English as a Jewish Language
By LAURA LEVITT
you ever made a just man?”
“Oh, I have made three,” answered God,
“But two of them are dead
And the third—
And you will hear the thud of his defeat.”
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.
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
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.
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.