Yiddish and Arabic Share an Uncommon Commonality

For two languages with roots so different, there’s a surprising vocabulary overlap

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Yiddish and Arabic Share an Uncommon Commonality
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines

The relationship between Arabic and Hebrew is well known, but Yiddish and Arabic aren’t often considered as having much in common. Unlike Arabic and Hebrew, Yiddish is not a Semitic language; an important language of European Jewry, Yiddish originated as a medieval, German dialect written in the Hebrew alphabet. Nevertheless, Yiddish and Arabic have had a number of points of contact.

Through modern Hebrew, Yiddish words occasionally find their way into Arabic. A notable example in Palestinian Arabic is balagan, meaning “chaos,” borrowed from Hebrew. The Palestinian rapper Daboor used the word in his massive hit “Inn Ann,” released just days before protests erupted over Israeli attempts to evict Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem in May 2021. As war broke out and Israel bombarded Gaza, the song became a kind of Palestinian anthem. The video racked up millions of views on YouTube, leaving Arabs from outside Palestine wondering: What is balagan?

While balagan came to Palestinian Arabic through Hebrew, the source of the Hebrew word was likely Yiddish. The word is ultimately from Persian bālākhāna, meaning “upper room” or “chamber.” It passed from Persian into Tatar or another Turkic language and from there entered Russian as balagan, where it came to refer to a temporary wooden structure for circus performances. Because of the circus context, the Russian word also acquired connotations of buffoonery. When borrowed from Russian and put into Yiddish (and Polish), the chaos of the circus setting gave the word the sense of a mess, bedlam or chaos. It’s hard to say with certainty whether the Hebrew word balagan came from Yiddish, Russian or Polish, as all three are common lexical sources for modern Hebrew. In any case, there have been other, more direct encounters between Yiddish and Arabic.

In Ottoman Palestine, and especially in Jerusalem before 1948, it was common for Yiddish-speaking Jews and Arabs to understand each other’s languages, particularly in neighborhoods where the two communities abutted each other. Among Jews, it was more often women engaged in business or neighborly relations with Arabs who learned Arabic, whereas men were more often secluded in yeshivas, engrossed in the study of Hebrew and Aramaic texts. Arabic was taught alongside German in the “modern” Sephardic schools established after 1850, and while there were attempts to integrate Arabic into the Ashkenazic institutes of learning, in order to provide graduates with practical job skills, these were usually resisted by the religious authorities. Nevertheless, in the 19th century there were groups of Ashkenazic men in Jerusalem who learned Arabic, both spoken and literary. Arabic words became part of the everyday Yiddish spoken in Palestine — even for terms specific to Judaism, like khalake, a boy’s ritual first haircut, from the Arabic for haircut, ḥalāqa. These were documented by Mordecai Kosover in his lengthy dissertation on the Arabic elements of the Yiddish spoken by the Ashkenazic (central and eastern European origin) Jewish community in Palestine.

Kosover was a fascinating figure who embodied the interaction between Yiddish and Arabic in Palestine. He grew up in Vilna and migrated to Jerusalem in 1928, where he studied at the recently established Hebrew University. After a decade, he left Palestine for the United States, completing his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and becoming a professor at Brooklyn College. Though he taught Hebrew and Arabic literature, Kosover was above all dedicated to his mame loshn or mother tongue, Yiddish. He was active in YIVO, formerly the Yiddish Scientific Institute, and published prolifically in the language.

Kosover was primarily interested in the Yiddish of the “old Yishuv,” the Jewish communities living in Palestine long before Zionism. Yet as the Zionist colonial project gained momentum, it put Yiddish and Arabic into greater contact. The first Arabic-Yiddish phrasebooks and dictionaries appeared in Warsaw and Odessa in the 19th century, to serve the needs of Jewish pilgrims and migrants fleeing antisemitic pogroms. Yiddish-speaking Jewish settlers arrived in Palestine from Europe in increasing numbers later in the 19th century, and many found themselves needing to learn Arabic. Around 1912, a short textbook teaching colloquial Palestinian Arabic in Yiddish was published in Jaffa to serve the needs of Zionist settlers. This was followed by additional texts for learning Arabic through Yiddish, published in Warsaw, Lviv, New York, Jaffa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in the 1920s and ’30s. But the trend of settlers learning Arabic did not endure, and Hebrew eventually edged out both Arabic and Yiddish as the dominant language of the Jewish community in Palestine.

Perhaps more striking than Yiddish and Arabic’s points of contact, then, is their shared displacement by Hebrew. In a way, Zionism linked the destinies of the two languages, each becoming a kind of “lingua non grata” marginalized in Israel. Hebrew was central to Zionism, which sought not only to erect a Jewish state in Palestine but also to revive Hebrew as a spoken language and to “Hebraize” the Jewish people. Jewish men had studied Hebrew as a liturgical and bureaucratic language but had not spoken it as a living vernacular since the second century. Zionists revived Hebrew, first as a literary and then a spoken language, but at the onset of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century, it was no one’s native language.

For the Zionists, Yiddish represented the weak, emasculated Jew of the shtetl. They saw it as feminine (Hebrew literacy in the 19th century was mostly limited to men), backward and hybrid, a mixture of many languages. This stood in stark contrast with Hebrew, which they associated with the new, muscular Jewish identity they sought to engender in the Jewish colony in Palestine. Hebrew, in the eyes of its proponents, was modern, masculine and pure; it was a language associated not with the ignominies of diaspora but with the Holy Land itself. The campaign to suppress Yiddish and break Ashkenazic Jews’ attachment to the language was vicious. In the decades before 1948, as Hebrew became the dominant language of the colony, organizations like the Hebrew Language Defense League propagated Hebrew and drove Yiddish from the public sphere, sometimes by force. Their more militant activists harassed shopkeepers who put up Yiddish signs; physically broke up film screenings, lectures and cultural performances in Yiddish; and even burned down newsstands that sold the leftist Yiddish-language paper Nayvelt. Even the pronunciation of modern Hebrew was standardized according to the Sephardic liturgical tradition so as to distinguish it phonologically from Yiddish.

In 1948, the state of Israel was established, and Arabic, too, was redefined as a “foreign” tongue. The victors seized Palestinian land, destroyed Palestinian villages and drove more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs into exile. These events came to be known as the nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic. In the years that followed, tens of thousands of Jews immigrated to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa. While Yiddish was the native language of most Ashkenazim, the majority of the Mizrahi or “Eastern” Jews who came to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa spoke Arabic. Arabic in Israel, whether spoken by Palestinians or Mizrahi Jews, faced opposition as fervent as that directed at Yiddish.

Though Hebrew and Arabic were both technically Israel’s official languages, in practice Arabic was subject to discrimination and neglect, like a second-class citizen in its homeland. This de facto linguistic inequality became de jure with the passing of the 2018 Basic Law, which defined Hebrew as the country’s sole official language. From early on, Arabic was deemed the language of the enemy, and Zionism defined “Jewish” and “Arab” as mutually exclusive, even opposite, categories. The very existence of Arab Jews challenged such a binary. Unlike the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Europe, whose unique language was a product of their isolation from gentile society, Jews had historically been much better integrated into the Muslim-majority societies of the Middle East and North Africa. In Israel, Arabic-speaking Jews were subject to racist discrimination by the Ashkenazic elite, who disparaged Arab culture and language as inferior. In order to break the potential bonds of solidarity between Arab Jews and Palestinians, Mizrahim were forcibly assimilated into speaking Hebrew and disidentifying with Arabs. As the Iraqi-Israeli scholar Ella Shohat argued in her essay, “Reflections of an Arab Jew,” “stripped of our history, we [Mizrahim] have been forced … to repress our collective nostalgia, at least within the public sphere.”

Mizrahi nostalgia for the pre-Zionist past finds expression in Almog Behar’s short story “Ana min al-yahud” (“I am one of the Jews,” 2005), in which the Israeli narrator wakes up one morning speaking Hebrew with his Iraqi grandfather’s Arabic accent, as if by magic. The accent, with its pharyngeal pronunciation of letters like ʿayin and ḥet, subjects the narrator to police scrutiny. The story illustrates how the historic Zionist suppression of Arabness — whether Palestinian or Jewish — continues to haunt the present; as the narrator adopts his grandfather’s accent, he imagines homes and land returning to their original Palestinian owners as well, “the way they had been before the 1948 war, as if there had never been a 1948 war.”

In the early 20th century, the Hebrew Language Committee, established by Hebrew revivalist Eliezer Ben Yehuda, described both Yiddish and spoken Arabic as zhargon, “jargon,” in this context a deprecatory term for what they considered a mere hodgepodge of other languages, not a “proper” language unto itself. Yiddish and colloquial Arabic borrowed vocabulary freely and amply from other languages and therefore did not live up to nationalist ideas about the purity of language. Each had a respectable linguistic doppelgänger: German, admired by Hebrew revivalists as an ideal Western language, and Modern Standard Arabic, the ideal Semitic language. The Hebrew Language Committee ruled that German and Modern Standard Arabic could offer inspiration to revivalists forming new Hebrew vocabulary, but Yiddish and colloquial Arabic were inappropriate sources. The Jewish poet Avot Yeshurun resisted such Hebrew supremacism and linguistic “purification” by integrating Yiddish and Arabic words into a long Hebrew poem, “Passover on Caves” (1952). The poem commemorated both the shoah — in which his family had been killed — and the nakba as parallel tragedies. Like Behar’s short story about Arab Jews, Yeshurun’s poem recovered languages and memories of Jewish diaspora that had been disavowed by Zionism.

The Zionist hierarchy of languages is illustrated in Yeshayahu Koren’s Hebrew novel “Funeral at Noon” (1974), set in the 1950s, where Erlich, a young Jewish man, speaks “dirty Yiddish” in the café and “pure” Hebrew to those born in the colony. But the novel also shows how such linguistic separation is inevitably breached, if not entirely subverted. Working in the nearby Arab villages, Erlich also picks up Arabic, which he writes down in a small notebook: “The Arab tells him the words and the sentences, and Erlich writes them down in Yiddish in his notebook. He writes Arabic in Yiddish.” Despite the Hebrew Language Committee’s efforts, modern, post- “revival” Hebrew adopted a great many loanwords not just from Yiddish, the native language of many of the revivalists, but also from Palestinian Arabic. Some such words reflect Palestinian pronunciation, like chizbat, meaning “tall tale” in Hebrew, from the Arabic kiḏbāt (“lies”). In rural Palestinian speech, the “k” is palatalized into “ch,” and the word becomes chizbāt — which sounds almost Yiddish.

Although Israel drove Arabic and Yiddish from the public sphere, it is still a site of surprising interaction between the languages, like the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s partial Yiddish translation of the Quran, produced in 1987. Ahmadiyya began as a messianic movement in 19th-century India, but missionaries soon spread it across the globe, including to Palestine. In 1928, they made the village of Kababir the center of the Ahmadiyya mission in the Middle East. Eventually, most of the Muslims of Kababir (now incorporated into the city of Haifa) became Ahmadis. The Ahmadis follow a caliph, who is the central living religious leader of their faith. The first caliph knew Hebrew, and the second, Mirza Bashir ud-Din Mahmud Ahmad, had visited Palestine in 1924. In his 1947 commentary on the Quran, in the middle of a muddled polemic about the veracity of the Bible, Bashir ud-Din described Yiddish as a “corrupted” or “distorted” language (bigṛī hū’ī zabān), expressing a view very similar to that of the Hebrew Language Committee. The Yiddish translation of the Quran was commissioned from abroad by the fourth Ahmadi caliph, Mirza Tahir Ahmad.

Why translate the Quran into Yiddish? Living in London, did the Ahmadi caliph simply not know how marginal Yiddish had become in Israel? One possibility is that the translation was intended as outreach to the cloistered communities of Orthodox Jews who still maintain Yiddish in Israel. The president of the Ahmadiyya community in Israel, Muhammad Sharif Odeh, suggests as much, explaining that they wanted “to make sure that [their] neighbors could also read the Quran.” Or perhaps it was intended for distribution in London, where there is also a sizable Yiddish-speaking Orthodox population. But as a practical explanation this leaves something to be desired. By the late 1980s, you would have been hard-pressed to find many Orthodox Jews who could read Yiddish but not Hebrew. And the Quran had already been translated into Hebrew several times, with manuscripts going back to the 16th century and a handful of more recent published translations (Hermann Reckendorf 1857, Joseph Joel Rivlin 1936, Aharon Ben-Shemesh 1971) available. The Ahmadis themselves produced a partial Hebrew translation around the same time as their Yiddish edition.

A more likely explanation is that the Ahmadis’ choice to translate the Quran into Yiddish was more about the political, symbolic significance of the language than a practical tool for proselytizing to Orthodox Jews. Possibly influenced by the British Bible Society, which seeks to make the Bible available in every language, the Ahmadis produced dozens of translations into relatively smaller languages of the world, like the Polynesian languages Tuvaluan, with around 10,000 speakers, and Fijian, which has less than half a million. Many of these languages had previously lacked a translation of the Quran, so the Ahmadis were the first (and often the only) group to make one available. In the same way, Ahmadis could boast of being the first to produce a Yiddish Quran translation, even a partial one.

Because Yiddish is a symbol of Jewishness — the word “Yiddish” literally means “Jewish” — the Yiddish translation was in some ways more significant than the translations into other languages. Decades after the dust had settled on Jewish debates over language in Israel, though Hebrew categorically prevailed, Yiddish continues to maintain incontestable bona fides as a Jewish language. Before the rise of Zionism, Hebrew had been associated primarily with religious learning while Yiddish was the idiom of a vibrant secular Jewish culture. But by the end of the 20th century the roles had nearly reversed, with Hebrew the language of secular Jewish life in Israel and Yiddish spoken almost exclusively by Orthodox communities. Perhaps translating the Quran into Yiddish, a language so strongly associated with Judaism, was intended as a symbolic gesture of Ahmadi ecumenism.

Despite its status as a Jewish language, Yiddish borrowed vocabulary not only from Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages of religious texts, but also from Polish and other Slavic languages. Some Arabic vocabulary even made its way into Yiddish through circuitous routes. Take the Yiddish bakaleyne, meaning “grocery store.” Originally an Arabic word, it traveled through a number of other languages before reaching Yiddish. The Arabic baqqāl, meaning greengrocer, was borrowed by Persian, and from there it followed a similar trajectory to balagan, passing through Persian to Russian via a Turkic intermediary. The word entered Russian (as bakaleya) and Ukrainian; one of these Slavic languages is probably the source of the Yiddish term. The convoluted course among languages makes words like bakaleyne and balagan fitting symbols of the little-known connections between Yiddish and Arabic.

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