Our Linguistic Heritages

Avraham Ben Baruch,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Avraham Ben Baruch
Talmudist and specialist on intercultural situations in Israeli society

Are we realistic? We are lucky to have a great place to live in, where we also enjoy the chance to fathom new topics, new prospects and, as we often say, dreams may come true. "I dreamed a dream/חלום חלמתי = chalom chalamti" has become a motto that is to be found in Berachot 55b. Ever since, it turned to be rather messy, inappropriate, a bit like feathers or stones that fall right out of the blue moon or the green cheese. Cervantes' Don Quixote is not a ghostly rider: he substantiates the very nature of how our souls can be humane and struggle for unexpected newness.

This is the point: we are and have always been on the move. Traditions head to constant renewals and open possibilities. Of course, this was submitted to the capacity to show a real spirit of patience, overshadowing time and space, generations, birth and death.

Isaac Bashevis Singer mentioned this aspect of our destiny in his Nobel Prize speech. He said that though, truly, less people could read, speak or write Yiddish, he was sure that when he will pass over and appear in the Gan Eden, the local gilgulim (souls) will welcome him cheerfully and ask him to tell them - quite excitedly - which last Yiddish best-seller book was the hit among the living down there.

There was a joke during the years before the Second World War in British Mandate Palestine. In a Tel Aviv bus, a woman systematically answered in Yiddish to a little boy who stubbornly continued to discuss in Hebrew. The passengers told the woman she ought to switch to Hebrew since they were in a new homeland where Hebrew was brand new too. The mom just added : "Yes, but I don't want him to forget that he is a Jew".

 An ordinary joke that does not sound nice to Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, Judeo-Farsi Tat (Persian) speakers who maintained their parlances throughout the ages in multi-faceted landscapes in various parts of the world. Some Jewish "dialects" have disappeared or continue their trip to fading out. Other Jewish vernaculars are studied at the Hebrew University as, e.g. the Farsi-Tat Persian language that survived in the Caucasus, Central Asia and showed in Jerusalem after the fall of communism  (1989-92).

In fact, Judeo-Persian had shown up in Jerusalem at the turn of the 20th century with the arrival of Bukharian Jews when some Mountain Jews returned to Zion for the first time since the destruction of the First Temple. Others arrived from Samarkand, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and some young men translated the "Arabian nights" and Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors" into their vernacular.

Judeo-Persian is so special: it penetrated China via Tibet (Lhasa) together with the Assyrian Christians who entered Sin Kiang, reaching out up to Kaifeng, Mandchuria and Mongolia. In 1927, the Anglican archbishop of Shanghai, Samuel Isaac Schereschewsky (originally a Russian Jew from the Prussian border) reconnected with the Kaifeng Jews during a mob in the city. He alerted the Jewish Agency about their survival. They had become true Chinese people. Still, their prayer books included the ancient Judeo-Persian texts. Some of them immigrated to Israel recently thanks to the supportive activities developed by the Shavei Organization, created by Israeli American-born Michael Freund.

The Hebrew Scroll of Esther, as well as the Aramaic “proto-Esther scroll” found in Qumran suggest that, already in the Achaemenid period, the language of Iranian Jews included a substantial Persian component. There is some evidence for the existence of Jewish Bible translations in the Sasanian period.The earliest written documentation of Jewish Persian, however, dates back only to the 8th century CE. The Hebrew Scroll of Esther, as well as the Aramaic “proto-Esther scroll” found in Qumran suggest that, already in the Achaemenid period, the language of Iranian Jews included a substantial Persian component. There is some evidence for the existence of Jewish Bible translations in the Sasanian period.The earliest written documentation of Jewish Persian, however, dates back only to the 8th century CE.

Farsi-Tat remained a discreet colloquial Jewish vernacular. It is quite important to study it as Iranian language and dialects provide a key to understand the geo-strategics of Shi'ite Iran nowadays. It retains an ancient diasporic spirit from the time of the first dispersion. Young Israelis do use the vernacular that they write in Hebrew sc‎ript, a way to keep their own style and Persian identity. Iranian is linked to the Indo-European languages, which is not evident at first, just the language of Zaratushtra and the Avesta literature of the Mazdean tradition were probably brought to transitory Fertile Crescent and Jerusalem. Farsi-Tat remained a discreet colloquial Jewish vernacular. It is quite important to study it as Iranian language and dialects provide a key to understand the geo-strategics of Shi'ite Iran nowadays. It retains an ancient diasporic spirit from the time of the first dispersion. Young Israelis do use the vernacular that they write in Hebrew sc‎ript, a way to keep their own style and Persian identity. Iranian is linked to the Indo-European languages, which is not evident at first, just the language of Zaratushtra and the Avesta literature of the Mazdean tradition were probably brought to transitory Fertile Crescent and Jerusalem. 

Interestingly, The Gospel of Matthew echoes the typical Zoroastrian burial tradition: "For wheresoever the carcase is, there will "the vultures/eagles be gathered together "netkanshon neshre / ܢܫܪܐ ܢܬܟܢܫܘܢ"  in Aramaic)." (Matthew 24:28). When the Zoroastrian faithful die, their bodies are resting on a tower, as in Mumbai (India) and the vultures come to eat them up. When the Zoroastrian faithful die, their bodies are exposed on the top of "death tower", as in Mumbai (India), and the vultures come to eat them up.

Farsi Tat made its way in a curious manner : we used to think of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, of Canaan as the kernel area of true human experience of redemption or revelation. Abraham Avinû rose from a Mesopotamian culture to which we are definitely linked and that we easily can trace back via the exceptional texts in Ugarit, Akkadian and the Cuneiform texts.

This led to Aram and the generations of the First Av or ancestor who destroyed the idols and left on a journey through illusions and dreams that came true. He got more than that: promises are substantiated in the succession of generations with a burning fire that enlightens and surpass all turbulences. Farsi-Tat made its way in a curious manner : we used to think of Jerusalem and the Land of Canaan/Israel as the kernel area of true human experience of redemption or revelation.  

We have our Judeo-Aramaic that is still spoken and is read in the synagogues on the Shabbat. at least it is a rule that the weekly portion of the TaNaKh be chanted in Hebrew, in Aramaic (reading from the Targum Onkelos, a proselyte) and finally in the local language, if any. It is a bit lengthy these days and people have no time or maybe they do not see how basic it is to follow the chanting in the language that track us back to the Beyn Nahrayn (Between the two Rivers of Tiger and Euphrates, the present-day Niniveh or Niniwe) and the colloquial and first-written dialects of Sumer. 

Persia relates to another spiritual experience that we have been handing down from old, separately from any return to Jerusalem at the time of Cyrus' Edict. In Yazdi, the local population refused to worship Mithra's mysteries that invaded Greece and Western Europe till Rome and Alexandria. The Persians turned to a new deity some six centuries before the Common Era and worships "Ahura Mazdâ"(the Wise Master), creator of heaven and Earth, fire and air, the only one to put the primary chaos (cf. tohu wabohu/תהו ובהו) into coherent order, while light ruled over darkness. A significant correction of primary spiritual convictions that allowed the new adepts to make a distinction gotten from the victory (mizda) of good over evil. The final touch with the Pharisees' opinions is that the Zaratushtrians also believe in life and jugement (cf. Yom HaDîn/יום הדין) when the humans die and that they are called to be resurrected to immortal or everlasting life ("ameretât" in Avestic Persian and Zend Old Iranian language, related to European radical<em> "a- (without, absence of) + "mrt = death". As in a paradox, 

Such semantic connections are not to be found  in Yiddish. Few Israelis would compare the two "vernaculars": Farsi-Tat belongs to some resilient multi-patterned linguistic way that allowed the Jews to live among tribal groups scattered from the Caucasus to the Himalaya highest mountains and most of Asian societies in Hindu, Chinese, Tibetan, Mandchu and Mongolian languages and cultures.

Indeed, Farsi-Tat met with the most significant religious traditions that nowadays spread over all the continents. But, except the short Megillat Esther, we cannot appeal to specific local Iranian, Asian, Sanscrit or Mandchu Mishnaic translations or interpretative traditions. There is a full version of the entire TaNaKh in Judeo-Persian dated from the end of the 18th century, but the vernacular was only used for internal contacts inside of the long-aged  "mahallas" (ghettos).

 A Persian Jewish woman would never say to her children that they should not forget their native Farsi-Tat dialect. They keep it as a linguistic cultural surplus. On the other hand, the Israelis ought to retain these dialectal vernaculars because they memorize that, from ancient days, the Sh'ma Israel/שמע ישראל constantly repeated and honored on our journeys  impacted the skies of the Far-Eastern countries long before we even can remember.

(To be continued)

    



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