The Jews have been
around a lot longer than the Christians. So they've had that much
longer to develop both regional and theological differences. Right
now I'll talk just a bit about regional ones.
I'm going to neglect the Chinese Jews, Indian Jews, and so on, although I talk about some of them in other stories. The regional difference you hear most about today -- it affects Israeli politics -- is Ashkenazi versus Sfardit (or Sephardi). Ashkenazi means ‘northern' and Sephardi means ‘southern', very loosely. The division came about during the early Islamic expansion, I think: the Ashkenazi Jews are the Europeans, the ones who lived among Christians. The Sephardim are the ones who lived in North Africa, among the Moslems. That line is more cultural than geographic -- the Spanish Jews were Sephardim. After 1492 when the Jews were expelled from Spain, the Sephardim became even more widespread. Many Spanish Jews accepted the invitation of the Ottoman Sultan to settle in what is now Turkey. In the early 1970's I had a student at the University of Kentucky who had grown up in a Jewish town in Turkey and who spoke Ladino (the language of the Spanish exiles) as his mother tongue.
Modern Israeli is based on the Sephardic dialect, even though for most of Israel's first 50 years the Ashkenazim had more political power. But the ‘locals' in Israel when European Zionists began to arrive in the early 1900's were Sephardim, and that language stuck as the local language.
The Ashkenazi branch of Hebrew also has local variations. In the US it was not uncommon, in the 1920's or so, to clearly distinguish the Litvaks and the Galitzianers as two culturally distinct groups with noticeable different accents. The Litvaks came from Lithuania, or northern Poland, or northern Russia. The Galitzianers came from Galicia, southern Poland, or the Ukraine.
The accents still exist, although in many parts of the US they have become rather homogenized, with some tendency for the Litvak strain of the Ashkenazi dialect to win in many areas among the old-timers, with synagogues and schools teaching Sephardic Hebrew to match Israel. In Fall 2001, Eunice and I attended High Holy Day services at Temple Adath Jeshurun in Manchester, New Hampshire. This smallish Reform Temple had recently hired a new Cantor who was, surprisingly, a woman who had been trained in the Ukraine. I can't quite picture the Ukraine training women as cantors, but in the post-soviet age stranger things may have happened. Anyway, her English was a bit weak and more of the service was done in Hebrew than I'd expected in a Reform temple... and all in a heavy Galitzianer accent!
Later that winter there was a concert of Cantorial music in Memphis, by a famous New York cantor - who sand songs in Hebrew, Yiddish, English, and Italian, all in a heavy Galitzianer accent.
I'd had another run in with variant accents about ten years earlier - in the summer of 1 1991 in Odessa, in the Ukraine. It was a few months before the coup against Gorbachev, the one which preceded the Soviet Union going out of business. Eunice and I were on an Elderhostel – a learning-type tour group. We visited Kherson, Odessa, and Kiev in the Ukraine (with shorter sightseeing stops in Moscow and Leningrad / St. Petersburg), spending a week in each and spending part of each day at the local Teacher's College, learning some local history and helping local students practice their English.
While in Odessa we went on a tour of the local Museum of Western Art. The tour guide, showing our group of Americans through their collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, spoke in English. He spoke with a very heavy accent – fine vocabulary, but very hard to understand. Then he came to a painting of Sampson and Delilah – and, I assume in an attempt to find out if their were Jews in the group, quoted a few sentences of the story from the Bible, in Hebrew.
His Hebrew, unlike his English, was crystal clear. Not that I understood it - my own Hebrew vocabulary is very limited - but unlike his English, I could have taken it down as dictation. And then I realized - my own Hebrew is not crystal clear, I have an abominable accent. I have a devil of a time making myself understood in Israel. He was not speaking with a crystal clear accent, he was speaking with the exact same abominable accent that I have. So I found an opportunity to speak with him - in a combination of broken English and broken Hebrew - and we discovered that our grandfathers came from the same town in Lithuania. We both had learned our Hebrew from our fathers, and had learned the same local Lithuanian pronunciation, of an area we both called ‘Vilna-gebirne', presumably the countryside near Vilnius. My father had been born in New Hampshire, since my grandparents fled west from the First World War. The Ukrainian guide had been born in Siberia, since his parents had fled East from the Second World War. And we recognized our local Ashkenazi accents when we met in Ukraine, in the heartland of the Galician accent.
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