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Race against time to preserve Jewish languages

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Opinion News

(JTA) I can’t stop thinking about Flory Jagoda, Joseph Sassoon, and Kitty Sassoon – three American Jews in their 90s who died last week. As an Ashkenazi Jew, I don’t share their family backgrounds. But their deaths hit home for me as they were among the last native speakers of endangered Jewish languages, languages I’m helping to document before it’s too late.

Flory Jagoda devoted much of her life to preserving one of those languages. She grew up in Bosnia speaking Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, which her ancestors had maintained since their expulsion from Spain in 1492. She survived the Holocaust in part through her musical skills, playing accordion and singing in Serbo-Croatian. For decades, she wrote and performed Ladino songs, maintaining the Sephardic folk traditions of her Nona (grandmother), innovating them, and bringing them to a wider audience.

Jagoda’s music introduced me to Ladino and ignited my interest in Jewish languages. In my fifth-grade class at Jewish day school, my classmates and I learned her catchy tune, Ocho Kandelikas (Eight Little Candles) along with Hebrew and English Chanukah songs. As a teenager, I heard Jagoda perform at a Jewish Folk Life Festival, of which she was a founder, and purchased a cassette of hers, La Nona Kanta (The Grandmother Sings). I still listen to those songs and now share them – especially my favourite, Laz Tiyas (The Aunties) – with my students when I teach Jewish languages. My students read an article about Jagoda’s work to promote Sephardic language and culture just a week before she died.

While Jagoda is among the last generation of native Ladino speakers, young people have continued her language-preservation work, as we see in Devin Naar’s archive of Ladino letters, books, and other historical treasures; Bryan Kirschen’s Ladino research and classes; and Sarah Aroeste’s contemporary Ladino music and children’s books. Due to these efforts, American Jews tend to know about the language. When I ask audiences which Jewish languages they have heard of, they generally mention Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino.

People are less familiar with other Jewish languages, including Judeo-Shirazi (from Iran), Judeo-Malayalam (from India), and Jewish Neo-Aramaic (from the Kurdish region) – all critically endangered. The many endangered dialects of Judeo-Arabic have been documented to varying extents, from Egypt to Morocco, from Syria to Yemen. And some young people are keeping the music alive, such as Neta Elkayam, A-WA, and Asher Shasho Levy for Moroccan, Yemenite, and Syrian traditions. Even so, most American Jews have never heard of Judeo-Arabic. Whenever a speaker dies, we lose an opportunity to learn and teach more about the nuances of this rich language and culture.

Joseph and Kitty Sassoon died of COVID-19 within 12 hours of each other, months after their 76th anniversary. Both were children of Baghdadi parents who spoke Judeo-Arabic natively. Growing up in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in Myanmar, and Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in India, Joseph and Kitty spoke multiple languages, but their parents spoke Judeo-Arabic when they didn’t want the children to understand. As many American-born children of immigrants know, this means they picked up snippets of the language.

As adults, living most recently in Los Angeles, Joseph and Kitty spoke Hindi and English together and didn’t have much opportunity to use Judeo-Arabic, but their granddaughters remember them using some words and phrases. Kitty used pet names for grandchildren, like abdalnuana for boys and abdalki for girls (both literally meaning “penance” like the Hebrew kapara) and frequently said mashallah (what G-d has willed) when expressing pride and joy. Joseph called his mother Umm Shalom (mother of Shalom, her first son), in line with Judeo-Arabic convention, and hurled joking insults at grandchildren, such as harami (thief) and mamzerim (bastards) – a Hebrew word used in several Jewish languages).

The Sassoons are characteristic of speakers of endangered languages. Unlike Jagoda, they didn’t devote their lives to cultural preservation. And they had varying degrees of knowledge of the language. Joseph grew up speaking more Judeo-Arabic than Kitty. While language documenters would prefer fluent speakers, even semi-speakers can provide important information, particularly when the language is severely endangered.

Every day, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, more speakers of endangered languages die. If we don’t interview them now, we will lose our opportunity forever. Fortunately, several organisations have been doing this important work, including the Endangered Language Alliance, the Jewish Language Project, and Wikitongues in the United States, and the Mother Tongue Project in Israel.

This isn’t just a Jewish issue. Of the 7 000 languages of the world, about half are now endangered. Organisations like these are our last hope of recording them before the last speakers are gone. We can all get involved by donating funds, volunteering, or connecting the projects with speakers of endangered languages.

May the memories of Flory Jagoda and Joseph and Kitty Sassoon be a blessing – and a wakeup call. We must act now to preserve their languages and cultures while we still can.

  • Sarah Bunin Benor is a professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and Linguistics at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. She directs the Jewish Language Project and edits the ‘Journal of Jewish Languages’.

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The Jewish Report Editorial

Exploding fake mythology about Israel

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As I sit here late on Tuesday night to write my editorial, I keep receiving news flashes about more and more missile attacks on central Israel. I feel sick to my stomach knowing that most of my family who live there are holed up in bomb shelters overnight as they pray that the Iron Dome is able to stop the missiles aimed at their town or city.

I feel scared for them and especially for my precious 18-year-old niece who is spending a year living in the Old City in Jerusalem. What does she know of missiles? What does she understand about this kind of violence?

But then, who should be subjected to this whenever terrorist groups feel the time is right? Most people just want to live a peaceful life.

It amazes me how something that appeared initially to be an ugly fracas on the Temple Mount has spiralled into what looks like war. The night sky above the cities that we all love have come alive with what looks like fireworks – only, these videos are of deadly missiles aiming to kill as many people as possible. And they are being sent from Gaza. The only thing between them and Israelis is the Kupat Barzel, the so-called Iron Dome, that deflects the missiles, exploding them high up in the air.

If not for this phenomenal Israeli invention, there would be thousands of deaths in Israel. Quite simply, with missiles aimed at Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the central part of the country, these missiles could have destroyed most Israelis.

But at great financial cost – with each Iron Dome counter missile costing about $50 000 (R700 494) and the battery for the machinery costing $100 million (R1.4 billion) – they weren’t able to.

Now, if you had been reading other papers in South Africa this week, you might be surprised to read what’s written in this one about Israel. We have made every attempt to bring you factual accounts, from journalist Paula Slier who is covering the conflict from the Middle East, from South Africans in Israel, as well as showing you South Africa’s reaction to the conflict.

This was of vital importance to us because most South African leaders and media have all but ignored what Israel is experiencing. In fact, they have made Israel out to be the devil incarnate.

I have to say I was angered at hearing people referring to ordinary Israelis as “rabid Zionists” and neglecting to say that the missiles were coming fast and furious to central Israel from Gaza before Israel retaliated. The bias appears to be endemic.

When I heard or read reports of Israeli police attacking “worshippers praying”, I was astonished. On checking the facts, I discovered that nobody was praying, they were protesting and throwing stones and rocks at the police. Now, I don’t know about you, but I have never taken rocks and stones to shul to pray. I have been to Al-Aqsa, and I can assure you there are no rocks and stones lying around to be thrown. Someone had to bring them there.

Now, I’m not going to say to you that Israel and the Israeli authorities never do anything wrong. That would be untrue. I’m not someone who blindly believes that. Like any leaders and any government, Israel makes mistakes. We all do. That’s called being human.

I wasn’t there, so I cannot tell you exactly – blow by blow – what happened, but I can tell you that the first tirade of missiles came from Gaza, and they were aimed at Jerusalem, the holiest and most populated city in Israel. Yes, the terrorists knew that Israel had the Iron Dome, but they sent many missiles at once to try and get as many through so they could to do as much damage as possible.

They were aiming for civilians, and clearly they didn’t care whether they were Jewish, Muslim, or Christian.

And it didn’t stop there. They then fired vast numbers of missiles at other extremely populated areas, like Tel Aviv. If their plan wasn’t to kill or maim innocent civilians, then what was it?

But South Africa’s political leadership can’t see that Israel has a right to protect its people. I don’t know of any country that wouldn’t respond to missiles fired into its densely populated cities. Do you?

I understand that the Palestinians have a right to protest, as do any group. Those protesting maintain it was about the potential eviction of four families in East Jerusalem – not hundreds of people as has been stated in other media. I do understand, though, that any forced removals are emotional and often politicised.

My point is that, no matter what happened, the huge scale of violence that ensued wasn’t the fault of Israel, yet that’s not what has been portrayed.

I battle to understand how leaders and journalists can’t see that there are two sides to every story. There is never only one.

However, there clearly is a blindness about anything that Israel does that’s positive. It can be seen only as provocateur and aggressor.

Okay, so Israeli leadership has made it the country’s business to ensure that it uses every means at its disposal to protect its people. This evidently isn’t a bad thing, considering the situation Israel is in. And partly because of this, it’s demonised. I guess, if thousands of Israelis died in the missile attack, South Africans might be more forgiving or sympathetic. But, why should Israel have to suffer many deaths to get people to understand it has a right to exist and a right to protect itself?

I hope that as we and the world go to sleep tonight, the missile warfare comes to a permanent halt. It’s enough! I also hope that at some point, those who are so dead against Israel will see that it takes two to fight.

Shabbat Shalom and chag sameach!

We won’t be publishing next week because of Shavuot, but we will be back the following week (28 May).

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Letters/Discussion Forums

Looking for long lost family in Africa

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I live in the United States, and recently found a letter and postcard that my late mother had shown me many years ago, but we didn’t put two and two together that we had lost family somewhere!

My mother, Anneliese Nossbaum (nee Winterberg), was from Germany. Although she never lived there (she and her parents lived first in Guben, then Bonn), the other Winterbergs lived in a town called Witzenhausen.

My mother was a Holocaust survivor, and several members of her family (including the Winterbergs) were interned or died in camps.

Her grandmother, Hannchen Winterberg (nee Lomnitz), had a brother, B. Lomnitz, who emigrated with his family to Africa before 1900. My mother knew that he lived in Johannesburg. Hannchen had three children:

Siegfried, my mother’s father, perished in Dachau.

Amalie married Moritz Vogel, who escaped to New York after Kristallnacht.

Gerda married Menna (Max) Goldschmidt, and since he was a communist, escaped with him first to what was then Palestine, and later to New York.

I was wondering if anyone knows the Lomnitz family, and how I could be in touch. They could be anywhere now, I know. I’m also writing to Yad Vashem to enquire what is known. I’d be happy to provide more information. – Contact: ivette.maoz@gmail.com

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OP-EDS

SA media’s anti-Israel bias verges on incitement

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Nuance, context, fact checking, and, above all, reflecting both sides of the story when the issues are sharply contested, are the sine qua non of professional journalism.

This is particularly true when it comes to reporting on any conflict, whether involving individuals, communities, or entire countries. Conversely, uncritically reflecting the narrative of one side while minimising – if not disregarding altogether – the version of the other side isn’t journalism. Rather, it’s dishonest propaganda masquerading as such.

Over the past week, the distress of the Jewish community over the renewed violence in the Middle East has been compounded by the local media’s palpable failure to adhere to the most basic standards of journalistic rigour in terms of reporting what has been happening.

With few exceptions, mainstream news outlets have unquestioningly regurgitated the exaggerated, emotive, and frequently inflammatory claims of the hardline anti-Israel lobby while routinely omitting the Israeli perspective.

From print and online media through to radio and TV channels, a distorted picture of brutal, rampaging Israeli oppressors victimising helpless, blameless Palestinian victims has been served up again and again, without introducing even a small measure of balance to temper that false picture.

It’s obvious that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict invariably elicits strongly-held opinions on all sides. Even the salient facts of the situation are sometimes disputed, which is often true of most conflict situations.

Journalists who wish to convey an accurate picture of this fraught subject must be especially rigorous in order to maintain proper standards of truth and objectivity. That entails careful fact checking, reflecting competing narratives, avoiding exaggeration or sensationalism and, in general, making a reasonable effort to present opposing points of view fairly.

This isn’t to say that professional journalism necessarily entails never having an opinion of one’s own. As is all but inevitable, news reporting will often to some extent be slanted towards a particular point of view, especially when it comes to issues where the salient facts are hotly disputed.

This is certainly true about the conflict between Israel and her neighbours. To expect the media to be completely neutral on that question and just report “the facts” may be unrealistic. However, the manner in which the recent violence on the Israeli-Palestinian front has been reported in the local media is something else entirely.

What we are witnessing instead is the journalistic equivalent of unquestioning group think, an unseemly rush on the part of editors, reporters, and opinionistas of every stripe to convey a single, rigid ideological orthodoxy.

This kind of “four legs good, two legs bad” approach is of course standard fair in authoritarian regimes. The question we are confronted with is why it has come to dominate the way in which Israel is being portrayed even in democratic countries, and perhaps most glaringly in South Africa, where antipathy towards Israel is deeply rooted in the ideology of the ruling party.

As has come to typify reporting on “clashes” (an often-used word by reporters) between Israelis and Palestinians, it’s invariably the response of the first rather than the provocation of the second that dominates the headlines.

In reports, we are seeing, as we saw in previous confrontations, how Israeli counter-strikes against terrorist positions in Gaza and their impact on the population have eclipsed any understanding of the unprovoked barrage of lethal rocket fire against Israeli cities. So there is no understanding of what necessitated such retaliation in the first place. Cause and effect have simply been reversed.

The ostensible cause of the current unrest goes back to the controversy about ownership of certain properties in the neighbourhood of Shimon HaTzadik/Sheikh Jarrah. The media’s unreflecting take has been simply to rehash the standard propaganda canard of rapacious Jewish settlers attempting to drive Palestinians out of their homes in “occupied East Jerusalem”.

The legal background to this case is complex, with roots going back nearly 150 years to the era of Ottoman rule and preceding the emergence of the modern-day Zionist movement itself. Yet, in the age of electronic communication, that information was readily available to anyone wishing to portray the situation as accurately as possible.

Suffice to say that little or no effort has been made in that direction. Equally mendacious is the way in which the violent altercations between police and protestors on the Temple Mount have been portrayed as a case of jack-booting Israeli stormtroopers brutalising blameless and peaceful Palestinian worshippers. Given the profound sensitivities surrounding religious freedom, and particularly when relating to this profoundly fraught and contested part of the world, this arguably crosses the line from mere anti-Israel bias to outright incitement, not just against the Jewish state but, inevitably, against Jewish people everywhere. It is, to say the least, irresponsible.

One small silver lining that we can take from this fog of misinformation that the media has been so complicit in propagating is that we are fortunately no longer reliant on mainstream media outlets for our information.

There exist today a plethora of online resources enabling anyone genuinely interested in learning about these issues to fill in the gaps that our inveterately biased media have helped to create.

Our challenge today must be first to educate ourselves, and from there hopefully go on to educate those who in spite of the ceaseless indoctrination that confronts them at every turn are still open to listening, engaging, and making properly informed choices about what to believe.

  • Rowan Polovin is the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation.

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