A PHRASE COMES OF AGE
by HILARY SCHUMER
O n February 24th, 2016, in the midst of the 2016 Democratic primary campaign, The New York Times ran an article titled “Bernie Sanders is Jewish, but He Doesn’t Like to Talk About It.” As part of its discussion of Sanders’s Jewish upbringing in Brooklyn, the article noted that the Senator from Vermont “took Sunday Hebrew and Bible classes at an Orthodox synagogue, the Kingsway Jewish Center in the Midwood neighborhood, and was bar mitzvahed there.”
I had an immediate, negative response to reading this sentence; the phrase the Times was looking for was “became a bar mitzvah” or “celebrated his bar mitzvah” or even “was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah.” To say that someone was “bar mitzvahed” is not grammatically correct. The New York Times had taken a noun and turned it into a verb.
In the midst of my righteous indignation, I paused to wonder: Is this actually bad grammar? The New York Times is a major national publication, and often writes about Judaism and Jewish life — surely some editor should have caught a mistake of this nature. So I checked the dictionary, only to fi nd that Merriam-Webster has two entries for the phrase “Bar Mitzvah.” The first is as a noun: “(1) a Jewish boy who reaches his 13th birthday and attains the age of religious duty and responsibility; (2) the initiatory ceremony recognizing a boy as a bar mitzvah.” The second entry is as a verb: “to administer the ceremony of bar mitzvah to [someone].”
I was astounded to find that bar mitzvah existed — in technically correct English — as a verb. More interesting, this verb form refers not to the boy or girl becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, but to the person (most likely a rabbi) officiating at the all-important ceremony. The implications of this verb form of bar mitzvah are intriguing, as the focus of the action shifts from the young person onto the rabbi. That is, when The New York Times says, “this is the synagogue where Bernie Sanders was bar mitzvahed,” what the article is actually saying is that “this is the place where some rabbi administered the ceremony of bar mitzvah to Bernie Sanders.”
The Oxford English Dictionary also lists multiple entries for bar mitzvah, one a noun and one a verb, though it differs in its latter entry, which states: “(usually be bar mitzvahed) Celebrate the bar mitzvah of (a boy).” This definition removes the focus from the rabbi, though it is not at all clear who is the subject of “to celebrate the bar mitzvah.” It does clarify that the words “to be” are generally added to form the past participle form of bar mitzvah (to be bar mitzvahed), addressing the awkwardness of the phrase, “to bar mitzvah.”
Turning nouns into verbs is apparently typical behavior for English-speakers. In 2013, the blog of the Oxford University press wrote about the “conversion of nouns to verbs [which] is known as ‘verbing’ and it has been around for as long as the English language itself.” The blog post goes on to say that even very old verbs “such as rain and thunder…were all originally used only as nouns before they became verbs.”
So when does a foreign word become an English word? And once it becomes an English word, does it stop being governed by the grammar of its language of origin? Because it is clear that at this point, bar mitzvah is indeed an English phrase. It is included in the Wikipedia entry for “List of English words of Hebrew Origin,” though it is also important to note that “bar” is in fact an Aramaic word, rather than Hebrew.
If only from an anecdotal perspective, it seems that many Yiddish words have also found their way into the English language: chutzpah, schlep, maven. All of these words have their own dictionary entries. A quick look at the news coverage of the 2016 Presidential Campaign reveals just how common these words have become in English: A January 7, 2016 article in Slate referred to Hillary Clinton as “Secretary of Schmooze,” while a July 19, 2016 Atlantic piece covered the “The Chutzpah of Paul Manafort and the Trump Campaign.” Most of these words have retained their original grammar (though one could argue that as a Germanic language, Yiddish structurally has significantly more in common with English than Hebrew).
All of this raises the question: Who owns words? If these words are now English phrases, subject to the rules of English grammar, does that make them somehow less Jewish?
With the caveat that this not an academically researched thesis, it seems to me that the answer is no. After all, it is not only The New York Times that uses the phrase “bar mitzvahed” — plenty of young Jews do as well. In fact, one could argue that the Anglicizing of Hebrew, Aramaic or Yiddish words implies that Jewish Americans feel a sense of ownership over them. We notice the proliferation of Yiddishisms in American parlance and smile. We say, “I was bar mitzvahed” because it is comfortable to talk about our Jewish identities in colloquial English. We do so without thought, because it is close to us. We like to talk about our Judaism and our Jewish experiences — and have them be understood by our non-Jewish friends and colleagues — and so we do so in a way that feels natural and authentic to who we are as American Jews.
So while the use of phrases like “bar mitzvahed” will continue to feel wrong to many Jews, it can also be seen as an outgrowth of a positive, proud American Jewish identity. After all, adapting important words from other languages is a very Jewish thing to do. For all my concern over the phrase “bar mitzvahed,” it is signifi cant that the problematic sentence in the Times contained another English word that has foreign origins: synagogue, which the ancient Jews took from Greek. ■
Hilary Schumer is a Program Officer at The Steinhardt Foundation For Jewish Life. She holds MAs in Jewish Education and in Midrash as well as a BA in Ancient Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She earned her BA in Classical Studies from Columbia University. Hilary lives in New York City with her husband Nathan and their daughter Sophia.
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