Sacred Speakers:
Language and Culture among the Haredim in Israel

Simeon D. Baumel

Berghahn 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
Sacred Speakers is a study of language and culture which extends well beyond sociolinguistics narrowly conceived. It also includes a good amount of general background, making it accessible to those without prior knowledge of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) world.

Fifty pages offer a general introduction to the Haredi and a historical survey of the three groups of Ashkenazi Haredim examined in detail: the Gerrer and Lubavitch (Habad) Hassidim and the (Lithuanian) Mitnagdim. Originating in eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, these groups share a common background but have significant differences. The Hassid sects recognise the central authority of rabbinic dynasties, which the Mitnagdim lack. And Habad has a strong emphasis on outreach and communication which has made linguistic diversity more acceptable.

Three chapters look at language use by these groups in Israel, in different spheres. The first looks at language use by rabbis and leaders, in newspapers and communal magazines, both in articles and in advertisements, and in women's and family magazines. Another looks at domestic language use, street signs and advertisements, and posters and graffiti around sacred graves. And a third looks at educational frameworks and schools, at official language policy and foreign language teaching, but also at language use in class, between teachers out of class, and between pupils out of class.

One broad theme is a convergence on Ivrit (modern Israeli Hebrew), at the expense of Yiddish and other languages. It is common for grandparents to know more languages than parents, who in turn know more than their own children — often a result of marriages which bring together partners from different language backgrounds. Once used to make religious ideas popularly accessible, Yiddish has now become an almost quasi-sacred language itself, because of its association with the writings of previous rabbis. It also remains a marker of Haredi identity in the broader diaspora world.

Boys, oriented to Torah study, learn the holy language Loshon Kodesh — Talmudic Hebrew mixed with varying amounts of Aramaic — and usually some Yiddish. Girls, in contrast, learn more Ivrit grammar and English, preparing them for careers in which they can support their husbands as life-long scholar-students. Schools range from elite modern schools with full secular curricula to much more narrowly religious institutions, often paying only lip-service to state rules.

Two other groups of Haredi offer a contrast. The Sefaradi ("Oriental Jewish") Haredim in Israel are less clearly distinguished from secular Sefaradi and have stronger links to the broader community, notably through the party and social movement Shas. They use Loshon Kodesh in religious instruction, like the Ashkenazi Haredi, but otherwise they teach in Ivrit — with no Yiddish, obviously, but also no use of traditional languages such as Arabic or French, which remain widely used in domestic settings.

Among Haredi communities in the United Kingdom and the United States, English largely takes on the role played by Ivrit in Israel; one interesting feature is the use of "Yeshivish", standard English mixed with words or expressions from Yiddish and Loshon Kodesh. Rather different government policies to those in Israel have produced different approaches to syllabuses and the teaching of secular subjects.

Sacred Speakers only covers a few groups of Haredim and is based largely on personal observation (including some details about four individual families) rather than any kind of systematic survey, but it surely captures something of the broad patterns of language use and change. It also gives a feel for the diversity of Haredi communities, the cultural changes they have undergone, and the adaptability of their traditions.

Note: Sacred Speakers shows signs of its origins as a PhD thesis, with the occasional paragraph stuffed full of references to previous work and theoretical perspectives. These are isolated, however, and the approach remains descriptive. The editing is of a high standard except for the occasional section which clearly missed out on copy-editing.

November 2012

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%T Sacred Speakers
%S Language and Culture among the Haredim in Israel
%A Baumel, Simeon D.
%I Berghahn
%D 2006
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 1845450620
%P 232pp