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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

Inject suitable caution into Purim festivities

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The excitement is palpable. As more and more doctors and healthcare workers are vaccinated, there is a sense that we are slowly on our way out of this quagmire of illness, separation, and death.

So many of these frontline doctors, nurses, and others in the healthcare industry have put their lives on the line to save ours. No oath or commitment is strong enough to make people do that. It’s pure determination to save lives that’s behind this – a life mission. The kavod that should go to these people is immeasurable.

And to see so many of them, who themselves may have comorbidities or vulnerable family members, rejoicing after getting their vaccine is exciting.

It means that the rest of our vaccines aren’t far behind, especially seeing as the next batch of vaccines is due to arrive in South Africa this weekend.

What we must remember is that these healthcare workers are, in fact, testing the vaccine for us. The vaccine isn’t yet registered for commercial use globally, in spite of it being rolled out in the United States, United Kingdom, and here. So, once again they are putting themselves at risk so we know how effective the vaccine is and what – if any – side effects there are.

Having said that, it’s clear that healthcare workers feel very confident in this vaccine.

You may wonder why we temporarily changed the format of our front page this week to photographs only and no stories. The simple truth is because these men and women being vaccinated is history in the making. We will look back on this time as a turning point in our pandemic crisis. Or at least, we hope we will be able to do so.

It was around this time last year that the Wuhan flu began to hit home. It began to sink in that this dreaded illness that had hit China and other parts of the world was heading this way.

For so many, Purim last year was the last Jewish festival that was celebrated in what was then the normal way. It was festive. It was bonding and celebratory. People took it for granted that they were safe when they hugged each other, danced together, shared a plate of hummus, or dipped into their finger food. Even sharing hamantaschen with friends was totally acceptable.

We took our health and safety for granted when we surrounded ourselves closely with friends and family. We also thought nothing of kissing and being unmasked – yes, even on Purim – with people we didn’t live with.

One year later, and so much has changed. Masks are the norm, and part of our protection from this dreaded coronavirus. Being separate is the rule. And, trying to find a way to celebrate Purim while still observing all the COVID-19 safety protocols is the call.

Our rabbis, Hatzolah, and doctors have put out a stern warning to us to totally downscale celebration of this fabulous chag.

In the words of doctors, they are “urging and appealing to everyone to make sure that this festival of Purim isn’t the catalyst for the beginning of another surge of coronavirus”.

While they aren’t saying we shouldn’t celebrate, they are saying that “this isn’t the time for communal meals, events, and senseless alcohol consumption”. They ask that we keep our seudot to “each person’s home/family bubble”.

They are dissuading people from sending and delivering mishloach manot to lots of friends and family as this could spread COVID-19. They suggest limiting this to a minimal number of people.

While, like us, they would love to celebrate Purim as we have always done, they have seen the ravages of this deadly virus up close, and want to guide us in doing what’s right to prevent a further surge.

The rabbis particularly ask that we limit our seudot to our nuclear family and focus on the “preservation of life” this year in the hope that next year, we can celebrate in the manner we are accustomed to.

Hatzolah gives some great tips in how to safeguard ourselves over Purim this year. This includes making sure all surfaces are sanitised and that people who don’t live together remain two metres apart at any given time. They also encourage plated food, and individually bottled drinks. They recommend having seudot outside and with as few people as possible, avoiding the elderly and people with comorbidities.

The vitally important take-home information this week is that we are on the right path but we are a long way from safety and security in terms of COVID-19.

It’s 100% up to us to keep our guard up, keep social distances, wash and sanitise our hands. You know the drill by now.

It’s too easy to let it go when the numbers are low. So easy! Nobody believes that when the numbers are low, they can get the virus. In fact, most people who have contracted the virus were shocked and never believed it would happen to them.

It’s exciting that the rollout has begun, and our healthcare workers are getting vaccinated. It’s brilliant and a sign of great things to come. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we won’t get there in the next few months.

The light is bright but it’s way down the line. We need to accept that we will still be wearing our masks through the middle of this year. We are most likely still going to have a third surge no matter how quickly we vaccinate two thirds of the population.

So, let’s lift our spirits because there is hope in sight, but let’s make a commitment to stay safe over Purim no matter how difficult that is.

Chag Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!

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OP-EDS

Every doctor’s COVID-19 jab is one step closer to your vaccination

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The myalgia I awoke to this morning isn’t unfamiliar to me. It’s the common achy feeling we all experience at the onset of a touch of flu. The mild malaise I’m also feeling, after a shorter night’s sleep, is a physiological effect I try to avoid, but it’s the result of a habit that seems to creep into most of our busy lives.

Perhaps more particular, last night was the close constant attention I paid to my glucose levels as a Type 1 diabetic. Thankfully, all remained normal. Barring my mild symptoms, I’m feeling fantastic this morning, 24 hours after receiving the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

My mind drifts back to almost a year ago, when I contracted a simple rhinovirus (the common cold). In spite of experiencing similar symptoms, I would certainly not have described myself as feeling “fantastic” at the time. These same symptoms used to conjure up uneasiness that my family had to bear as part of the role in life I have chosen. That’s what happens when you live with some comorbidities and work in a busy practice that had started to screen its patients vigilantly for the new “Wuhan flu”.

I welcome the vaccine’s side effects as do my colleagues as we enrol this week as the guinea pigs of the Johnson & Johnson trial. This is the only vaccine to date that has shown significant efficacy in preventing severe COVID-19 or death as a result of the 501.V2 variant, the most common strain of COVID-19 in South Africa today.

It’s a single-dose vaccine, with 500 000 doses secured to inoculate healthcare workers over the next four weeks. This is a trial still at stage 3b, which means that it’s not yet registered anywhere in the world for commercial use, in spite of its rolling application in the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa.

The vaccine is being rolled out as an emergency measure while it awaits FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval potentially at the end of this month. Should the vaccine prove to be effective amongst South Africa’s healthcare workers, it will give SAHPRA (the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority) the green light for commercial rollout to our citizens.

My social media feed has been preoccupied with posts by colleagues receiving their vaccines. I, too, have added my own story to this noise. In reality, it’s far from noise. The supportive response we have all received from the public has been overwhelming.

A dear pulmonology colleague and I engaged in conversation yesterday as to whether doctors should be “flaunting their receipt of a vaccine” on social media or rather just quietly receiving the jab under the radar.

After some meaningful thought, we both agreed on the former. The palpable excitement by the public to doctors’ Facebook posts is fuelled by some valuable perspectives which I would like to share with you. These are the reasons that our community members should feel joy that our healthcare workers are finally being vaccinated this week.

The healthcare worker’s safety perspective: during surges of COVID-19 infection, patients have described the thought of not being able to see their doctors, nurses, and paramedics with ease as a terrifying dynamic. Statistics have shown that healthcare workers are three to four times more likely to develop COVID-19 than the general public. As many as 54 685 healthcare workers in the public sector alone have been infected with COVID-19 over the past year, with 779 losing their lives.

Unfortunately, every community doctor knows another doctor who has either contracted a serious COVID-19 infection or even lost their life to this plague. The vaccine offers you the promise that your doctors will be protected and able to help you when you may need them whether for COVID-19 or another reason.

The experimental perspective: the AstraZeneca vaccine taught us that in the dynamic, evolving space of COVID-19, variants affect efficacy tremendously. This phenomenon is so significant, that an already procured vaccine at one million units had to be returned. It’s still unknown whether the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will indeed be effective in large numbers on the ground, beyond the limited sample size of the original study in South Africa.

It’s best to run a live trial on largely healthy healthcare workers. I have my predictions that even with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, modifications will need to be made to the product in the near future. Dr Glenda Gray advised me that a two-dose regimen is also being explored. Other expert vaccinologists have reported that it’s relatively simple to modify vaccines. As a member of the public, you will hopefully have access to the next round of vaccines – the improved version two.

The snowball perspective: this is the mindset that has excited me most since the rollout of vaccines a week ago. Every country with a functional vaccine campaign started off by vaccinating its healthcare workers. They constitute less than 5% of the population. Once healthcare workers start being vaccinated, the rollout soon spreads to essential workers and the elderly and vulnerable. Thereafter, vaccines are offered to younger healthy adults.

There is nothing more my wife and I would like to see than our own parents being vaccinated. I can say the same for my elderly patients. Understanding the procurement plan in South Africa, I’m confident that once the initial snowball of vaccinated healthcare workers has been formed, it’s inevitable that it will grow quickly and our deserving, beloved, vulnerable citizens will be vaccinated soon. Every doctor you see vaccinated means you are one step closer to being vaccinated yourself.

COVID-19 has changed our lives. It continues to place tremendous strain on our community socially, emotionally, financially, and physically. It has been proven that our second-nature, non-pharmacological measures of mask wearing, sanitising, and social distancing are powerful weapons in our armament. These measures dropped COVID-19 cases from a peak of 21 980 a day on 8 January 2021 to 998 today. However, we are finally exploring options of real pharmacological immunity. I’m utterly grateful to be contributing towards the body of knowledge of this development, and I have confidence that as the lightning development of vaccines continues to play out in South Africa, we will slowly get back to normal life.

Dr Daniel Israel is a family practitioner in Johannesburg.

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OP-EDS

Tel Aviv rolls out COVID-19 vaccines for illegal foreign nationals

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Although South Africa is only starting to vaccinate its healthcare workers, Israel has already vaccinated nearly half the population.

It’s not only Israel’s citizens who have been vaccinated, but also migrant workers living there from the Philippines, Moldova, and Nigeria, as well as Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers. They are receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine at the Tel Aviv COVID-19 Vaccination Centre in the southern part of the city, home to a large migrant community.

As part of an initiative to inoculate the city’s foreign nationals, Tel Aviv City Hall and the Sourasky Medical Center started administering vaccines free of charge to the city’s foreign nationals, many of whom are undocumented asylum seekers.

This was evident on Tuesday, 9 February, the first day of the operation, as dozens of asylum seekers and foreign workers in Tel Aviv lined up outside the building to receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Posters provided information in English, Tigrinya, Russian, and Arabic.

“I’m very happy,” Indian national Garipelly Srinivas Goud told Associated Press. Lamenting that foreign workers in Israel don’t have money or insurance to afford to pay for the vaccine, Goud, who has been working in Israel for eight years, welcomed the vaccine drive as a “very good decision”.

Although it’s the government’s responsibility to vaccinate everybody within the nation’s borders, Eytan Schwartz, spokesperson for Tel Aviv municipality, said the city would take the next step and start “to vaccinate illegal or undocumented asylum seekers as well”.

And although far from completing the vaccinating of its own population, having thus far delivered more than 4.4 million first doses of the Pfizer vaccine and at least three million second doses, Israel has started providing the Palestinian Authority (PA) with thousands of vaccines for its healthcare workers. This is in spite of the fact that the ultimate responsibility for health services and vaccine acquisition falls upon the PA, elected by Palestinians to govern the West Bank.

After receiving thousands of doses from Israel, the Palestinian Health Ministry administered its first known coronavirus vaccinations at the beginning of February. It announced the start of the campaign by saying that Health Minister Mai al-Kaila had received a first dose along with several frontline medical workers. While acknowledging receipt of 2 000 doses on Monday, 8 February, the first batch of vaccines sent by Israel, the PA didn’t say where they came from.

Back in May 2020, COVID-19 relief aid from the United Arab Emirates was rejected by the Palestinian leadership because it arrived by freight plane to Israel’s international airport without prior co-ordination with the PA. This resulted in 14 tons of urgently needed COVID-19-relief medical supplies languishing at Ben Gurion Airport. The reason for the PA refusing to accept delivery was because it didn’t want to be seen as condoning the normalising of ties between Israel and the Arab world.

Disregarding the health of his people, Osama al-Najjar, the medical services director of the PA health ministry, explained that Ramallah couldn’t “accept shipments that are a gateway to normalisation between Arab countries and Israel”.

Asked what he thought would happen to the medical supplies, al-Najjar responded, “I don’t know where they will go, but we won’t accept them. They’re free to do with them what they please, but we will neither accept them nor welcome them.”

However, Al-Najjar did acknowledge that the PA was “in need of ventilators”.

What we are “all in need of” is better understanding and co-operation as there are no borders when it comes to the health of the planet and its vulnerable citizens. Israeli epidemiologists agree that it’s in Israel’s interest to ensure Palestinians are vaccinated as quickly as possible, as the populations are too intertwined to have one gain herd immunity without the other.

As recently departed Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov told The Times of Israel in January, “The message is very simple: we are one epidemiological unit. As much as we can, we have to help them address this matter.”

  • David E Kaplan is the editor of ‘Lay of the Land’, and executive director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network. This piece was used courtesy of ‘Lay of the Land’.

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