Friday, March 05, 2021

Spoken Like a True Yeshiva Bachur

Students at Yeshiva University (YU)
Yeshivish. That is an English dialect consisting of a combination of Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic words and phrases  spoken by the vast majority of English speaking Yeshiva students in all segments of Orthodoxy. If you don’t explain a piece of Gemarah that way, you might be seen as an ignoramus.  

An example of this dialect would be as follows. Instead of saying there is a dispute between mediaeval scholars about the interpretation of a passage in the Talmud, in Yeshivish you would say, ‘It’s a Machlokes Rishonim’. This dialect is so rich with words and phrases that the typical English speaker would think they were listening to a foreign language with a few English words sprinkled in. Most people wouldn’t understand a conversation between 2 people speaking like that at all. 

I admit being ‘victim’ to this dialect. Having studied in Yeshivas from 4th grade all the way through high school and well beyond, that is the way I generally study Gemarah now. However, when I am outside of that milieu I avoid talking like that. When I write anything for publication to a wider audience that makes reference to a Yeshivishe phrase I will almost always try to translate it into plain English so that I will be understood by as many people as possible. I also happen to be a lover of the English language. Which is increasingly becoming the language of the world. 

The reason that Yeshivish has become the language of Torah study in Yeshivos is that it is easier to understand and explain a piece of Gemarah and its commentaries to peers who understand and use the words of the Gemarah rather than using a a translation of it. That is why for example I prefer using a Hebrew version of the ArtScroll Gemarah since in the English version I need to translate it into Yeshivish. 

I believe it is imperative that Yeshiva students learn how to speak the English language correctly – without using any ‘Yeshivishe’ words and phrases. Because to the untrained ear it will sound like gibberish and the speaker will be seen as an ignoramus. 

I recall one somewhat humorous situation where a Talmudic scholar from Lakewood was asked to speak at the Sheva Brachos (a meal of a newly married couple - eaten during the first 7 days of their marriage). 

He got up and announced that he will address the crowd in English since he knew that not everyone there had studied in a Yeshiva and understood the dialect he was used to speaking. He then went about speaking in an almost pure Yeshivshe dialect, believing that he was speaking English.  (I can’t imagine what his actual Yeshivish dialect was like if this was his version of English.) It was both comical and at the same time sad that someone that is otherwise quite intelligent could not speak the language of the country in which he was born and raised well enough to be understood by most English speakers. 

In my humble opinion, it is a Chilul Hashem when students of Torah are seen as ignoramuses because they can’t speak English well enough to be understood outside of their own environment. 

This was brought home to me again in a Tablet article by a formerly non observant young Jew (now in his 3rd year at  Gush - Yeshivat Har Etzion) from a limited Jewish studies background who had expressed interest in Orthodoxy: 

The summer after our junior year at our pluralistic Jewish high school near Washington, D.C., my stepbrother and I spent two weeks at Yale with 35 or so modern Orthodox peers. The program we attended taught the works of C.S. Lewis and Joseph Soloveitchik, and I was eager, for the first time in my life, to meet serious Orthodox people my age. Which I did. But we had a language problem. 

I was the lonely man of faithlessness, frustrated by an in-speak that kept me out, even though nobody was actually trying to keep me out.  

I wonder just how many situations there are like this. How many non observant Jews are there that expressed an interest in being observant, only to be turned off by listening to people study in a dialect they could not understand - without even realizing they were doing that? 

If turning people off from observant Judaism isn’t a Chilul Hashem, I don’t know what is. 

That being said, I don’t think the right wing yeshiva world is going to change their ways. But the Centrist and modern Orthodox Yeshiva world might - and they should. They are the most likely to be connected to he outside world and encounter situations like this.  They should be able to study and teach Torah in a language that they understand. Instead of chasing them away by doing it in a dialect that they don’t. Because if do it right, they will be a Kiddush HaShem.