Burying My Mother Tongue

Aramaic is my first language. I don’t get to speak it much with fellow native speakers in Los Angeles, where I live now. The number of Jewish Aramaic speakers has dwindled so much that we now quixotically call ourselves “The Worldwide Federation of Aramaic Speakers.” The group would fit in a small room.

Aramaic is considered the second holiest language after Hebrew. A language usually is not born holy. It becomes holy when it ceases being spoken and is mainly used as the language of scriptures, rituals and prayers. That is how Hebrew came to be called leshon ha-kodesh. After Hebrew faded as a spoken language around 200 BCE, myriads of Jews and Christians in Babylonia, Persia and the land of Israel picked up Aramaic, its Semitic sister. Two late books in the Bible, Daniel and Ezra, contain large sections in literary Aramaic. When Hebrew was waning as a spoken language, almost the entire Bible was translated into Aramaic for the benefit of the masses who couldn’t understand the original Hebrew. Aramaic became a part of the synagogue ritual for many centuries.

Most of Midrashic and Talmudic literature is in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. Ketubot (marriage contracts) and other legalistic documents are often in Aramaic. Some well-known prayers, such as the Kaddish and Kol Nidre, are mostly in Aramaic. The Passover Haggadah begins with Aramaic, Ha-Shata Hakha, and ends with a very popular Aramaic song, “Had Gadya.” Another reason for the sanctity of Aramaic is that the Kabbalah and other Jewish mystic literature are written mostly in Aramaic. It remained alive and well as a learned language of yeshiva discussion and Talmudic sophistry. From there, Aramaic words, like the term bar-minnan for “away from us,” a euphemism for “dead body,” have infiltrated spoken Jewish languages, such as Yiddish and Ladino.

Throughout its long life, Hebrew has borrowed words from Aramaic. In the legal-rabbinical lexicon, there is erusin (engagement), nissu’in (marriage) and gerushin (divorce). And there are everyday words like abba (father, dad) and imma (mother, mom. The word abba, used by Jesus when talking or referring to God, his Father in heaven, penetrated even English and French as abbot, abbé and abbey. Other Aramaic words and names in English through the New Testament are Martha (wife, woman), Tabitha (female deer), Bethany (from “beth-‘anya,” or ‘house of the poor’) and Bethesda (from “beth Hisda,” or “house of mercy”), which is also popular as a name for some Protestant meeting houses.

In the seventh century, Islam conquered the Middle East and Arabic superseded Aramaic as a spoken language almost everywhere. The exceptions were remote and inaccessible mountains of Kurdistan (Iraq, Iran, Turkey), where Aramaic speech somehow survived as if on a low fire by Jews and Christians until almost the present time. But a series of conflicts beginning with World War I uprooted large numbers of Christian Aramaic speakers, who immigrated to Europe and to American cities like Chicago, Detroit and San Diego. Practically all the Aramaic-speaking Jews made aliyah to Israel in early 1950s. Many of the transplanted Aramaic speakers, like immigrants everywhere, gradually shifted to the language of their new country, with only a few still loyal to their mother tongue. Today, Aramaic’s last Mohicans are dying or already dead.

In academia, however, Aramaic is doing quite well. Scholars are acutely aware of the near extinction of spoken Aramaic and are racing to document the surviving dialects before their speakers vanish from the Earth. For some dialects — and Aramaic had many — there are just one or two qualified speakers left.

I grew up speaking Aramaic in the town of Zakho, in Kurdish Iraq. I left with my family for Israel in 1951, when I was 12. As a young student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the early 1960s, I grew aware of how quickly our Jewish Aramaic dialects, along with the Kurdish Jews’ oral literary traditions, were disappearing. With the encouragement of my dear professors, I started to collect as many oral and written texts as I could find. I searched for the best elderly “informants” — a linguistic term for skilled native speakers — and recorded them. Most were happy to work with me, in part because I was “one of them.” A few had worked earlier with some “Vuzvuz” (Ashkenazi) professors, but they found the communication difficult and couldn’t go on. Women informants did not feel comfortable, especially if a husband was present, being interviewed or recorded by a “foreigner,” but with me, an insider, it was OK. Some Kurdish women even let me attend and record their traditional lamentations on the night of Tisha b’Av, a ritual normally off limits to men. My informants had a hard time adapting to the university sound studio. In Kurdistan, their “natural habitat,” they often told tales to a large audience around a fireplace with dried fruits and many cups of tea.

I have had ambivalent feelings about my efforts to salvage my mother tongue. Academically, it is of course quite rewarding. But I often felt like an undertaker, burying a dear relative, my mother tongue. Aramaic was once a vibrant linguistic tool for young and old men and women of my community. But no more. I sometimes feel that all I am trying to do is give it a decent burial. That is why, when I got a call recently at 5:30 in the morning from a 75-year-old lady in Israel wishing me a happy Passover in Aramaic, I was excited rather than annoyed.

It has been good to see the “revival” of Aramaic in American popular culture (perhaps as a part of the global revival of faith). Though controversial in many ways, Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” filmed partly in Aramaic, stirred a great deal of interest in the language. I occasionally receive calls at my office at UCLA from devoted Christians who ask: “Sir, Is it true that you speak the language of our Lord?” I sometimes answer: “Yes, it is true, I speak the languages of your Lord and Mine … Aramaic and Hebrew.” I have been asked to translate English phrases and longer texts into Aramaic for several movies (“Oh God!”) and TV shows (“The X-Files”). Just recently a young lady preparing for her wedding ceremony asked me to write out a few romantic phrases in Aramaic that she and her future husband wanted to tattoo on their bodies. Not long ago, I saw a cartoon in The New Yorker in which God tells a recent arrival: “Just so you know, the official language of Heaven is Aramaic….”

Last but not least, the publication of my son’s book “My Father’s Paradise” spread the “gospel” of Aramaic beyond anything I could have imagined. I have received so many e-mails from readers, many expressing a profound curiosity about the language. A rabbi from Boston, a Yeshiva University graduate no less, e-mailed just the other day. “Your son’s love for you is obvious on every page,” he wrote. “Moreover, I was delighted to discover that my beloved language of Aramaic, which I have studied all of my life, is actually alive and well, and spoken by real people!”  

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the University of California, Los Angeles and is the author of more than 15 books and 80 articles on Jewish Aramaic and Kurdish-Jewish folklore. His son Ariel Sabar’s book, “My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq,” recently won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.