Liberating Language


Have you ever heard of or thought about language liberation?

I was recently at a counseling conference and an integral part of the conference included translation of all of the lectures, teachings, and announcements from English into French, sentence by sentence, in front of the group.  Only about a fifth of the people in the group were native French speakers.  They all understood English well enough so that without translation, they would have understood the majority of what was said.  However, it was a conscious decision on the part of the organizers to destabilize the dominance of English and to assert the value of creating a shared culture – not defined by the majority, but rather by conscious inclusion of the diversity present.  For the French speakers in the room, it was a relief to learn and communicate in their native language without the mentally exhausting extra step of translating for themselves. Their relationship to the material was deeper and the relationships between the Anglophones and Francophones integrated greater sensitivity and awareness.

In addition, there was one morning in which anyone who grew up connected to a language other than English was invited to translate for about ten minutes each, even if they were the only person in the room who knew that language.  Korean, Hebrew, Czech, Yiddish, American Sign Language, and a dialect of German became part of the shared experience.  With a handful of words, large parts of the world and their distinct cultures became visible and audible to this small workshop group.  It was remarkable to see how animated each translator became when speaking in a language from their childhood, their culture, their people.  The experience also surfaced grief and anger from some who talked about being teased and shamed as new immigrants to Canada speaking their native tongue and with little knowledge of English.  For others, the language marked a deep connection to grandparents.  In some instances this was a rich bridge of continuity and for others, it was the last vestige of a dying cultural link.

As part of the conference, there was a very moving panel of Indigenous Canadian women speaking about their lives.  One of the central themes they addressed was the struggle to preserve Indigenous culture in the face of forces of assimilation into white European society.  One of the women told the group, “My parents never taught me my language.  They were trying to protect me so I’d speak English and fit in with the white kids, but I feel robbed.  I was robbed of my language.”  She highlighted the ways that her parents, and so many like them, had been so painfully distorted by the institutions that were actively working to sever First Nations peoples from the rituals, language, and beliefs of Indigenous culture.  It is no wonder that they saw the language of their own people and heritage as limiting or even dangerous, as not worthwhile or wise to teach the next generation.  She shared, too, the growing commitment of the generation of her children and grandchildren to learn, speak and reclaim the language that was taken from her.

These potent moments stirred questions for me about what it can look like to actively preserve and enliven Jewish culture in the face of assimilation.  What is our relationship with the languages of Jewish culture?  How many of you grew up with Yiddish-speaking parents or grandparents who only spoke in the mammeh loshen (the mother tongue) when they didn’t want you to understand what they were saying, but never taught you the richness of speaking or understanding Yiddish? How many of you heard Judeo-Arabic or Ladino from relatives but received the message, explicitly or implicitly, that these were uncivilized languages or were not needed in the New World?  How many of you have a relationship with Hebrew that twisted it into a series of sounds you were forced to memorize but was cut off from the spiritual reverberations and poetic beauty at its heart?  Can you know a culture without speaking its language(s)?  Can you live inside a culture and possess it, claim it, if all your encounters with its texts, teachings and cultural expressions are one step removed, in translation, and therefore always involving someone else’s interpretive choices?  It is challenging for adults to learn a new language, but what opportunities can we offer adults to gain connection with Jewish culture and life through our historic languages and their current vitality? What are the Jewish language tools that we want to prioritize our children gaining, and what gets in the way?

As we are approaching the June 5th final session in our series of Community Conversations, we are shifting in our focus from a year of wrestling together, to a future of learning together.  We are making it our priority to engage in “learning Jewish” and “doing Jewish” as the foundation for leadership in the ritual life of the community.  By extension, we are exploring how the DJC as a whole can grow into a community of engaged, life-long learners of Judaism.  I think that reclaiming our connection to Jewish languages plays a rich role in this and I am inspired by thinking about this as Language Liberation.

Take a look at these two videos by contemporary Israel composer and vocalist Victoria Hanna as she weaves together elements of her Mizrachi culture, her religious upbringing, and mystical teachings about the universe being formed through Hebrew letters.  I recently shared these as part of our Yom Ha’atzma’ut program, marking Israel’s birthday with an exploration of current Israeli music, the connection between ancient and contemporary language and identity.

The Aleph-Bet Song (Hosha’ana) —Victoria Hanna
Twenty Two (22) Letters — Victoria Hanna

Scroll to Top