Beyond Kvetch, Kvell: A New Lexicon

Professor launches web-based dictionary, invites entries from everybody.

11/20/12
Staff Writer
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From alte kaker, or old man in Yiddish, to zatar, an Israeli spice, Americans’ Jewish identity has long flavored their English.

Now a professor has harnessed the Internet to collect those heimish (cozy and warm) expressions that have made their way into the vernacular from sources including, but not limited to, Aramaic, Ladino, Yiddish and Hebrew.

The “Jewish English Lexicon” at jewish-languages.org grew out of Sarah Benor’s “American-Jewish Language and Identity in Historical Context” class at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus. It’s a living demonstration of the diversity of Jewish English.

“Certain words identify Jews as being part of certain Jewish subgroups,” she said. Jews use these words to “distinguish themselves not just from non-Jews, but from each other.”

The author of the new book, “Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn The Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism” (Rutgers University Press) Benor has focused since her undergraduate days at Columbia University on the ways Jews use language to build their identities.

As a professor, she put the lexicon on the Internet years ago, but it was in the form of a primitive document that was hard to search. So she secured grants from the American Academy for Jewish Research and the Dorot Foundation to hire a web developer and designer. 

The lexicon is, of course, filled with Yiddish, the language of the European Ashkenazi Jews whose descendants account for most of American Jewry. Benor has an expertise in Yiddish herself, but her dictionary draws on several other languages as well.

“That’s why I needed to make it collaborative,” she said. “I don’t have the knowledge to incorporate the words Syrians would use.”

Since the lexicon went live earlier this fall, it’s attracted about 50 editorial changes in which visitors corrected small errors or added additional meanings and added some 24 new words. It has 738 entries.

Like Wikipedia, the site encourages users to make corrections, disagree with definitions or add notes by clicking on the button of the relevant entry. The comments are reviewed before they are published.

One visitor to the site even contributed an expression that Benor had never encountered: bayit sheni. In modern Hebrew, it means second house. It also refers to the Second Temple, the one destroyed by the Romans.

But apparently in some ex-Orthodox circles, it also means, according to the site, “A place one repairs to for debauchery after being expelled from one’s initial location.”

Still, the site is “far from complete,” Benor said, noting that it doesn’t yet include, for example, any contributions from Persian Jews.

She hopes it will grow organically as people use the site, and wants individuals to contribute, as did Amy Zabb Amiel, whose husband grew up in the Sephardi community of Seattle, where it’s common to hear phrases in Ladino, the language of Sephardi Jews, in everyday conversation, like hijo bueno, literally “good son.”

The closest Yiddish equivalent is mensch, Amiel said, who contributed not only hijo bueno to the lexicon, but also bragas (underwear), kahal (synagogue) and others.

“Preserving Jewish sayings and words is linked to Jewish survival,” Amiel said. “The lexicon [Sarah] built is a fascinating study of Jewish life today. What expressions are people using in their homes, at the dinner table, when putting their babies to sleep?”

helenatjewishweek@gmail.com; @thesimplechild

Last Update:

11/26/2012 - 12:17

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