Aramaic in New Jersey.

Matthew Petti writes for America about an interesting community:

A strip mall 15 minutes down the highway from Manhattan is the last place I expected to hear the language spoken by Jesus Christ. But northern New Jersey is one of the places where Syriac Christians, driven from the Middle East by violence and persecution, have come to call home over the past few decades. If Jacob Hanikhe has his way, it will also remain one of the few places where Aramaic, an ancient tongue found throughout the Talmud and Gospels, is a living language.

Syriac, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians—their chosen name varies by denomination, but most recognize themselves as part of the same ethnic group—originally hail from the Middle East, where their Aramaic dialects were once the dominant language. Forced into diaspora by both ethnic and religious conflicts, the Syriac Christians in New Jersey, who number about 2,000 families and are mostly members of the Syriac Orthodox Church, have created Syriac establishments ranging from language schools to restaurants. They are now attempting to balance the American Dream with preserving their faith and reviving their ancient culture.

Petti describes the sad history of the Syriac community in the Middle East and the history of the language itself (“It spread across the Fertile Crescent … during the Assyrian Empire and attained the status of a world language under the Persian Empire and remained dominant well into the Islamic era”), then turns to local history:

Deacon Yildiz fled Turkey with his family in 1979. One of his Syriac friends in America knew Mor Yeshue Samuel, who was the Syriac Orthodox archbishop of Jerusalem before leaving for the United States during the 1948 war and becoming the first Syriac archbishop of the United States and Canada. (He was also famous for helping discover the Dead Sea scrolls.) Archbishop Samuel hired Deacon Yildiz as a deacon and Aramaic instructor for a congregation in New Jersey.

The official history of the Syriac Archdiocese for the Eastern United States says that a deacon from Mosul named Micha al-Nakkar “probably settled in or around Boston” in the 1840s. Larger groups of Syriacs came over in later decades, as silk weavers from Tur Abdin moved to Rhode Island to work in the silk mills there. The archdiocese’s history says that their children often went into highly educated fields like law and engineering.

Deacon Yildiz says there has been a Syriac community in New Jersey dating back to the mid-19th century, and it has made some enduring contributions. Taw Mim Semkath, an Assyrian school in Beirut, Lebanon, established by immigrants to New Jersey, is “the oldest known Syriac Orthodox organization that is still functioning,” according to the archdiocese. Naum Faiq, a major neo-Aramaic literary figure and Assyrian nationalist thinker, came to New Jersey in 1912, where he wrote for and founded a variety of Aramaic publications. One of them, called Huyodo, is still printed by the diaspora in Sweden as Hujådå. […]

Nationality quotas imposed in the 1920s all but ended Syriac immigration to America until such quotas were banned by the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. During that period many Syriacs fell out of touch with their homeland and culture, but some family ties remained strong—even across long distances.

It turns out “the head of the entire Syriac Orthodox Church, His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, started his career in New Jersey,” and there’s promising news about the younger generation: “many who had been disconnected from their Aramaic heritage are rediscovering it.” I hope the community flourishes and keeps the language alive. (Thanks, Trevor!)


  1. We have some Assyrian Christians here in California too. There is a church near here that has a big festival every August with music, children’s dance groups, tasty food, etc. They also have services on the public access TV channel.

    The festival is a fundraiser for the church and I believe the church also runs language classes and other cultural events.

    I can’t say how widespread this is, but around here it is definitely a pretty big thing. We have a lot of different ethnic groups but the Assyrians are right in there with the rest.

  2. The Detroit area has a large Assyrian population too, in addition to its other Middle Eastern communities.

    If I’m not mistaken, the descendants of ancient Aramaic spoken today have evolved considerably, and some are not mutually intelligible.

  3. My understanding is the same, but I don’t actually know.

  4. Start at Neo-Aramaic languages and walk down the Stammbaum.

  5. Matthew Roth says

    Only one or two communities now exist in modern-day Israel and the Palestinian Territories, if my understanding is correct.

  6. Right, that’s Western Neo-Aramaic.

  7. Not quite – western Neo-Aramaic is spoken in Maaloula, Syria (and in exile). There are no first language Aramaic-speaking communities native to Palestine or Israel any more; only a few “Kurdish” Jews (20th century immigrants from Kurdistan) speaking Northeastern Neo-Aramaic, and a small subgroup of Christians who have lately expressed interest in making it their first language.

  8. A friend of mine used to work on Neo-Aramaic. The fieldwork destinations were not what I would have expected: London, Detroit, Melbourne, Malmo… At some point we really need to start taking diasporas into account in our vision of linguistic geography.

  9. Yes indeed.

  10. Well, we do take the anglophone diaspora into account already; it’s the smaller languages we have to change our views on.

    The same thing applies to smaller religions: the home cathedral of the Assyrian Church of the East (“Nestorian”), the seat of the Catholicos-Patriarch, has been in Chicago since 1940, and the same is true of the Metropolitanate of Tehran.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    When I lived in Chicago 1989-92 I went to a less-exotic-in-context church a block away from the relocated Nestorian World HQ but perhaps regrettably in hindsight never walked over to check out the ecclesiastical competition.

  12. Largest concentration of speakers of Arawakan languages is in New York these days.

  13. Largest concentration of speakers of Arawakan languages is in New York these days.

    Surely you mean one particular Arawakan language?

    The Arawakan (now often called Maipurean) family is the widest-spread South American language family, stretching from the Caribbean to Bolivia, with quite a few languages spoken by sizable populations: Wayuu (300K, Colombia and Venezuela), Garífuna (200K, Central America), Asháninka (15K, Peru), Ashéninka (20K, Peru), and others.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    The online bio of His Holiness the Patriarch says that “In addition to his many talents, Patriarch Aphrem is fluent in both Classical and Vernacular (Touroyo) as well as in Arabic, French, and English.” For those in the U.S. diaspora who are not second-or-more generation and thus L1 Anglophones, I’m not certain what percentage from the old country would actually be more fluent in some version of Neo-Aramaic than in Arabic; I suspect that very few who grew up past early childhood in the old country would not at a minimum have been fluent L2 speakers of Arabic. Obviously Syriac can survive for centuries as a liturgical language even in contexts where most/all of the laity have shifted to something quite different, and there are certainly other examples of that in other Christian communities ranging (w/o even accounting for their diasporas) from Lebanon to Kerala.

  15. Listen to Southern All Stars (for example いとしのエリ) and you can hear Kuwata Keisuke trying to pull off an American sound, both in pronunciation and delivery.


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