Tuesday, September 8, 2015

It's Ok to Not Speak Yeshivish

Gather round, friends. I want to talk to you about something near and dear to my heart: you do not need to "speak Yeshivish" to be frum. If you want to, that's fine. But I don't want you spending time beating yourself up over the idea that you "don't talk like everyone else talks."

Elul can be a tough month of introspection. But make sure you're judging yourself for things that you actually should be judging yourself for. When you enter the frum community, it's so easy to get caught up in the externals and fitting in: clothes, hair coverings, where you go or don't go, how you speak. There's a time and place for these considerations, but being a frum Jew is (or should be) far more: your middot (character traits), tzedakah (charity), your prayer life, your connection to Gd and your fellow Jews, how you spend your time, and who you spend it with. Whether you say Torah or ToRAH or TOYrah is not a measure of your Yiddishkeit. How you speak is very connected to how good of a Jew you are: do you gossip, do you embarrass others, do you speak cruelly or thoughtlessly? The words you use to speak are irrelevant to how good of a Jew you are.

Some background: Yeshivish is the slang term for peppering your speech frequently with Hebrew and Yiddish. It's not limited to the Yeshivish community; it's present in almost all sections of the orthodox world. However, out-of-town communities usually have far less Yeshivish speech, which we'll talk more about below. [You can read more background and hear an example at Word of the Day: Yeshivish]

There are many reasons why BTs and converts choose to speak Yeshivish:
  • The #1 Reason People Give: "Fitting in." However, I'd argue that this is an unsubstantiated assumption we newbies have of the community. In every community, you can find many Frum-from-Birth folks who don't speak Yeshivish. And as a whole, there are many "successful" Baalei teshuva and converts who don't speak Yeshivish. It is not a requirement for fitting in, even though we keep telling ourselves it is.
  • It makes you feel like you belong to "the in-crowd." You've made it; you're one of the gang. You might even feel special and superior around your "old" friends, which is probably #BadMiddos. This is the internal, emotional version of the external "fitting in" reason, and it can be a good thing or a bad thing.
  • It can help you fly under the radar, if that's important to you. If it is, I encourage you to honestly consider why you feel this way and decide whether they're good reasons. (There are many good reasons to fly under the radar, especially in certain situations and with certain people, but there are just as many bad reasons: low self-esteem, an inferiority complex, feeling superior to your old life, escaping your past, etc.)
  • It can help convince people that you're "legit" and knowledgeable, especially rabbis who may be deciding whether to convert you or not. Hate the game, not the players; though I wish more frum Jews realized vocabulary lists alone don't make great Jews. Unfortunately, every conversion candidate has to play this game at least sometimes or with some people. But remember, plenty of people get through the process without a lot of effort in this area. It may make things easier, but lacking it shouldn't make it harder.
  • Also unfortunately, it can be necessary when people have unethical business practices. I have had frum potential-landlords suddenly treat me much better (and reduce prices or requirements) when I start speaking "Jewish," and I've had the same experience in stores, with mechanics or other service people, and any other kind of salesman. This may be especially important if you're a Jew of Color who needs to mitigate potential racism, especially from a landlord or realtor. Every time I experience this, it is a chilul Hashem obviously motivated by #BadMiddos. I learn my lesson and try not to deal with the person again. But Jews are human, and business works like this in many small communities. I'd be lying if I said I haven't slipped on a Southern accent for the same services when I go back to the South. (It's surprisingly annoying to get called a "damned Yankee" when you're geographically more Southern than the jerk saying it.)
  • Sometimes the Hebrew or Yiddish word is just so much better or concise than the English word. In that case, use that word every time. Using the right phrase when you need it doesn't mean you "speak Yeshivish." You just speak well. 
That last bullet describes me. I'm a trained linguist, and there's something beautiful about the "best" word for the right idea. I "don't speak Yeshivish" (and quite honestly, rarely understand fast New Yorker Yeshivish), but I use Hebrew and Yiddish phrases all the time. But I use them purposely and make an effort to not use then when they would embarrass or exclude someone who might not understand these terms. In my life, that's basically every day. I (happily) live firmly between the frum and secular worlds. 

For the most part, that is entirely why I choose not to speak Yeshivish, and why so many out-of-towners don't speak Yeshivish: we often talk to people who may have no idea what those words mean. (And sometimes you get pleasantly surprised to find out someone knows a lot more than you think! The key is treating everyone equally from the get-go, rather than obviously "dumbing it down" to certain people. Any time I'm not in an explicitly orthodox setting, I will minimize my use of Yeshivish speech.) It's important to me that my family, my non-Jewish friends, my colleagues, and even you readers can understand me without asking for a translation. I'm not perfect, but so far, it's worked well enough. 

I assume some knowledge on this blog, and my family has learned some words like shul and Shabbos, but I want to make sure that the people important to me can understand me. And I think that's why it's understandable that many (in-town) FFBs speak Yeshivish: everyone they interact with gets it. If I lived in Boro Park in Brooklyn, and didn't have many conversations with my non-Jewish family, and worked in a business aimed solely at frum Jews, odds are good that I would eventually speak Yeshivish. Your speech is often a reflection of your daily life. 

There's no right or wrong in the question "should I learn to speak Yeshivish or not?" Each person must come to that answer for himself or herself, but I want people to actively ask the question and realize the answer is not a default "Of course! How else will I fit in?" I have lived (primarily) in the orthodox community for about 11 years, and somehow people still think I'm frum and knowledgeable despite talking how I've always talked. (Well, let's be honest: they may not think I'm frum, that's not because of my speech; it's more likely because I usually don't wear "the uniform.")

In other words, you don't have to speak Yeshivish to fit in or to be a "frum" Jew. It may make some aspects of life easier or may be an accurate reflection of the daily life you lead. If speaking Yeshivish on a regular basis would negatively impact your family and work life, then don't. Code-switching is often very hard when you learn a language as an adult. You may have a hard time turning "off" your Yeshivish. No matter how you decide to speak on a daily basis, remember to be a kiddush Hashem and speak inclusively to those who may not be familiar with these terms. 

As you look for ways to improve yourself this Elul, I want you to remember that being yourself and being an individual is not something Elul (or Hashem) asks you to "fix." Be who you are and let the haters fall where they may. But don't invent haters to worry about! 


  1. Shalom,
    thank you for the interesting perspective. I think you can use many things for good and for bad,
    I do think that one of the reasons for people speaking Yeshivish may have to do with something in a midrash, that the descendants of Jacob who came to Egypt did assimilate but they kept their identity due to three things: they retained Jewish names (Hebrew a language not understood by the Egyptians), they kept their way of dressing (perhaps in a way that today Jews are wearing Tzitzit even though other people don't), and they kept speaking their language.
    I agree with you that other languages can be spoken as well (according to another midrash all languages carry some holiness) and it is even possible to pray in those languages.
    And most importantly people should not be left out!
    However, it seems that most people actually mean well and actually have positive intentions.
    It may also be that this is simply the kind of language used in those places.
    In England people may also use different words for the same things.
    I also agree that there are things that are more important (like you mentioned middos/ and mitzvot of the 613 mitzvot),
    but there is also a view it is a mitzvah to speak Hebrew, the Lashon HaKodesh /the holy tongue in which Hashem spoke to Adam and to the prophets (and which IS the pure language which will be spoken in the end of days as prophecied, I think by Zechariah))
    I learned Hebrew later in life (and I'm still learning) and what I can say is that there are many expressions for which there is not a good word in English because of totally different connotations. For example the word 'pray' or 'praying' in English has the connotation of asking for something, as in older English "pray give me..." while in Hebrew the word 'Tfila' (prayer) has the connotation of passing judgement, or more generally, 'to think'. Of course we can and should ask in prayer, but the idea of prayer is not that Hashem doesn't understand us well enough, but that we need to understand us,and Hashem and what Hashem wants us to do better, to gain insight, to reflect, to think (also about what we need to do).
    It is really fun to speak Hebrew, even though I personally have to say that it was the hardest language for me to learn.
    But don't let yourself be detracted by that, and you might also find yourself in the future to include some Hebrew words in your speech.

    We should choose to be close to Hashem, to imitate his kindness and do the mitzvot since it is righteous to do the mitzvot.

    May you be blessed with a happy and sweet new year and everything good.

    1. Hi

      Good point about Hebrew, however, Yeshivish isn't Hebrew, but a mixture of Yiddish (itself a mixture of high German and Hebrew) and English.

  2. Hi

    Yeshivish is just a cultural sub set of a particular part of Judaism, just as my parents and grandparents spoke a form of Jewish Arabic and also Ladino. It doesn't make one Jewish or orthodox.

  3. I know this comment is a bit late, but I just found out about this wonderful blog and came across this post.

    I'm an Israeli who has been living in the US for a long time. I'm fluent in both English and Hebrew and wanted to say that I agree with you 100%.

    I always find it a little funny when an English speaker throws in a Hebrew word or two while speaking to me. When I speak Hebrew I do my best to avoid English words (it can be hard sometimes) and vice-versa.

    So if you're getting thrown off by 'Yeshivish', or are wondering if you should do it, don't feel bad. Sometimes it feels to me like some people use it to try and impress (whether consciously or not), but I believe it's much more impressive to speak one language at a time, and speak it well.