I’m a Rare and Dying Breed

We’re all special in some ways. Each of us is unique – but some more than others.

My own uniqueness was recently driven home to me. As some of y’all already know, I spent a few years in Israel back in the 80s. While there, I became very proficient in Hebrew – but not just any Hebrew; I had taken it upon myself to learn, and speak, Mizrahi Hebrew, specifically the Hebrew that was used in Arabic-speaking countries. I knew this was closer to the original, and one of my goals was to return to my Jewish roots. My preferred term for this form of Hebrew is “Classical Hebrew,” because it maintains archaic traits.

Back then, it was common for older Mizrahi Jews to speak this way, while many/most of the younger generation had already transitioned to the modified Ashkenazi Hebrew known as “Israeli Hebrew.” Many of my friends spoke as I did.

Where I live now (Dominican Republic) there are quite a few Jews, and Israelis come and go. I recently met an Israeli of Iraqi parentage. He’s older than me, and his Hebrew has lost almost all traces of Mizrahi; he speaks “Israeli Hebrew.” When he met me, and heard me speak, he found it such a novelty that he took a video of me to show his family. I was a curiosity, a relic. As for me, it was bizarre for me to see an older “Iraqi Jew” speaking like an Ashkenazi. Upon reflection, it made me feel like a living time-capsule.

At a Hannukah party, I met more Israelis, and it became clear to me that very few Israeli Jews speak Mizrahi Hebrew anymore. Apparently, it’s now only the oldest members of Mizrahi communities. When speaking Hebrew, I feel pressure to modify my accent so that people can understand me; sometimes, they have difficulty.

Yes, I am a speaker of a dying language. In a few years, nobody will speak Classical Hebrew. When I die, assuming I have a few more years, this language might die with me. I might be its last speaker.

It’s worth noting that “Israeli Hebrew” continues to change year to year. All languages change, but I believe that some of these changes take “Israeli Hebrew” even further from its Semitic roots. Some linguists don’t consider “Israeli Hebrew” to be fully Semitic, but a hybrid language with roots in both Indo-European and Semitic. I agree with them. In its written form, it largely resembles Semitic languages, but in its spoken form, it’s barely recognizable as such. Confronted with “Israeli Hebrew,” an Ancient Hebrew speaker would hear it as gibberish.

If you want more context, you can use read these other posts.

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