English as a Jewish Language



“Have you ever made a just man?”
“Oh, I have made three,” answered God,
“But two of them are dead
And the third—
Listen! Listen!
And you will hear the thud of his defeat.”
—Stephen Crane

For me, English is how I communicate all that matters most to me. Although I have some facility in Hebrew, German, and French, I am not good with languages. I am awkward, tentative, and mostly inarticulate. This is frustrating because I live in words as a writer, scholar, and teacher of Jewish Studies. Like a large percentage of the world’s Jews, my first and most powerful language is English. English is a thriving contemporary Jewish language, one of many Jewish tongues.[1] Although Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic carry strong histories within their very structure and memory, Jews live in lots of other languages. Sometime they bring traces of these other tongues into the dominant languages of the communities in which they live, but these languages become Jewish not by the influx of “Jewish” words, but rather as Jews become fluent in addressing the concerns of its minority Jewish populations. Jews nuance and complicate the language of the dominant culture to make it speak to their specific needs, desires, and experiences. In this way English is a Jewish language. Perhaps it might be considered English in a minor key.

There is something profoundly poetic about these engagements. My partner, a scholar of American civilization, reminds me that English, perhaps more than any other modern language, carries a large number of Hebraisms within itself. The translation of the Bible into English brought with it a large number of words that had no English equivalents, making Hebrew terms simply English. In this way, “amen” became an English word. And yet, this very construction of a modern biblical language, a vocabulary built powerfully on the translation of this sacred text, comes with its own challenges for Jews. After all, that text is already an amalgam of translations and tongues, including not only Hebrew, but also Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. And all of these traditions leave traces, not to mention the thorny issue of to whom any translation might belong. Whose authority informs these efforts at crossing so many borders and boundaries, the shared and the contested spaces among and between various Christians, much less the various Jewish communities that became English speakers? This is not to mention our Muslim neighbors who also share in these books and stories, the narratives, poetry, and laws that constitute these texts. And there's the fact that many of us come to these texts no longer bound by any religious authority. We lay claim to these texts as secular readers and writers and thinkers who, nevertheless, remain haunted by these formative biblical legacies. For Jews, this is complicated by our desires for both a seemingly shared, but also a uniquely Jewish, legacy. We want both the particular inflections that mark our specific cultural memory as Jewish, as well as some stake in the shared dominant culture, and the role of our text in that story as it continues to shape the dominant culture. In this way, we lay claim to our rightful place in English, its grammar, lexicon, and ongoing cultural production. And, for someone like me who does not want to be just an American scholar or writer—but rather a scholar of Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism primarily in the United States—this means doing specifically Jewish work in English.

I am fascinated by how American Jews negotiate place through language. For me, it is the places where these legacies touch—not where they overlap—that interest me. These are places of imaginative engagement that make visible the connections and the differences all at once. They allow us to unravel the layers of desire that continue to animate both our efforts to be included as well as our pride in our distinctiveness.

With this in mind, I turn to the poem at the opening of this essay—to tell a story about its circulation in my own family as an example of this cultural touching and transformation. The poem, by Steven Crane, was given to me by my father. It is part of War is Kind, published at the turn of the last century. It speaks to a kind of desolate hope against hope. In a bleak world, God responds to the narrator’s desire for justice, sort of. God says he has created three just men and two are dead, and when pushed further about the third, the narrator is told, to listen carefully for the sound of his defeat. My father—a child of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, the first generation of English speakers in his family—used this poem as the basis of his one and only silent amateur film, The Thud of his Defeat. In his visual translation, this strangely Christian text became Jewish.

As I recalled the poem from memory, I confused the text. I had never read it; I only knew it in my father’s voice at the showing of his film. I remembered the question and the final response, but confused the number of just men. I thought there were only two, and not the Trinitarian three. It had never occurred to me that the poem was Christian until I read the words in print outside of the bounds of my family. At first it was jarring, but as I have lived with this knowledge, I realized that both are true. The poem is both Jewish and not Jewish. For me, this characterizes the way that English is Jewish—shared and distinctive, ours and not ours, all at the same time. Because Crane’s poem touched my father deeply, it sparked his imagination allowing him to say something about his own complicated place in America and share that with me.

By translating the poem into film, a film without words, my father took something deeply marked by a Christian theological tradition and remade it into something Jewish without, in fact, erasing these other resonances. All remain present, echoing back and forth.[2] In this instance, Stephen Crane and Irving Levitt speak together and it is for us to listen carefully for the sound of that defeat which we have yet to hear.

[1] For more on the many tongues and cultures of contemporary global Jews, see Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (New York: NYU Press, 2006).

[2] On the legacy of translation between Jews and Christians, see Naomi Seidman, Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).