Lingo of the Sarah Silverman Controversy
The Jewish Press set off a firestorm last week when it published An Open Letter to Sarah Silverman by Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt. The Orthodox author criticized the comedian’s politics, vulgar presentation style, and the fact that she remains childless. As a linguist, what I found most interesting about this article was the language. By looking closely at the Hebrew and Yiddish words used by the author and commenters, we can learn a lot about Orthodox Jews in America.
In my research, I have found that Orthodox Jews use many Hebrew and Yiddish words when speaking to other Orthodox Jews, but they avoid or translate those words in their speech to outsiders. In the letter to Sarah Silverman, Rosenblatt uses only one, a word most Americans know: kosher. He talks about God, not Hashem, and Orthodox rather than frum.
Many articles in the Jewish Press use more distinctive language. For example, Mordechai Bienstock writes: “We can be truly ourselves in all of our pursuits, expressing the wonderful individualistic neshamahs [souls] Hashem [God] has granted us through the application of our special natures in the physical world, what the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples discovered as the basis for avodah b’gashmiyut [serving God through the physical world].”
Even Rosenblatt uses Hebrew and Yiddish words in his other articles in the Jewish Press, for example, in an article about internet filters: “Our frum [religious] community”, “Kiddush Hashem” (sanctifying God’s name), and “Halacha Chabura” (study group about Jewish law).
It is clear from the language that Rosenblatt intended his “Open Letter to Sarah Silverman” to reach an audience broader than the regular readers of the Orthodox-oriented Jewish Press. And that it did. Due in part to angry, obscenity-laced comments posted on the site by Sarah’s father, Donald Silverman, the article was picked up by dozens of mainstream and Jewish publications. This brought in tens of thousands of additional visitors to JewishPress.com, even causing the site to crash.
Several hundred people were moved enough by the article to write comments, both on the Jewish Press website and in other venues. These commenters identify themselves as Orthodox Jews, religious non-Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, and non-Jews. Some from all groups support the rabbi, and some from all groups are critical. Many of the commenters use language — especially Hebrew and Yiddish words — to emphasize their identity or their connection to certain groups.
Some use words commonly known by secular Jews and non-Jews, like “mensch,” “oy vey,” and “bris,” allowing them to indicate their Jewishness, their connection to Jews, and/or their association between Jews and Yiddish. But some use phrases that only Jews knowledgeable about traditional life would know. One visitor who identifies himself as a non-Orthodox Jew includes this in his critique of the rabbi: “Whether you’re Cholov Yisroel, Pas Yisroel, hold by 6 hours blah blah blah…” He is indicating his knowledge of Haredi Orthodoxy by using Hebrew phrases identifying stringent levels of kashrut, as well as the Yiddish-influenced phrase “hold by.”
Another commenter uses the phrase “be dan l’chaf zchut” (give the benefit of the doubt). This periphrastic verb (a Yiddish-origin construction using “to be” with a Hebrew word or phrase) sounds strange to non-Orthodox ears but is very common in Orthodox communities. By using this phrase, this commenter indicates that he is Orthodox or somehow has insider knowledge of Orthodox life.
Some commenters use Orthodox language in a mocking way. For example, Dvora Meyers’ biting critique of the open letter ends with an ironic blessing to the rabbi: “May you be zocheh to live many, many more years to see the continued march of feminism and more women like Silverman who use public platforms to fight for what they believe in, regardless of whether or not they’ve chosen to procreate.” “Be zocheh” (merit) is also a periphrastic verb common among Orthodox Jews. By ending with this mock blessing and by including Orthodox language, Meyers makes her critique of the rabbi’s article all the more potent.
Similarly, a non-Orthodox Jewish man comments: “I sit next to my wife and hear her beautiful voice in prayer….‘oy vey is meir…a shonda.’” By using Yiddish in a response he imagines the rabbi might have to his mechitzah-less synagogue, this man indicates his understanding of the connection between Orthodox Jews and Yiddish, even though the rabbi used no Yiddish in his article.
One comment takes this to another level: “I am not Jewish, so I call upon the faithful to translate this into Hebrew and communicate it to Rabbi Rosenblatt: Mind your own business.” This visitor surely understands that Rosenblatt is fluent in English. His comment plays on the understanding that Orthodox Jews use Hebrew words, even though he likely knows that they use fewer when speaking to outsiders.
Why do Hebrew and Yiddish appear in so many of the responses to an article with so little Hebrew or Yiddish? Because Americans of diverse backgrounds understand that Orthodox Jews use these languages. Orthodox Jews have long recognized their distinctive speech, especially among male yeshiva students. Check out the Frumspeak dictionary and the song Yeshivishe Reid. As the Silverman episode demonstrates, non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews recognize this too, and some of them use this language creatively to sharpen their arguments related to an Orthodox writer.
Sarah Bunin Benor is Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College. She is the author of Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism and the creator of the Jewish English Lexicon.