The Jewish Press set off a firestorm last week when it published An Open Letter to Sarah Silverman by Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt. The Orthodox author criticized the comedian’s politics, vulgar presentation style, and the fact that she remains childless. As a linguist, what I found most interesting about this article was the language. By looking closely at the Hebrew and Yiddish words used by the author and commenters, we can learn a lot about Orthodox Jews in America.
In my research, I have found that Orthodox Jews use many Hebrew and Yiddish words when speaking to other Orthodox Jews, but they avoid or translate those words in their speech to outsiders. In the letter to Sarah Silverman, Rosenblatt uses only one, a word most Americans know: kosher. He talks about God, not Hashem, and Orthodox rather than frum.
Many articles in the Jewish Press use more distinctive language. For example, Mordechai Bienstock writes: “We can be truly ourselves in all of our pursuits, expressing the wonderful individualistic neshamahs [souls] Hashem [God] has granted us through the application of our special natures in the physical world, what the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples discovered as the basis for avodah b’gashmiyut [serving God through the physical world].”
Even Rosenblatt uses Hebrew and Yiddish words in his other articles in the Jewish Press, for example, in an article about internet filters: “Our frum [religious] community”, “Kiddush Hashem” (sanctifying God’s name), and “Halacha Chabura” (study group about Jewish law).
Boro Park’s Orthodox neighborhood patrol group, known informally as the shomrim — Hebrew for watch guards — has faced increased media scrutiny in the past few weeks over its role in the investigation of the killing of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky on July 12. At issue is the fact that Kletzky’s disappearance was first reported to the shomrim at least two hours before secular law enforcement officials were brought onto the scene, raising a host of “what ifs” about whether the murder might have been prevented. The controversy has raged even as New York Police Department commissioner Raymond Kelly told the New York Times that the time lag did not matter in the Kletzky case.
The debate has been roiling in the pages of the Jewish press since Hella Winston probed shomrim practices in the New York Jewish Week. More recently, it has spilled into the secular media. On August 1, Orthodox lawyer Michael Lesher published an indictment of the Jewish neighborhood patrols in the New York Post, asking, “Does anyone truly believe that Orthodox Jewish vigilantes like Flatbush Shomrim Safety Patrol, the Williamsburg Safety Patrol and the Smira Civilian Volunteer Patrol of Borough Park—all of them on the take for budget dollars in 2012—do the city a better service?”
On Sunday, the Post followed up with an editorial calling on the New York City Council to defund the shomrim and other patrols in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods that were collectively allocated some $130,000 in the 2012 budget: “They don’t have the same skills as the NYPD; in serious incidents, they can be as much a hindrance as a helping hand.”