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).
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