21 May 2010

Jewish languages: Juhuri is dying

When we lived in Teheran, I was always interested in how some relatives and friends spoke in what seemed to be an undecipherable language. Although I was fluent in Farsi, I couldn't understand a word that some of these people said.

Along the way, I learned that Persian Jews also spoke dialects. Isfahani is used for comedic impact. There was Kashi (from Kashan), of which I know only one two-word phrase. Regardless of where their families originated - be it Hamadan, Shiraz, areas around the Caspian Sea, or the Aramaic-speaking Jews from Urmia - each group had its own language.

However, most of these were lost after decades of living in the big city of Teheran. My husband's grandmother knew only a few words of the original Isfahani Jewish dialect, and her children and grandchildren recognized even fewer words and their meanings.

When I was involved in the US working with new immigrants from Russia, I had an immediate connection with those from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Many spoke Bukharan or Kavkaz, both with roots in Farsi, so it was easy to communicate - well, much better than in my non-existent Russian.

Years ago, I visited a newly-resettled family from Uzbekistan in Tucson, Arizona. They were religious and invited me for Shabbat. I was surprised to see that all their siddurim and other religious books were printed in Cyrillic.

At an international Jewish genealogy conference in London several years ago, I met a Baku (Azerbaijani Iran) University professor - a Mountain Jew from the city of Kuba, home to several thousand Mountain Jews who speak Tat, also called Juhuri. We were also able to communicate, once I got my ears around the different accent.

Haaretz had a recent article on Juhuri, another Iranian dialect spoken by the Jews of the Eastern Caucasuses and how the people are trying to preserve it.

Juhuri - an Iranian language sometimes called Judeo-Tat - is the language of the eastern Caucasus Mountain Jews, who live mainly in northern Azerbaijan and Dagestan.

Traditions indicate that the Jews of the Caucasus are descendants of the Kingdom of Judea's exiled tribes after the destruction of the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. The exiles settled in Persia, where they acquired a Farsi dialect and preserved Hebrew words.

Until the 20th century, Juhuri was the common spoken language, while Hebrew was written and for prayer and study. When Juhuri began to be written, the typeface was like Rashi. A prayerbook (1908) and a book about Zionism (1909) were the first two printed in Juhuri using Hebrew script.

Russia annexed the area in the 1850s, and the Russian language became more commonly used. It was also bolstered by business ties with Russians and increased as people moved from small population centers to cities, where more Russians lived.

The communist government, in 1929, tried to supress religion and people stopped using Hebrew to write Juhuri. A decade later, they were writing Juhuri in Cyrillic, which caused problems as the transliteration was difficult.

Although the Jews had preserved Juhuri for centuries, the new developments nearly killed the old language. An expert quoted in the article says the language will be extinct in 40 years.

Until the outbreak of WWII, there were schools in which Juhuri was the language of instruction. This stopped during the war. In 1988, a poet organized a Jewish cultural center in Derbent and convinced the government to renew Juhuri lessons.
"Beginning in the 19th century, the prestige of the Russian language increased steadily, and fluency in it was considered a path to success. The Mountain Jews found themselves in an uncomfortable situation. Although they gave the Russians a friendly welcome, certainly compared to other communities in the Caucasus, the attitude of the Russian government toward them was not significantly different than its attitude toward the other inhabitants of the region. The Russians considered the Jews, like the other Caucasian communities, uneducated, inferior and lacking professions.
"The main reason for this attitude was the Mountain Jews' ignorance of Russian. Even the Ashkenazi Jews in Russia [Jews of European origin] looked down on them. The key to success in the new world in which they found themselves was the ability to speak Russian without a trace of a foreign accent. Knowledge of Juhuri was considered an obstacle that was liable to prevent the people of the Caucasus from speaking perfect Russian. The attitude of the speakers toward their language changed, and they even stopped speaking to their children in Juhuri."
Today, in Israel, there are some 100,000 immigrants - about half still speak Juhuri - who are trying to preserve their culture and language, through theatre, music and poetry.

Read the complete article at the link above.

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