Hebrew Infusion.

Renee Ghert-Zand writes for the Times of Israel about something I (a gentile who has been Judaism-adjacent all his life) had no idea of:

Kids in the Diaspora missed many things by not being able to attend Jewish sleep away camps this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been a rough couple of months not eating in the chadar ochel (dining hall), doing rikud (dance) and swimming in the breicha (pool). And of course, they missed polishing up their Hebrew.

However, a fascinating new book by a historian and two sociolinguists explodes the notion that campers and staff speak Hebrew at American Jewish camps. Instead, they become conversant in what Jonathan Krasner, Sarah Bunin Benor and Sharon Avni have coined “camp Hebraized English” (CHE), which is actually a rich register of Jewish American English. CHE includes both Jewish life words (such as Shabbat Shalom) and camp words (such as chadar ochel) — but it is not Hebrew.

To illustrate their point from the outset, the authors begin “Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps” by quoting a humorous bit performed by American-Israeli comedian and educator Benji Lovitt, who attended Young Judaea camps for many years. Lovitt, who made aliyah to Israel from Texas 14 years ago, jokes that the Hebrew he learned at Jewish summer camp consisted solely of nouns and set phrases, and as a result he couldn’t even string together a sentence. […]

Aside from a small number of hardcore Hebrew-language Zionist camps that operated in early- to mid-20th century, such as Camp Massad, established in 1941 in the Pocono Mountains, the vast majority of Jewish camps never intended to teach their campers to speak, read or write fluent Hebrew. In some cases, this was an ideological choice. In others, it was due to cultural, political, and economic exigencies.

From the mid-20th century onward, fewer and fewer Jewish American leaders — let alone lay people — were fluent Hebrew speakers, and camps reflected this reality. In order to attract staff and campers and keep their doors open, camps couldn’t restrict admissions to only those with strong Hebrew backgrounds.

Over time, almost all attempts at Hebrew immersion were replaced what Benor, Avni and Krasner term “Hebrew infusion.”

There’s much more at the link, including some great photos; frequent commenter D.O., who sent it to me, adds:

[This] got me thinking about “Moscow English”, a version of English language that was taught in the Soviet Union. It is pretty clear why English in the USSR was taught as if it were a dead language (though it was stupid nonetheless), it is less clear to me why American Jewish camps won’t hire a bunch of young Israelis to teach kids some real language. Anyway, it looks a bit like a language revival project for a language that is not in fact dead. Crazy! Do other expat communities teach their kids a canned language?

Good question!

Comments

  1. I attended Camp Massad. What made it work was the fact that the campers spoke Hebrew coming in. I was getting 10 hours or so of Hebrew a week in school all year long, and I think that was pretty common. It would have been a different story if we hadn’t had that background. (My understanding at the time, btw, was that Camp Ramah was pretty much the same when it came to Hebrew immersion — this was in the early 70s. They may have shifted their approach after that.)

  2. Interesting; thanks for the insider report!

  3. >>it is less clear to me why American Jewish camps won’t hire a bunch of young Israelis to teach kids some real language.

    I wonder if some of it has to do with providing camp counselor jobs for the older kids in the community. Also, I think the parents expect the kids to “have fun” and maybe being in a full time immersion for 4 weeks where you may not have a clue of what the people are saying to you would take away from the experience, if your primary goal is not to learn the language?

  4. Also, I think the parents expect the kids to “have fun” and maybe being in a full time immersion for 4 weeks where you may not have a clue of what the people are saying to you would take away from the experience, if your primary goal is not to learn the language?

    If parents are sending a child to X camp, where X is some theme, subject or field of interest to either the parent(s) or the child, then somebody — not necessarily the child, it is true — expects X to be primary, and “have fun” to be secondary. Preferably, having fun doing/learning X, but certainly not neglecting X (or for a language, reducing to using a few rote phrases) just to have fun.

    I’m pretty sure that for a language camp, any councilors would switch to English (or whatever the primary language was) if there was a comprehension problem for some child.

    Speaking of theme camps, Copenhagen Interpretation Fantasy Camp.

  5. Moonfriend says:

    Why does D.O think the Jewish population in the US is an expat community? That makes no sense.

  6. There are Irish language summer camps like that in Ireland.

    And Irish there is not taught by native speakers either, so the experience must be pretty similar.

  7. Most “Irish college”s are in the Gaeltacht, where they get tax breaks on the theory that they provide an immersion environment. Many of the teachers are native speakers. Some are stricter than others about students speaking English. Participants have a more modest goal than achieving fluency, namely bumping their exam result up by a grade or two. (Irish is a compulsory subject in the school Leaving Certificate exam.)

  8. Why does D.O think the Jewish population in the US is an expat community? That makes no sense.

    He’s not talking specifically about the Jewish population in the US, just thinking out loud (as it were) about the general phenomenon. There’s no need to parse a tossed-off comment in an e-mail as if it were a position paper.

  9. J.W. Brewer says:

    If the sentence had been written as “From the mid-20th century onward, fewer and fewer Jewish American leaders — let alone lay people — were fluent [Yiddish] speakers” no one could take issue, but saying that about Hebrew suggests there was once a reasonably high rate of conversational Hebrew fluency (NB that this is a different skill from reading fluency) among American Jewry, and that strikes me as a claim at odds with other things I’ve heard and read. I guess it’s possible that during the half-century pre-1948 there were some significant number of Americans who self-consciously participated in the revival and made themselves (and maybe their kids) conversationally fluent in the revived language, but those people were unsurprisingly more likely to make aliyah to Israel than the median American Jew? Or maybe the whole thing is a bit badly or inadequately reported because it treats Israeli Jewry as normative and American Jewry as if it were, to borrow a phrase, an expat community, and thus treats American deviation from Israeli expectations as a puzzle in need of explanation?

    Separately, clicking through from the link led to a blogpost with the interesting sentence “Many of the camps we visited for our research (Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Zionist, etc.) use English peppered with ‘Jewish life’ words like these and also dozens of Hebrew words for locations, activities, and roles at camp.” Unless it’s hiding beneath the “etc.” this is a concession that the research excluded the subset of American Jewry that has a markedly disproportionate share of the under-18 population because of having notably higher birthrates than any other subset. They certainly have their own summer camps, although for all I know maybe the working language of those camps is Yiddish.

  10. There is nothing new about using Hebrew as a higher register of the everyday language, half-reduced to a set of nouns and set phrases. This is how Yiddish operated all along. Although commonly understood as a completely separate language than Hebrew, albeit “rich in borrowings from the dead language”, it may be easier to explain as a living language extensively relying to its more archaic upper register (which never really died but got substantially reduced to “nouns and set phrases” even by the more conversant community members).

    With this in mind, the modern camps merely follow a centuries-old tradition.

  11. Excellent point!

  12. Also, makes me think of Yeshivish.

  13. Very interesting!

    Some observers predict that the English variant of Yeshivish may develop further to the point that it could become one of the historical Judeo-hybrid languages like Yiddish, Judaeo-Spanish or the Judeo-Arabic languages. Judaeo-hybrid languages were spoken dialects which mixed elements of the local vernacular, Hebrew, Aramaic and Jewish religious idioms. As Yiddish was to Middle High German, Yeshivish may be to Standard American English. However, the integration of modern-day Jews with non-Jews may keep their speech from diverging as far from the standard language as it did in the past.

  14. What’s changed in the last fifty years or so, I think, is the extent to which non-Orthodox Jews are opting for Hebrew-language education for their children. A bunch of folks who grew up in the pre-WWII Zionist movement in the U.S. — though not Orthodox, and not fluent in Hebrew themselves — sent their kids to schools offering Hebrew language education, and to Hebrew immersion summer camps. The Conservative-movement Solomon Schechter schools played a big role there. But that historical moment is over, and enrollment in the Solomon Schechter schools is way down. The Orthodox and Chassidim, for their parts, didn’t send their kids to Ramah or Massad.

    What’s surprising (and implausible) to me is the suggestion that Modern Orthodox summer camps rely on “camp Hebrew.” Kids in Modern Orthodox schools speak conversational Hebrew in school, after all.

  15. Sarah Bunin Benor, the first author of Hebrew Infusion, is also the author of the first two entries in the Bibliography for “Yeshivish”. She has written a lot of interesting things.

    Some talks:

      • Yiddish, Ladino and Jewish English (subtitled), Sarah Benor, JDOV Talk

      • Chutzpah to Chidush: A Century of Yiddish-Influenced English in America

  16. And, while searching for her name, I found something by her, “How Synagogues Became Shuls”, which is but one chapter in an entire book:
    Germanic Heritage Languages in North America. Hardbound: $158/€105. Ebook: Open-access free PDF.

    This book presents new empirical findings about Germanic heritage varieties spoken in North America: Dutch, German, Pennsylvania Dutch, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, West Frisian and Yiddish, and varieties of English spoken both by heritage speakers and in communities after language shift. The volume focuses on three critical issues underlying the notion of ‘heritage language’: acquisition, attrition and change. The book offers theoretically-informed discussions of heritage language processes across phonetics and phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics and the lexicon, in addition to work on sociolinguistics, historical linguistics and contact settings. With this, the volume also includes a variety of frameworks and approaches, synchronic and diachronic. Most European Germanic languages share some central linguistic features, such as V2, gender and agreement in the nominal system, and verb inflection. As minority languages faced with a majority language like English, similarities and differences emerge in patterns of variation and change in these heritage languages. These empirical findings shed new light on mechanisms and processes.

  17. Wow, what a find!

  18. Or maybe the whole thing is a bit badly or inadequately reported because it treats Israeli Jewry as normative and American Jewry as if it were, to borrow a phrase, an expat community, and thus treats American deviation from Israeli expectations as a puzzle in need of explanation?

    i think this is basically what’s going on here. the central principle of zionism is, after all, that all jews outside of palestine are, literally, expats [spoiler: this is untrue]. and that is, essentially, how the u.s. zionist organizations whose camps the piece describes approaches their constituencies – in synagogue contexts, for example, with israeli flags next to the ark and prayers for the preservation of the israeli state, and in rabbinical schools (all of them) that require literally no jewish history courses covering anything between the talmudic period and the modern zionist movement.

    @Dimitry:

    that could be true if the hebrew they were talking about was biblical, mishnaic, or even 19thC literary hebrew. but it’s not: most of the vocabulary they’re talking about is israeli & recently coined. my impression is that most of it comes directly from military and kibbutz contexts, in fact: “chadar ochel”, is, i suspect, not “dining hall” but specifically a military “mess hall”. and that’s got next to no continuity with the hebrew/aramaic elements in yiddish (quite intentionally so, on the part of its language planners, who were most effective in exactly those military & kibbutz contexts).

    (and i think the point of the article is precisely that these phrases do not contitute anything even vaguely resembling a linguistic register, much less a high-status one…)

    now, the hebrew/aramaic layer of yeshivish is a whole other story, and there i think you’re pointing to a solid parallel…

  19. rozele! I was hoping this post would lure you in. Great comment, as usual.

  20. (And you should feel free to drop me a line if you run across any links you think would provoke interesting discussion or that you’d like to comment on; I’m always looking for material.)

  21. most of it comes directly from military and kibbutz contexts

    Good point and I fully agree. For the sake of arguing though, I may throw in a suggestion that the IDF / kibbutz mythology may be thought of as “the new faith”, thus still maintaining some level of continuity with the tradition of the century / a strange reflection of this tradition.

  22. khadar okhel is attested as early as 1810, meaning “dining room” (lit. ‘room.of food’) , and has been used in that sense ever since. The first communal dining rooms were in the moshavot, the first rural settlements in Palestine, in the years before WWI, which were not based around communal ownership like the later kibbutzim. These dining halls were first set up by farm laborers as purely practical, not idealistic collective kitchens. I found khadar okhel in that sense in a 1904 newspaper.

    I am not sure when it was first used as ‘mess hall’, but surely much later. At that point no one was thinking of a Jewish army (and if they were, they kept quiet about it or disappeared into Ottoman jails.)

  23. January First-of-May says:

    [This] got me thinking about “Moscow English”, a version of English language that was taught in the Soviet Union.

    “And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
    After the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe,
    For Frenssh of Parys was to hir unknowe.”

    (I’m surprised that this hadn’t already been quoted in this thread.)

  24. Reminds me of this macaronic Arabic-English poem, supposedly to aid students at al-Azhar in memorizing English vocabulary, complete with Egyptian pronunciation of the English words and classical Arabic case endings attached.

    al-qaṭṭu catun wa’l-fa’ru ratun / wa’n-nahru yud‘á ‘indahum riveru
    wa’ṭ-ṭabaqu dish wa’s-samaku fish / wa-abadan ‘indahum neveru
    wa’l-ḥimāru donkey wa’l-qirdu monkey / wa see bi-baḥrin aw bi-ma‘ná yanẓuru
    wa’l-abu father wa’l-ummu mother / wa’l-ibnu māhirun aw huwa cleveru
    as-sarīru beddun wa’r-ra’su headdun / wa’l-coffee bunnun ismuhu brown
    al-ḥarīru silkun wa’l-labanu milkun / wa-idhā jalasta fa-innaka sit down
    adverb ẓarfun subject fā‘ilun / wa’l-fi‘lu verb wa’l-ismu noun

  25. thanks, Y!
    glad to have someone with the actual knowledge jump in where i could only suspect!

    and 1810 is earlier than i’d’ve thought! do you know the context? was it also institutional / semi-militarized like the moshavim?

  26. Rozele: the 19th century references were all to dining rooms in houses, not dining halls. Those early settlements were moshavot (from moshava), not moshavim (from moshav). Moshavot is a generic term for those early villages, which were not planned around an ideology, the way kibbutzim were. The first khadar okhel I read about was certainly set up simply as a matter of convenience: the laborers needed to eat lunch, so some of them got to cook for everyone in a communal kitchen with an attached dining room.

  27. 1810 is my mistake: I mismatched two lines. The earliest occurrence I can find is from an 1870 story by Peretz Smolenskin. It appears frequently from the 1870s onwards. Again, today khadar okhel is the word you use for a dining room in a house.

  28. thanks again!

    (i tend to default to hebrew plurals in ־ים (which i do know is a bad move) – probably because in yiddish that’s the most visible form to me: ־ות plurals aren’t as marked to my ear because they blend in with the ־עס/־ס ones…)

  29. The -im plurals are masculine, the -ot are feminine, but you knew that… Sometimes there are words like moshav and moshava which are arbitrarily chosen, each with its gender, and mean different things. The moshavim came later (the first one was in 1920), and were a formally organized collective farming settlement, not quite as overarchingly collective as the kibbutzim.

Speak Your Mind

*