Jewish dialects are on brink of extinction

 Isaac Yousefzadeh

Isaac Yousefzadeh is a man with a mission: to record his unique Judeo-Kashan dialect before it becomes extinct. One of the effects of the dispersal of Jewish communities from Iran and the Arab world is that their traditional dialects and accents are disappearing fast, as Iris Mansour reports in The Tablet:

Isaac Yousefzadeh is in mourning for his mother, who passed away a
few weeks ago. But with her death comes a second, more subtle loss—that
of her language, Judeo-Kashani, which is now on the verge of extinction.
“It’s like somebody is sick in bed and in another few days or years he
will die,” he said. “That’s it.”

The language’s speakers trace their roots to Kashan [1],
a city in central Iran where Judeo-Kashani had been spoken for
centuries. But in the past several decades, the Jews of Kashan have scattered [2]—first
to Tehran, and later around the world—and their descendants have
adopted different languages. Virtually the only speakers left are a
handful of Jews from Yousefzadeh’s generation who were born in Kashan, a
city that no longer has any Jewish residents [3].
They are the end of the linguistic line. “It’s a language that each
day, the number of people that know it is less and less,” said
Yousefzadeh. “In 20 years, I’d say no one would speak it. Because
they’re dying each day.”

Judeo-Kashani is not alone. Dozens of Jewish communities in Iran, India, and the Caucasus region once spoke their own languages [4], which encoded centuries of Jewish life; today they, like Judeo-Kashani, are dying off.

With approximately one of the world’s 7,000 languages going extinct [5]
every 14 days, linguists around the world are trying to document them
before they go. Scholars in Brazil, the United States, and Israel are
working specifically on Jewish languages; New York alone is home to at
least seven endangered Jewish languages, ranging from Juhuri, once
spoken by Jews from the Caucasus Mountains, to a different
Persian-Jewish dialect from Isfahan. Because speakers are getting older,
the Endangered Language Alliance in New York has launched a project
dedicated to recording and transcribing these languages while they are
still being spoken—including Judeo-Kashani.

***

Yousefzadeh, now in his sixties, sits at the kitchen table in his
Long Island home and describes Jewish life—the characters and the
tensions—he remembers from Kashan. He puts on his reading glasses and
begins to recite from a tightly packed list in handwritten Persian
script, a record of the past. “Yehada Rahamim and seven children,” he
said, his finger slowly moving down the list. “Rabbi Abbol Levy and six
children. Yehezkel Haim Meshedi. This guy had six children.” These are
the names of approximately 300 Jewish families—roughly 2,500 Jews—who
lived in Kashan with him. The list was created by two men who had also
grown up in Kashan and made this record based on their memories of
families who’d lived there; Yousefzadeh estimates that only 20 percent
of the people on the list are still alive.

“I have memories when I see this list,” he said, taking off his
glasses. “How they take a bath, how they went to the school, how they
went even to buy a piece of bread—they had a tough time.”

He describes Kashan as no bigger than Great Neck, not far from where
he now lives on Long Island; it had seven synagogues packed into a space
so tight that it was nicknamed Little Jerusalem: “I want to say that
the synagogues were like two to three minutes walking from each other.”
He remembers the Small Synagogue, another opposite a cheese-maker, and
another built by one of three childless brothers who also built a Jewish
burial ground, a public bath, and a school.

He remembers the hardships, too. Yousefzadeh describes Jews living
four to six people in a room, as well as restrictions on buying food and
going out in the rain: “Because they’re Jewish and according to Muslims
they’re not clean, they weren’t meant to touch [food].”

Historian David Yeroushalmi, a senior fellow at the Alliance Center
for Iranian Studies who specializes in the history and cultural heritage
of Iranian Jewry, paints a complicated picture of Jewish life in
Kashan. In the 15th and 16th centuries, it was a major center of Jewish
learning, and the Muslim population had a reputation for being
relatively tolerant toward Jews. But as Shi’a began to take hold from
the 16th century onward, the Shi’ite population began to develop a
harsher opinion of religious minorities including Jews, Christians, and
Zoroastrians. There were known periods of persecution and forced
conversions, but less so than in other Jewish communities, says
Yeroushalmi; Jews could still engage in Jewish life, and the Jewish
quarter wasn’t entirely set apart. Nonetheless, Jews were outsiders and
their language reflected that.

“First of all, the Jews had a different accent to the Muslims,” said
Yousefzadeh. “There were different words that Jews would use. It’d mean
that people would find out if these were Muslims or Jews talking.”

Read article in full

*******************

Bataween adds:

A unique Judeo-Arabic dialect also developed amongst Jews in Iraq and in other Arab countries.  In this clip (starting at 10:18) emeritus professor of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv university Sasson Somekh explains that one of his main influences was a leading dialectologist in Israel, Haim Blanc. A blind scholar of Arabic, Blanc had made a 
study of why Jews in Iraq passed down over the centuries to their children a different form of Arabic
from that spoken by Muslim
s. Professor Somekh estimates that perhaps no more than 5,000 speakers of Judeo-Arabic dialects remain in the world today.     (with thanks: Lily)

saac
Yousefzadeh is in mourning for his mother, who passed away a few weeks
ago. But with her death comes a second, more subtle loss—that of her
language, Judeo-Kashani, which is now on the verge of extinction. “It’s
like somebody is sick in bed and in another few days or years he will
die,” he said. “That’s it.”

The language’s speakers trace their roots to Kashan, a city in central
Iran where Judeo-Kashani had been spoken for centuries. But in the past
several decades, the Jews of Kashan have scattered—first to Tehran, and
later around the world—and their descendants have adopted different
languages. Virtually the only speakers left are a handful of Jews from
Yousefzadeh’s generation who were born in Kashan, a city that no longer
has any Jewish residents. They are the end of the linguistic line. “It’s
a language that each day, the number of people that know it is less and
less,” said Yousefzadeh. “In 20 years, I’d say no one would speak it.
Because they’re dying each day.”

Judeo-Kashani is not alone. Dozens of Jewish communities in Iran, India,
and the Caucasus region once spoke their own languages, which encoded
centuries of Jewish life; today they, like Judeo-Kashani, are dying off.

With approximately one of the world’s 7,000 languages going extinct
every 14 days, linguists around the world are trying to document them
before they go. Scholars in Brazil, the United States, and Israel are
working specifically on Jewish languages; New York alone is home to at
least seven endangered Jewish languages, ranging from Juhuri, once
spoken by Jews from the Caucasus Mountains, to a different
Persian-Jewish dialect from Isfahan. Because speakers are getting older,
the Endangered Language Alliance in New York has launched a project
dedicated to recording and transcribing these languages while they are
still being spoken—including Judeo-Kashani.

Read more at http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/136371/endangered-jewish-languages#GfudBFJKzsXkizYo.99

saac
Yousefzadeh is in mourning for his mother, who passed away a few weeks
ago. But with her death comes a second, more subtle loss—that of her
language, Judeo-Kashani, which is now on the verge of extinction. “It’s
like somebody is sick in bed and in another few days or years he will
die,” he said. “That’s it.”

The language’s speakers trace their roots to Kashan, a city in central
Iran where Judeo-Kashani had been spoken for centuries. But in the past
several decades, the Jews of Kashan have scattered—first to Tehran, and
later around the world—and their descendants have adopted different
languages. Virtually the only speakers left are a handful of Jews from
Yousefzadeh’s generation who were born in Kashan, a city that no longer
has any Jewish residents. They are the end of the linguistic line. “It’s
a language that each day, the number of people that know it is less and
less,” said Yousefzadeh. “In 20 years, I’d say no one would speak it.
Because they’re dying each day.”

Judeo-Kashani is not alone. Dozens of Jewish communities in Iran, India,
and the Caucasus region once spoke their own languages, which encoded
centuries of Jewish life; today they, like Judeo-Kashani, are dying off.

With approximately one of the world’s 7,000 languages going extinct
every 14 days, linguists around the world are trying to document them
before they go. Scholars in Brazil, the United States, and Israel are
working specifically on Jewish languages; New York alone is home to at
least seven endangered Jewish languages, ranging from Juhuri, once
spoken by Jews from the Caucasus Mountains, to a different
Persian-Jewish dialect from Isfahan. Because speakers are getting older,
the Endangered Language Alliance in New York has launched a project
dedicated to recording and transcribing these languages while they are
still being spoken—including Judeo-Kashani.

Read more at http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/136371/endangered-jewish-languages#GfudBFJKzsXkizYo.99

saac
Yousefzadeh is in mourning for his mother, who passed away a few weeks
ago. But with her death comes a second, more subtle loss—that of her
language, Judeo-Kashani, which is now on the verge of extinction. “It’s
like somebody is sick in bed and in another few days or years he will
die,” he said. “That’s it.”

The language’s speakers trace their roots to Kashan, a city in central
Iran where Judeo-Kashani had been spoken for centuries. But in the past
several decades, the Jews of Kashan have scattered—first to Tehran, and
later around the world—and their descendants have adopted different
languages. Virtually the only speakers left are a handful of Jews from
Yousefzadeh’s generation who were born in Kashan, a city that no longer
has any Jewish residents. They are the end of the linguistic line. “It’s
a language that each day, the number of people that know it is less and
less,” said Yousefzadeh. “In 20 years, I’d say no one would speak it.
Because they’re dying each day.”

Judeo-Kashani is not alone. Dozens of Jewish communities in Iran, India,
and the Caucasus region once spoke their own languages, which encoded
centuries of Jewish life; today they, like Judeo-Kashani, are dying off.

With approximately one of the world’s 7,000 languages going extinct
every 14 days, linguists around the world are trying to document them
before they go. Scholars in Brazil, the United States, and Israel are
working specifically on Jewish languages; New York alone is home to at
least seven endangered Jewish languages, ranging from Juhuri, once
spoken by Jews from the Caucasus Mountains, to a different
Persian-Jewish dialect from Isfahan. Because speakers are getting older,
the Endangered Language Alliance in New York has launched a project
dedicated to recording and transcribing these languages while they are
still being spoken—including Judeo-Kashani.

Read more at http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/136371/endangered-jewish-languages#GfudBFJKzsXkizYo.99

2 Comments

  • "Professor Somekh estimates that perhaps no more than 5,000 speakers of Judeo-Arabic dialects remain in the world today."

    Perhaps 5000 speakers of Iraqi judeo-Arabic dialect?

    Because just in my small town, I can assure you that there must be more than 5000 people who speak judeo-arabic dialects on a daily basis.

    Reply

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