Jewish Languages Onstage in Israel

Author: Sarit Cofman-Simhon (Kibbutzim College, Israel)
Speaker: Sarit Cofman-Simhon
Topic: Language Revitalization
COMELA 2022 General Session


The Hebrew language intimately identifies Israeli culture, yet a new theatrical phenomenon can be found today outside mainstream theatre in Israel: across the country one can attend theatrical productions in practically every other Jewish language (Ladino, Yiddish, Maghrebi, Juhuri, Judeo-Aramaic, Bukharan, Judeo-Iraqi, and others).[1]

Today, like many other languages around the world, most of Jewish tongues are considered endangered on the verge of extinction, but they are still spoken by the older generation, and understood by second or even third generations, mostly in Israel.

These new initiatives in Israeli theatre reflect a major shift taking place, which sociologists and historians have discussed. This shift rejects the essentialist linguistic ideology of Hebrew as the sine qua non for Israeli theatre (apart from Arabic).

I would like to explore how these languages operate onstage, and what is their aesthetic rationale. At the heart of my analysis will be the concept of postvernacularity, a term coined by Jeffrey Shandler,[2] who defined it as a cultural practice where languages that are no longer in use as the everyday spoken vernacular gain in symbolic value what they have lost in their communicative functions, by generating vanished soundscapes, and performing vocal dimensions of familiarity and estrangement. Indeed, what is peculiar about postvernacularity is that rather than the language functioning as a vehicle of performance, its utterance is the performance itself. I will analyse how one can mobilise such languages to evoke a lost, multilingual background.

One can integrate languages which are not fully understood or not understood at all by the audiences to evoke a lost, multilingual background of a predominantly Hebrew speaking public sphere. The vocal emission of the soundscapes of Jewish tongues onstage brings silenced voices to the fore and aurally connects the past to the present.

[1] Ladino is spoken by Jews from Turkey and the Balkans, Yiddish by East European Jews, Maghrebi by Morocccan Jews, Juhuri is the language of Jews of the Caucasus, Judeo-Aramaic that of  the Jews of Kurdistan. Buckharan is spoken by Jews of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and Judeo-Iraqi by Jews from Iraq.
[2] Shandler, Jeffrey. 2006. Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and culture (Berkeley: University of California Press)

Keywords: Israeli Theatre, Jewish languages, endangered languages.