Indian food.

And perhaps you wonder where the word came from? I did.

The OED to the rescue!

< Portuguese manga (early 16th cent.) < a Dravidian word such as Kodagu mage, Malayalam ma, or Tamil mky mango, perh. via Malay mangga (which may itself, however, be < Portuguese). Portuguese manga also Middle French manga (1540), French mangue, mengue (1604), whence the appearance of the last 2 forms in the work cited in quot. 1678 at sense 2. The origin of the -o ending is not clear: Dutch and Spanish mango are < English.

The first occurrence of the word in a European language appears to be in a passage referring to Calicut (Kozhikode), and is therefore prob. < a Dravidian language:

1510 L. DI VARTHEMA Itin. f. lviiv, Se troua quiui anchora unaltro fructo che se chiama Amba, el pede suo se chiama Manga.

Its first recorded occurrence in certain languages, e.g. post-classical Latin (1511) and French (1540) (both as manga), appears to be in translations of this text. The relevant passage was not translated into English but may have had an indirect influence.


Breaking news
From The Times (London), Friday, Jun 3, 1785; pg. 2; Issue 136; col A
(Thanks to Language Hat for alerting us to the limited-time-only free access to the archives of the Times and a wealth of other material.)


Yesterday arrived the Mail from France.
Vienna, May 11.

To prevent in Gallicia [sic] the confusion frequently occasioned in contracts, from the uniformity of the Jewish names, his Imperial Majesty has ordered, that for the future the Jews shall take family names, to which shall be joined the names of their fathers; but that they may place before these distinctive names any others they shall choose to adopt.


How to remember

Often it's not clear to me what people mean when they talk about remembering the Holocaust. I'm not sure of much, but I do know that any commemoration or attempt at understanding has to take many approaches. Here's what my reading list (or, for the tradition-minded, seder limud) was for today. (Needless to say, I didn't get to even a small fraction of it this year.)

Telling the story: Geheymshtot, an epic poem by Abraham Sutzkever. Ruth Wisse says of this poem, and another epic in Sutzkever's oeuvre:

The enormity of the history to which he bore witness inspired Sutzkever to write epic poems as well as lyrics. The narrative poem Geheymshtot (Secret Town, 1945-47), in several hundred stanzas of amphibrach tetrameter, depicts a symbolic ten survivors who hide in the sewers beneath Vilna. The epic poem Gaystike Erd (Spiritual Soil) commemorates the arrival of Sutzkever with his wife and infant daughter in Eretz Yisrael aboard the ship Patria. In each work, a constellation of dramatic personages represents the human and ideological variety of Jews who share a common fate -- the crucible of destruction in the one case, and the reclamation of national sovereignty in the other.

Understanding the events: Among the hundreds of works witnessing the Holocaust that one could spend a lifetime studying, there are two I would like to read sooner rather than later: Togbukh fun Vilner Geto (The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto), by Herman Kruk, a new translation of which is available; and Emanuel Ringelblum's Togbukh fun Varshever Geto (Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto).

Prayer: The siddur of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, "Ve'Ani Tefilati," has an insert for Yom Ha'Shoah. I'm not a hundred percent sure I agree with the theology, but I included it in my davening this year. (The insertion used to be available on the Web, but no longer, it seems. Instead there's a dvar Torah on the connection between parshes Shemini and Yom Ha'Shoah.) Here's the text, to be inserted in the berachah "Al ha'tsadikim":

נחם, ד´ אלוקינו, את עמך ישראל, שארית הפליטה, אוד מוצל מאאש, כי בשבת אבותינו בטח בגלותם קם עליהם שונא אכזר מכל, גוי עז פנים אשר לא ישא פנים לזקן ונער לא יחון. ואמר: "לכו ונכחידם מגוי ולא יזכר שם ישראל עוד." לבי לבי עם חלליהם, מעי מעי על חלליהם – ומאנה ופשי להנחם. עלי היו כולנה. ועף-על-פי-כן ולמרות הכל, נצח ישראל לא ישקר.

Just as one tells and retells the Exodus from Egypt in many different ways, so must one tell and retell the anti-redemption, the abandonment.

Postscript: It appears that David Roskies' Nightwords: A Liturgy on the Holocaust is available on-line. I'm not sure why, copyright-wise, but I'm not tzadik enough not to take advantage of it.

Post-postscript: The Warsaw Ghetto Web site, in Hebrew, is a mass of sobering detail.


How to Speak Yeshivish

A friend of mine is a linguist researching Orthodox Jewish English, or what a layperson like me can call Yeshivish. Most of the features she's listed are neither new nor surprising, but what a linguist (like any scientist) does is to empirically back up phenomena and classify them in a systematic way. I think this is the first list I've seen that does that for "frumspeak."

Distinctive features of Orthodox Jewish English
Sarah Bunin Benor

Orthodox Jewish English: English used by Orthodox Jews with distinctive features in several areas, mostly influences from Yiddish, Hebrew, and Aramaic:
1. Lexicon
2. Phonology
3. Syntax/semantics/pragmatics
4. Discourse markers
5. Prosody
6. Subtractive features

Many loan words from Yiddish, Hebrew, and Aramaic (500-2500 depending on speaker, audience, topic, setting)

A rabbi teaching a co-ed class on Hilchos Pesach:
“The mitzvah of the matzah by the seder should be- We’re machmir, it’s a chumra to have shmura mishas haketsira, that the wheat that is harvested for peysach should be already watched from the time...”

A 19-year-old man from California learning Gemora with his younger brother:
“[begin chanting intonation] Whenever you’re shaych, then you can be an eyd; whenever you’re not, you’re not [end chanting intonation]. So why does Rashi say-? That’s cause dina d’malchusa dina. It’s because they’re- even if not dina d’malchusa dina, Rashi says later cause al din hu nitstavu bney noyach. The goyim are shaych to dinim; they’re not shaych to gitin. That’s why it’s good.”

Frequent /t/ release/aspiration where general American English would use glottal stop or flap
1. at the end of words (right, not)
2. between vowels/liquids and syllabic [n] (certain, button)
3. between vowels (humanity, spirituality)

Final devoicing (wrong[k], bird[t])

Non-raising of pre-nasal /ae/

Syntax, semantics, pragmatics
Modal constructions
1. Would: If you would have seen it, you would have believed it.
2. Should: I want that you should get her number.
3. Could: I could do that.

Phrasal verbs:
give over ‘communicate, impart’
< Yiddish geb iber
speak out ‘say aloud, utter’
< Yiddish red oys
tell over ‘recount, retell, tell [a story]’
< Yiddish dertseyl iber

Prepositions: “by”
1. at [a location/structure]: “by the mikvah (‘ritual bath’),” “by the table” “by the restaurant,” “by the bus station”
2. at the house of: “Are you eating by Rabbi Fischer?” “I’ll stay by them.”
3. with, among: “By Chabad, it’s different,” “Things they’ve seen by their parents,” “By us, monarchy, unity did not mean individuals losing their individuality.”
4. according to the opinion of, in the mind of: “Who’s Reb Yehuda holding by?” “I pasken (‘rule halachically’) by him.”
5. at [an event, time of year], on (coincidence): “If you have children by the seder (‘Passover ceremony’),” “by the rehearsal,” “by Pesach (‘Passover’)”

Prepositions: “to”
1. You should come to us for Shabbos.
2. I went to Rivka.

1. hold/halt (‘be located in one’s religious observance’): “Who am I to judge where they’re holding religiously?” “Where are you holding?”
2. hold/halt (‘be located in a text’): “Where are we holding?” “We’re holding here.”
3. hold/halt (‘opine, practice’): “He holds that, if it goes out, you don’t have to relight it.” “The shul holds like that.” “He holds like Reb Yochanan.”
4. hold by/halt bay (‘accept, believe in’): “We don’t hold by the eruv.” “If you hold by Reb Aron,...”
5. hold by/halt bay (‘be on the verge of’): “With all that handshaking, I guess they’re holding by an agreement” (Weiser 1995:37).

Other words with semantic/pragmatic influences from Yiddish:
1. bring (‘cite as part of an argument’ < breng): “examples brought by Rav Hirsh”
2. learn (‘study traditional texts’ < lern): “Are we going to learn next week?”
3. be well (‘take care’, used to end a conversation < zay gezunt): “OK, be well.”

Extra connective “so”:
“If I see someone who’s using the wrong language, so I’ll realize that they’re just becoming frum (‘religious’).”
“Since we don’t have a Temple nowadays, so we don’t do that.”
“Since they were here early, so they can start now.”

Tense: progressive
I’m a BT fifteen years, and I don’t say that” (‘I have been a BT’)
“I know someone who’s already frum for 20 years” (‘who’s been religious’).

Word order:
Post-verbal adverbial phrases
“You’ll be stuck studying all day Torah.”
“I was able to pick up pretty well the lingo.”
“If it’s warping, it’s for sure kosher.”

Word order:
Fronting / Y-movement
“180 days worth of party he has there.”
“This word I didn’t know.”

Verb-first: narrative sequentiality (in classroom settings)
“We said before that that the mitzvah is from sunset til ... the feet leave the marketplace. Asks the Gemora, how much time is that? In other words, how much time is that til the feet leave the marketplace? How much time? Said Raba, ...”

Preposition dropping (***):
1. Her bus gets in *** 10:15. (FFB woman)
2. *** Chol hamoed (‘down time between the holiest days of a long holiday’) I’m not going to work, bli neder (‘without a vow’).
3. Next year *** Tisha b’Av (‘Ninth of Av holiday’), we will have another one.
4. I’m already frum (‘religious’) *** 20 years.
5. What are you doing *** Sukkos (‘Feast of Tabernacles’)?

Discourse markers
Navigating Gemora study:
1. Zogt di gemora
2. Zogt di gemora vayter
3. Zogt rashi

“Let’s go inside”; “Why don’t you read inside”
“We’ll talk outside”
In other words
Over here
Over there

Markers of praise:
1. Oh!
2. Psshhhh!

Hesitation click from Israeli Hebrew:
“But sometimes it’s more- [click] I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Boys are more- [click] boys are more interested in that kind of thing.”

Chanting intonation – text reading, translation (underline = higher pitch, italics = lower pitch)
Kagon she’oyrach shtey hashuros min hamizrach u’mayriv - The length of the two rows, it was from east to west.”

Chanting intonation in discussions about the text, esp. if-then sentences
“He says that had they not been rushed out of Egypt, they would have made their matzas in Egypt itself.”

High-falling pitch boundary: dramatic point
1. “And they should be, and they are, done together.”
2. “By saying that, that would make other groups feel uncomfortable.”
3. “Years back, they would have maybe just had one video... So now, they make it a point to make ... two videos.”

Rise-fall intonation: laid-back attitude
1. “As I was becoming frum, I got more interested in it.”
2. “If you’re going to the store, get me some milk.”

Rise-fall “whatever” – dismissive
1. “Somehow it just leaks out [that someone is a BT]. Whatever, it’s not the worst thing.”
2. “He was, whatever, not that frum.”

Speech rate: sometimes faster?

Subtractive features
Less loshon hora (‘gossip’)
Less obscenity
Less slang


Horseradish Report 5764 (from a friend)

I wept.

If you insist on the full connoisseur's report: Vintage 5764 from the Chateau d'Mullen is the result of firm, fresh fruit. The bouquet is startlingly arresting. With a beguilingly titanium core, the aroma is pugilistic. Devastatingly acidic aroma. Sensations of battery acid give way to a nuclear confiture in the mouth; ripe and full. Accents of earth, fire and arsenic followed by a crippling finish. Suggested accompaniment: gefilte fish and slivovitz by the mugful.

Perhaps it will age well. I'm not.


Israel and Yiddish

Robert Rosenberg's review in the Forward of Aharon Megged's Foiglman, a novel about a Yiddish poet in Israel, is not bad. The last paragraph, though, cries out for a bit of the old context sauce.

"A poet's homeland is his language," laments Foiglman toward the end of this brief, complex book. But this is too pat. A poet has no homeland: Language is but a small, wooden boat carrying one across the water. Yiddish was shattered beneath the perfect storm of Hitler, Nazism and hatred of the Jews — not by the resurgence of Hebrew, though that rebirth was accompanied by all the contradictory love and hatred of two siblings vying for their parents' love. The poignancy of "Foiglman" lies in its portrait of a castaway hanging onto the bow of that shattered vessel by the skin of his teeth, and the remorse it evokes in us, the onlookers, as we peer helplessly from the safety of shore.

Poignancy? Sure, I can go for that. Unfortunately, though, the truth about the shattering of Yiddish is even more depressing. Though Hitler's blow was determinative ("perfect storm," connoting an act of God, is certainly a strange description of the Final Solution), the post-war decline of Yiddish was aided by Yiddish-hating Jews themselves. None other than the government of Israel participated in the elimination of Yiddish culture. I'm not talking about the assimilation common to all transcultural ("melting pot") nationalisms, but about shuttering of publishing houses, laws designed to discourage Yiddish publishing, and silent acquiescence in gangs' destruction of Yiddish newspaper kiosks.

So the real story is not poignant, but tragic. Poignant is leaving your lover at the train station in Paris. Tragic is the mistakes made by your own people. Tragic is Jewish.