Languages and Jewish Studies

Jewish Studies intersects with many other foreign languages taught at UT, such as: Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Arabic, Spanish, Aramaic, French, and Slavic languages. Explore the range of languages taught at UT, and the ways they can inform and enhance your Jewish Studies courses. Watch this space as we update this list!

Yiddish is a Germanic language, usually written in Hebrew characters, which contains many words borrowed from Hebrew and Slavic. For over one thousand years, Yiddish was spoken as a vernacular by Ashkenazi Jews living in Central and Eastern Europe. As such, Yiddish was the language of Jewish social and economic life, and later also came to represent a vibrant literary and cultural life. When in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century millions of Jews emigrated from Europe, they spread the Yiddish language all over the world, with the United States becoming one of the major new centers of Yiddish and Jewish life and culture. Whereas the Holocaust, Soviet repression of Jewish cultural life and linguistic assimilation in the United States, Israel, and other countries have led to a dramatic reduction of the number of Yiddish speakers in the world, Yiddish remains relevant for all those interested in Jewish history and literature written in Yiddish, as well as for those interested in Germanic linguistics.

Yiddish studies at UT has a unique profile in stressing intercultural contacts—from Russia and Galicia, all the way through to Broadway, with many other way stations in the German-speaking world. UT's Department of Germanic Studies offers YID 604 and YID 612—Accelerated First-Year Yiddish and Accelerated Second-Year Yiddish, respectively. These intensive language courses, taught by Dr. Itzik Gottesman, allow students to fulfill their language requirement in just one year. Germanic Studies and Jewish Studies also offer several English-language courses in Yiddish culture, such as J S 311 American Jews: The Yiddish Experience and J S 363 Yiddish Drama and Film. Furthermore, UT's campus is replete with Yiddish resources: The Perry-Castañeda Library contains a sizable collection of Judaica in Hebrew, Yiddish and modern languages, while the Harry Ransom Center holds early Yiddish texts and periodicals, as well as the papers of acclaimed writer Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Watch: CBS News Sunday Morning's story on Yiddish at UT for a glimpse of Dr. Gottesman's class.
Explore: Dr. Gottesman's twelve-part e-introduction to Yiddish culture in America.
Read: Natalie Sullivan's 2014 Daily Texan article on the return of Yiddish to UT.
Discover: Dr. Itzik Gottesman's Yiddish Culture in America

Hebrew, the language of the ancient Israelites and later the quintessential language of the Jewish people, has its origins in the ancient Near East. It followed the Jewish people through exile and dispersion, evolving in Jewish communities throughout the ages. A Northwest Semitic language, written first in a derivative of the Canaanite script and later in the square Aramaic script, it became a language of liturgy, commerce, scholarship, and correspondence during the early centuries of the first millennium of the Common Era. It regained its status and power as a spoken language with the revival of Jewish nationalism in the nineteenth century, and became the mother tongue of generations of native speakers even before the establishment of the State of Israel, where it serves as one of the two official languages.  The creativity of writers, scholars, and teachers working in Hebrew found expression in the Tarbut (culture) Hebrew schools of Eastern Europe; the communal lives of Maghrebi and Sephardi Jews in the Middle East, Mediterranean Europe, and North Africa; the Tarbut Ivrit movement in Europe and the United States, and many other social groups of modern times. The language is currently spoken in Israel, the US, Europe, and other world regions by some nine million people who acquired it as a native tongue or a second language. The “revival of Hebrew” is often noted as an example of the remarkable staying power of a dead language, but the perception of Hebrew as dead and then revived is often questioned by those who observe its vitality throughout the ages.

Hebrew has been taught at UT Austin for decades—Hebrew characters are fixed to the Tower building, symbolizing the status of Hebrew as a language of civilization and representing, together with four other alphabets, the intellectual aspiration of the University. The Hebrew program finds a home in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies (formerly the Department of Oriental and African Languages and Cultures and the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures). The program regularly offers HEB 601C and 611C, intensive courses in Modern Hebrew, at the conclusion of which students are expected to reach an intermediate-high level of proficiency; HEB 602C and 612C, intensive courses in Biblical Hebrew; and upper-division and graduate-level courses that focus on Hebrew culture throughout the ages, on Israeli society as a locus of technological innovation, and on social and political issues related to the dynamics of Israeli, Jewish-diasporic, and Middle-Eastern societies. The Hebrew instructional website, in place as of the 1990s, includes a large volume of open-source materials, and has been used extensively in the US and throughout the world. The Perry-Castañeda Library contains a sizable collection of Hebraica and Judaica in Hebrew, which supports the research and teaching of the center and department of Middle Eastern Studies, the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, the Institute for Israel Studies, and the UT community at large. 

Visit: the Hebrew instructional website
Hear from our students: Why Study Hebrew at UT Austin?
Read: The Hebrew letters adorning the UT Tower
Explore: Hebraica library collection

Today, we associate German with the countries—Germany, Austria, and Switzerland among others—in which it is the official language.  However, until the end of the Second World War, German was also a widely used language in Eastern Europe.  In many ways, German served as a common language or lingua franca of commerce and high culture in/within the diverse societies of Central and Eastern Europe. 

In Jewish culture, the most well-known connection to German is Yiddish, a Germanic language that was the everyday language of Central and East European Jews for over a thousand years.  While German was a language of commerce and education for centuries including among Jews, it was not until the mid 1700s that Jewish elites expanded their use of German to become a vehicle for producing and expressing modern Jewish culture.  By the late 1700s, state authorities in the Germans lands and Habsburg Empire expanded public education and passed reforms that encouraged knowledge and use of German among its populations, including among Jews.  In Central Europe (today’s Germany, Austria, and Czech Republic), German became the everyday language of Jews while further East in Hungary, Galicia, and Russia’s western borderlands, German was mainly a language used by Jewish elites in commerce and as a sign of their education and social aspirations. For socially mobile Jews, German-language schooling opened doors to new educational and socio-economic opportunities. German-speaking Jews began leaving Europe after 1933 for Asia, the United States, and Palestine, most who stayed behind were murdered during the Holocaust. As a result of the Holocaust, German is now spoken mainly among Jews in Germany and Austria. In today’s Germany, many German-speaking Jews are originally from Poland, the former Soviet Union, and Israel.     

 At UT Austin, the Department of Germanic Studies offers German (and Yiddish, see above) courses at all skill levels, from beginner to advanced.  Courses on German literature, film, and theater will often include material relevant to students interested in Jewish Studies as do courses offered by the Department of History such as “Introduction to the Holocaust” and “Germany since Hitler.”

For research and education on the history and culture of German-speaking Jews, see: The Leo Baeck Institute, New York| Berlin

For German-Jewish history, see: Jewish Museum Berlin

Until the Second World War, Eastern Europe was home to the largest Jewish civilization.  It was in the Polish lands and later the Prussian, Austrian, and Russian Empires that the majority of the worlds’ Jews lived until the early twentieth century.  Until the twentieth century, Jews in Eastern Europe used Yiddish as their everyday language.  Many Jews had knowledge of local Slavic and non-Slavic languages spoken by the region’s diverse populations such as Polish, Russian, German, and Czech, and used these languages in their interactions with non-Jews.  By the early 1800s, some Jewish elites acquired the dominant non-Jewish languages, such as Russian or Polish, as their everyday language, a reflection of their education and social aspirations.  Local authorities also increased the pressure on Jews to use the state languages in education, socio-economic interactions, and cultural life.  Until the First World War, the majority of Jews in the region remained Yiddish-speakers although in some regions of the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian Empire, Jews adopted the local non-Jewish languages such as Czech and German, Polish and Russian; a trend that spread rapidly after the war with the expansion of public education.  By the late 1800s, Jewish writers and artists working in multiple languages reflect the linguistic and cultural diversity that was a characteristic of life in Eastern Europe until the Second World War and its aftermath.  As a result of recurring immigration and flight of Jews from Eastern Europe after 1945, Russian, Polish, and Czech-speaking Jewish societies now exist in Israel, Canada, the United States, and Germany.   

Slavic languages denote more than twenty languages spoken by people in Eastern Europe and Russia.  While there are linguistic similarities between the languages, the history and culture of Slavic speakers are very diverse.  At UT Austin, you can study the following Slavic languages: Czech, Polish, Russian, as well as Bosnian-Serbo-Croatian.   The Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies offers courses in all these languages from beginner to advanced levels.  Courses on the history, culture, and literature of the region often include materials on the region’s Jews including “Jewish Folklore,” “Introduction to Russian and East European Studies,” “War and Revolution in Russian Literature and Culture,” as well as the Russian history surveys (“History of Russia to 1917” and “History of Russia since 1917”).  Courses such as “Introduction to the Holocaust” cover the near total destruction of Eastern Europe’s Jewish societies during the Second World War.   

 For more on Jewish history and culture in the region, see: The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe

For more on contemporary Jewish life in Poland, see: Polin: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews

For a UT site on Jewish life in Eastern Europe (including resources at UT Austin), see: Explore East European Jewish History at UT

After the mass forced conversion of Portugal’s Jews in 1492, and after an inquisition began in 1540 to prosecute descendants of these baptized Jews who “judaized,” the Portuguese language was carried by fleeing “conversos” to new places of settlement elsewhere in Europe and the Mediterranean. In the congregations and communities they established - in Italy, the Ottoman Empire, France, the Netherlands, England, Dutch Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic coast of North America – these Jews clung to Portuguese for generations. It became the language of the synagogue, of religious polemics, and of communal record-keeping. Because these Jews lived in non-Portuguese-speaking environments, Portuguese became among them a truly “Jewish” language. The first great classic Jewish work in this language was Samuel Usque’s Consolaçam ás tribulaçoens de Israel (Ferrara 1553). From the early seventeenth century, many of the literary treasures of the Portuguese Jews were published in Amsterdam, and were disseminated throughout this far-flung diaspora.

Visit: The Department of Spanish & Portuguese website for course offerings.

The Spanish-speaking world--both Spain and the Spanish American nations—plays an important role in Jewish history and culture. During the Middle Ages, Jewish culture enjoyed a period of flourishing in Spain; at one time several hundred thousand Jews lived in the country, where they became prominent in philosophy, poetry, translation, medicine, and many other arts and sciences. Though the golden age of Jewish civilization in Spain ended with increasing persecution and finally the 1492 Edict of Expulsion, Jewish life later gained a foothold in Spanish America, where sizable communities were established in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and other cities. A number of distinguished Spanish American writers and filmmakers are from these communities.

As you study Spanish civilization at UT with our two medievalists, Professors Michael P. Harney and Madeline Sutherland-Meier, you will learn about the complex relations between Christians, Moors, and Jews in pre-1492 Spain, as well as the ballads created by the Jews of Spain and their descendants. In courses on Spanish American Jewish topics, offered by Professor Naomi Lindstrom, you will encounter the novels, short stories, poetry, and films of Spanish American Jewish writers and filmmakers. Learning the Spanish language, which is taught at all levels from Introductory Spanish to Advanced Grammar and Writing in Context, will enable you to explore the Jewish life of Spanish America and Spain.

Visit: The Department of Spanish & Portuguese website for course offerings.

Aramaic is a group of Semitic languages which has been continuously used in the Middle East from the second millennium BCE until today. The Aramaic alphabet is the basis for the Modern Hebrew alphabet. The Aramaic language was adopted in ancient Judah as a primary language during the time when Judah was a part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (538-333 BCE). Jewish works that survive from this period include the biblical works Ezra and Nehemiah and the Elephantine Papyri. Aramaic continued to be used widely by Jewish communities throughout the Near East after the rise of Alexander the Great until the rise of Islam. The literary legacy of this nearly thousand-year span of history includes 1 Enoch, Daniel, the Targumim (translations of the Bible into Aramaic), and the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds. Jewish communities in northwestern Iraq employed a form of Neo-Aramaic in their communities until 1948 when the modern State of Israel was founded. Many people from these communities relocated to Israel where some continue to speak Aramaic.

Various dialects of Aramaic (Old Aramaic, Imperial Aramaic, Qumran Aramaic, Targumic Aramaic, Syriac, Babylonian Aramaic) are taught by faculty members in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies (Jonathan Kaplan, Na’ama Pat-El) and Religious Studies (Brent Landau and Jonathan Schofer).