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Results of a fascinating HUC-JIR survey: "Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity"

HUC-JIR Faculty Release Results of Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity

How do American Jews speak English? Who uses Hebrew and Yiddish words and New York regional features? When using Hebrew words, who prefers Israeli pronunciations and who prefers Ashkenazic ones? Which Yiddish-origin features do some non-Jews use? Two researchers from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion have begun to answer these questions. Linguist Sarah Bunin Benor and Sociologist Steven M. Cohen have released the results of a large-scale survey of Jews and non-Jews in the United States.

The online survey began in the summer of 2008 with an e-mail invitation to about 600 people, and within 6 weeks, over 40,000 people had participated. Several newspapers and dozens of blogs reported on the survey. "We were amazed at how much interest there was and how quickly the survey spread around the world," says Dr. Benor, who has published several papers on the Yiddish-influenced English speech of Orthodox Jews.

Benor and Cohen found that American Jews use many Yiddish words and constructions within their English speech (such as heimish, bashert, "staying by them," and "she has what to say") and that many non-Jews use selected Yiddishisms (especially klutz, shpiel, and "money shmoney"). Most Yiddish words are more common in the older generations, but some (including bentsh, leyn, and shul) are increasing among younger Jews who attend synagogue frequently. American Jews, especially those who have spent time in Israel or are highly engaged in religious life, also pepper their English with Hebrew and Aramaic words (including yofi, balagan, davka, and kal vachomer). Jews with different social networks have different understandings of the meanings of certain words (such as whether shmooze means 'chat' or 'kiss up'). Outside of New York, Jews are more likely than non-Jews to use certain New York regional pronunciations, such as pronouncing "orange" as "AH-range." And Jews are somewhat more likely than non-Jews to report that they have been told that they interrupt too much.

While Benor and Cohen are working on a number of academic papers based on the survey, they have written a summary of survey results geared toward a non-specialist audience. They have also prepared answers to Frequently Asked Questions, including a glossary of the words included in the survey. If you have not yet taken the survey, you can do so here. Finally, Benor and Cohen will be offering a free webinar (online seminar) to present more analysis and answer questions about the survey. This webinar is sponsored by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion's School of Jewish Communal Service and will take place on Wednesday, November 18, 10am Los Angeles time (1pm on the east coast of the U.S.). If you would like to participate in the webinar, you can register here. Also, in conjunction with the survey and a class on American Jewish Language and Identity, Prof. Benor has started an online collaborative lexicon of distinctive elements of Jewish American English). You are invited to contribute words to it. Finally, if you would like to be invited to participate in future studies of American Jewish identity and community connected with the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, please send an email to bjpasurveys@gmail.com (your message can be blank).

Easy list of links:
Summary of Survey Results
Frequently Asked Questions
Take the survey (if you have not already participated)
Online collaborative lexicon of distinctive elements of Jewish American English
Register for the November 18 Webinar
Sign up to participate in Jewish community surveys
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Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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