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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776
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Hebrew Grammar and Pronunciation

  1. I thought this might prove to be of interest:

    "The Persistence of 'Ashkebonics'" by Burt E. Schuman

    Over the course of the last eight years I have discovered something deeply frustrating within our Reform congregational world. The struggle to instill a knowledge and love of standard, modern Hebrew is challenged not only by the centrifugal pulls of assimilation, the extracurricular demands on our children, the challenges of maintaining two-income households and a terminal case of "pleasure principle", but by the persistence of archaic and inaccurate pronunciation of Liturgical Hebrew due to old habits, ce , pseudo-orthodox affect or cultural sentimentality. The widespread use of this strange half-Hebrew, half-Yiddish dialect I call Ashkebonics (the Jewish equivalent of Ebonics), subverts the proper teaching of Hebrew and exacerbates a cultural and cognitive gap with between the American Jewish Community and Israel. The fact that so many of our Jewish professionals use and reinforce Ashkebonics is to me both puzzling and deeply frustrating.

    Why after more then five and one half decades since the creation of the State of Israel does Ashkebonics persist? Why would so many devoted Zionists and supporters of Israel wish to hold onto this dialect with such tenacity? Why do these pronunciations survive among people who have not spoken, read or written Yiddish (chaval) for three generations? Why do so many of our cantors and song leaders love to sing the songs of the late Shlomo Carlebach or the other stars of "Ortho-pop" who butcher the Hebrew lyrics beyond recognition (I love to respond to singers of "e- met , e-met e-met e-met" with "Kel -ly Kel-ley, Kel-ly, Kel-ly", and watch their reaction)? Why are many younger Reform Jews adopting Ashkebonics as a folk affectation totally alien to their own background-- the equivalent of a Harvard-educated Pete Seeger, " goin around the country lisnen to the workin people of America?"

    Perhaps its very existence is a touchstone, a spritual and liguisitic keepsake that stands between American Jews of Ashkenazic ancestry and complete assimilation, like the keys to the ancestral houses in Spain that Sephardic Jews pass from generation to generation. Perhaps it is used as a series of passwords, censoring in those Jews who share a common ethnic memory and censoring out those who do not share these bonds, namely non-Ashkenazic and first-generation Jews. Perhaps it's a form of countercultural protest against secularism, including secular Israeli culture, similar to the insistance upon "Loshn Koidesh" in the Orthodox and Haredi worlds. Perhaps it's merely a question of older Jews finding it difficult to adapt to changes in pronounciation. Perhaps it is all of the above.

    Whatever the reason, however, the use of Ashkebonics within the Reform congregation, our classrooms, our deliberative bodies and in professional discourse is a behavior whose time has long-since passed. The age of ethnnic Judaism in North America is virtually over, and we need to forge a new American Jewish identity with Modern Hebrew, the Hebrew of Medinat Yisrael, as its ancestral language and "lingua franca". For the Jews of "Chutz la Aretz", Israel, not Eastern Europe, or the Balkans, is the new "motherland", the new wellspring of Jewish identity, and culture. Moreover, as Israel's Jewish population outpaces that of North America, it will become more important than ever to strengthen our cultural and lingusitic ties with the Jewish state, not just our political and financial ones. It is important to remember that the Israelis with whom we need to forge those ties are not to be found in Katamon or Mea Shearim, but in Baka, North Tel Aviv, Haifa, Ra'anana ,Herzliah and Zichron Ya'acov.

    Finally, the acquisition of the Hebrew language is difficult enough without having to cause cognitive dissonance as among our students. Let us stress the proper pronunciation of Hebrew terms from the very moment our children enter our kindergartens and preschools, and reinforce this pronunciation throughout the length of their Jewish educations and their Jewish lives.

    One of the building blocks of a contemporary liberal Jewish identity is mastery of a Hebrew vocabulary that puts the emphasis on the right syllable.


  2. [RE:] the "Ashkebonics" article:

    Does the individual who posted it really think that if we all speak Hebrew the way they do in Israel, that we will be drawn closer to those Jews?

    Why are there those who use the Ashkenazic pronunciation? Family and religious background/training are probably the major reasons. Are we asking people to relearn all of the Hebrew they have come to say without thinking? And about those, after being taught Sephardic pronunciation, who are "going back"; they may have their reasons, personal or otherwise. Does the person who posted this article has a problem with listening to people who use the Ashkenazic pronunciation?

    I'll never forget, at a morning minyan, my rabbi saying Kaddish for his brother, using Ashkenazic pronunciation. I asked him about it later, and he told me that that was how he was brought up. He doesn't use it during services; but at this particular moment in time, he said that it gave him some comfort.

    So, say what you will, does it really matter how we say it, so long as we are saying it together?


  3. I was taken a bit aback by [the "Ashkebonics" article"]. I have no trouble having my children taught the "proper" way to pronounce Hebrew. On the other hand, Ashkenazy pronunciation is not any more an incorrect way of speaking than, let's say, someone conversing in Yiddish. What makes this world so wonderful is the diversity it contains. Let us celebrate our differences. Let us celebrate our past.

  4. I created a pronunciation guide (not strictly a transliteration) for about sixty percent of the Hebrew prayers in Shaarei Teshuvah in a Word document. If you would like a copy, let me know privately, and I will be glad to forward it to you. My version is about seventy pages because it is done in a 14 point font but it can be altered easily to your own requirements.
    80 Family Members

  5. Jan 2006 Digest 003

                …The general transition from [Ashkenazic] to [Sephardic] in American schools is probably a result of the establishment of the state of Israel, where Sephardic is used--and the Reform congregations that cling to Ashkenazic are probably those that are still tied to that old-time religion, Classic Reform. (Ashkenazic is also prevalent in Orthodoxy.)…

                Meanwhile, the "argument" or the criticism of those who use the wrong pronunciation reminds me of a dialogue I had many years ago with my father, z"l. Hearing our name pronounced [one way) and by others [a different way], I asked him which was correct. His response: When someone calls you by name, appreciate that they have done so, and don't worry how they pronounce it.

                Let's take the same position with our Hebraists of either school--and be glad the language is in use.

  6. August 2007 Digest 169

                …B'nei mitzvah is the correct plural form (and b'not mitzvah for two girls/women). This is a s'michut form, usually genitive, but also used when one noun is employed to modify another adjectivally. Pluralizing the construct affects only the first noun and leaves the second in the singular. This is standard usage in Biblical Hebrew, though Rabbinic Hebrew sometimes pluralizes both nouns--but not here!

                Bar mitzvah, BTW, is an (Aramaic) idiom, and it means "(a male) to whom the commandments pertain," not "son of the commandments." There are other, similar idioms that use "bar" in the same way…


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