It has long bothered me that among fellow Jews, even our common language has built-in divisions:
Bat mitzvah, bas mitzvah
I wish we could just ascribe a “tomayto, tomahto” attitude here, but it seems there are some deep attachments to one’s familiar ways of hearing and saying Hebrew – and some consciously overt preferences as well.
These divisions are generally characterized as “Sephardic and Ashkenazic,” but it’s not that simple. For one, the modern state of Israel, populated in large numbers by Jews of Ashkenazic descent, employ the “Sephardic” pronunciations, using the “t” sound wherever the Hebrew letter “tav” appears, as opposed to pronouncing some of them (grammar-dependent) as an “s.” Also, the Reform movement, and possibly the Conservative movement, or at least parts of it, employ the Sephardic pronunciation as well, even where its leaders or adherents are of Ashkenazic descent. I am unsure why this is. Perhaps to identify with the state of Israel?
According to Rabbi Joe Blair:
As a way of integrating and welcoming the refugees from the Muslim
lands, the State of Israel decided to institute the practice of teaching
Sephardi pronunciation as the official Hebrew spoken in Israel. Most
Hebrew speakers today use this pronunciation. There is a still-sizeable
number of Ashkenazi Jews who have chosen to remain with that
pronunciation; in particular, the Orthodox (and as some would call them,
the ultra-Orthodox) have chosen to hold to the Ashkenazi pronunciation.
This is interesting, because there were Ashkenazic refugees as well. I think that somehow along the way the Ashkenazic pronunciation became associated with the “old-style” Jew, the “shtetl” Jew – and perhaps this was not the image the state of Israel wished to retain.
When my family lived in Israel for five years, we spoke modern Hebrew, the “Sephardic” way – and I got so used to this that when we returned to the states and put our kids in schools where the “s” sound was used instead, it sounded so odd to my ears. Yet, in Israel, I often felt on the defensive if I inadvertently slipped into the “s” version – like I was outing myself as a hopelessly outdated Jew.
Now I use whatever word I think my fellow conversant is most used to. Here on the blog I flip back and forth. When I see someone approaching, I wish them “Good Shabbos” if I think they might be more used to that, or “Shabbat Shalom” if I think that’s their thing. Of course, my split-second assessments are often wrong. Sometimes the approacher corrects me and greets me with the “right” version. If I’m greeted, I simply return the greeting as it’s offered to me.
So to you, readers, I ask:
Are the different pronunciations such a big deal? What do they mean to you?