Rabbi Voice.

Rich Cohen discusses a mystery in today’s NY Times, “Where Does Rabbi Voice Come From?“:

The characteristic Rabbi Voice is a comforting singsong that’s wound like a river through my life. It’s the tone you hear during sermons and in consultations; if you’re an observant Jew, there’s a good chance you’ll hear it in the next several days, at High Holy Day services. It was parodied on “Seinfeld” and is all over Woody Allen, full of rhetorical questions, sentences that meander and end on a rise. It’s my esteemed childhood rabbi beginning a high holiday sermon with a description of his own breakfast: “While eating a cherry Danish this morning, I was reminded of King David. …”

Where does that voice come from? Last spring, while sitting through my son’s bar mitzvah, I suddenly wanted to know. […] So I made phone calls, spoke to rabbis, scholars, linguists. One of them asked me to imitate the voice. When I did — “While eating a cherry Danish this morning. … ” — she laughed and said: “Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. And yeah, it’s absolutely a real thing.” (The voice is without gender, by the way; you hear it from women and men.)

Each expert offered a slightly different explanation, but there was overlap, agreement. A pattern emerged. As far as I can tell, there are three basic explanations. The voice is the intricate product of a multipronged historical process.

The three explanations are Torah and Talmud (“the voice is a side effect of a life of intense religious study”), Yiddish (“The cadence comes from the dialect of the shtetl and the Pale of Settlement”), and Influence (“The voice originated from the Talmud and Yiddish, but spread via imitation […] Why do even Reform rabbis talk like that? Because it makes them seem Jewish and because it’s what their congregants want”). It’s a good discussion, but what drove me to post is one of the greatest sentences I have ever read: “I thought Izzy dropped a dish, but, when I came out, I saw that what Izzy had dropped was dead.”


  1. A phenomenon no doubt related to the all-pervasive MFA poetry reader’s voice.

  2. This is another remarkable sentence, one which is definitely getting at something interesting (forget Whorf for the moment): “It’s a literary style that created a certain kind of mind — made by the people, it remade the people in turn”

  3. I totally misunderstood your sentence out of context. I thought it meant that Izzy had dropped something dead (you know, like a dead bird). But that’s because I was thinking in ordinary English syntax.

    The sentence’s impact comes from conflating two different grammatical constructions.

    He dropped a dish (‘dish’ the object of the transitive verb ‘drop’).
    He dropped dead (‘dead’ a result in ‘drop dead’; ‘drop’ intransitive).

    You could do it with any reasonably similar constructions.

    “I thought he was running a business but when I went to see him I found that what he was running was wild” (or “what he was running was hot and cold” or “what he was running was scared”.)

    “I thought he was flying a plane but what he was flying was off the handle”.

    I’m sure someone could come up with better examples.

  4. Bathrobe, yes, I would have said it is extended zeugma, but Wiki tells me that it must be a sort of antanaclasis. Ooof.

  5. There’s always Flanders and Swann’s

    Unaware of the wiles of the snake in the grass,
    Of the fate of the maiden who topes,
    She lowered her standards by raising her glass,
    Her courage, her eyes, and his hopes.

    When he asked, “What in heaven?” she made no reply,
    Up her mind, and a dash for the door.

    It’s not quite the same though, since they are all transitive.

  6. John Woldemar Cowan says

    “A prety Epanorthosis, and withal a Paranomasia.” — one of E. K.’s notes to Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender.

  7. Probably a specific example of a general priestly/spiritual voice. Other examples:
    – Muslim priests have a nasal intonation.
    – CoE bishops are caricatured by their pronunciation of “w” instead of “r”
    – revivalist priests have a tendency to yell out “alleluia” and “testify”

    Even in Croatian, I recall reading a novel where the parish priest was characterised by using “pak” and “daklem” instead of the more usual “pa”/”onda” and “dakle.”

    Re dropping a dish, it reminds me of the old joke: “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.”

  8. CoE bishops are caricatured by their pronunciation of “w” instead of “r”

    Like the one officiating the wedding in The Princess Bride? I thought they were just being silly!

  9. I suppose that the poetry-reading voice that James means is essentially the same one that Patrick O’Brian calls a moo.

  10. squiffy-marie von bladet says

    (Church of England vicar voice is best exemplified by Alan Bennett’s Beyond the Fringe.)

    ((That Anglophone poetry-reading kind of mooing,
    meanwhile, is a thing with which I really can’t be doing.))

  11. @Y: It is not explained in the movie, but the clergyman in The Princess Bride is supposed to be deaf. That does not preclude it also being a parody of a certain kind on Anglican pronunciation though.

  12. @Brett, what’s your source for that?

  13. @Craig: It’s from the book:

    The Archdean could hear absolutely nothing, and had been so afflicted since he was eighty-five or so. The only actual change that had come over him in the past years was that, for some reason, his impediment had gotten worse. “Mawidge,” he said. “Vewy old.” Unless you paid strict attention to his title and past accomplishments, it was very hard to take him seriously.

    That “his impediment had gotten worse” does indicate that his peculiar speech was to some extent preexisting though.

  14. This was a good article, and the author chose the right people to talk to, but I think an important point is missed (one that the consulted experts don’t take note of): this “rabbi voice” is particularly a Reform/Conservative thing. It is distinct, further, from both Talmudic discursive intonation and Yiddish sing-songiness, both of which are very real and the former of which is still common in the Orthodox world.

  15. I second what Ben says. To me it’s the “American Rabbi” voice.

  16. Good point, and a שנה טובה to all my Jewish readers!

  17. We had an interim rabbi from Australia for a year, and she sounded different than the Americans I was used to. She also had a different trope for reading Torah, which she said was western European, although she could also do the more usual, eastern European version.

  18. Kate Bunting says

    I thought it was the “upper-class twit” stereotype that used to be parodied as pronouncing ‘r’ as ‘w’. I’ve never heard it associated with bishops before.

  19. I imagine bishops were traditionally drawn largely from the “upper-class twit” drawer, but I don’t have any actual knowledge.

  20. For someone not familiar with “rabbi voice”, the two clips in the NYT article aren’t very helpful — I can’t hear much in common in the speech of the Seinfeld and Woody Allen characters.

  21. Was the religion of the fictitious country in which The Princess Bride is set really Anglican?

  22. @J.W. Brewer: I presume the bishop was Florinese Reformed.

  23. That Izzy sentence sounds typically Odessan to me, the kind of Jewish Odessan humor that is celebrated in numerous old Soviet анекдоты. I believe this kind of sentence is called a каламбур.

  24. Made me think of Rabbi Warshaw from Portnoy’s Complaint:

    “This is a man who somewhere along the line got the idea that the basic unit of meaning in the English language is the syllable. So no word he pronounces has less than three of them, not even the word God. You should hear the song and dance he makes out of Israel. For him it’s as long as refrigerator! And do you remember him at my bar mitzvah, what a field day he had with Alexander Portnoy? Why, Mother, did he keep calling me by my whole name? Why, except to impress all you idiots in the audience with all those syllables! And it worked! It actually worked! Don’t you understand, the synagogue is how he earns his living, and that’s all there is to it. Coming to the hospital to be brilliant about life (syllable by syllable) to people who are shaking in their pajamas about death is his business, just as it is my father’s business to sell life insurance! It is what they each do to earn a living, and if you want to feel pious about somebody, feel pious about my father, God damn it, and bow down to him the way you bow down to that big fat comical son of a bitch, because my father really works his balls off and doesn’t happen to think that he is God’s special assistant into the bargain. And doesn’t speak in those fucking syllables! “I-a wan-tt to-a wel-come-a you-ew tooo thee sy-no-gawg-a.” Oh God, oh Guh-ah-duh, if you’re up there shining down your countenance, why not spare us from here on out the enunciation of the rabbis!”

  25. Great quote! Man, I have to reread that book.

  26. How about the yoga voice as another transcultural example – I’m thinking of a Frasier episode… Re: CofE bishops, it really is a generic aristocratic parody rather than an ecclesiastically specific one…

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