2011-10-28

Personal polyglossia in research output

Both privately and professionally I have been living in five languages (English, Hebrew, Japanese, Yiddish and Esperanto) for quite some time, though I use them in different degrees of frequency, depending on the modes of usage (listening, speaking, reading and writing). Recently I prepared statistics of my research output, both in speech and in writing, using my list of presentations and list of publications, and have confirmed a few things I always felt. One is that my research output is characterized by polyglossia, and another is that the constellation of these five languages in this personal polyglossia of mine has changed over the years.

"Polyglossia" is a sociolinguistic term referring to the phenomenon of using multiple languages complementarily for different functions. Generally speaking, polyglossia presupposes multilinguialism, but not vice versa; someone can use multiple languages equally with no functional differentiation, though such a polyglot must be quite rare.

Among the five languages mentioned above I use English, Hebrew and Japanese far more frequently than Yiddish and Esperanto in my research output, but the use of the first three languages is in complementary distribution. In oral presentations I have been using Hebrew most frequently, not only after I immigrated to Israel about seven years ago but also, to my surprise, even before that, but I have published far less in Hebrew than in English and Japanese. In other words, the general pattern is to give talks first in Hebrew, then transform them to articles and publish them in English. This also matches my overall proficiency in these languages, that is, I speak Hebrew better, but I read and write English better. As for Japanese, after immigrating to Israel I have decided to use it only for the general public in Japan, as few serious researchers in my areas of interest understand it.

The dominance of Hebrew in my oral presentations will probably remain stable as I have more chances to participate in conferences in Israel than abroad, but the share of English may increase in the future as I would like to participate in more conferences that are not specific to Hebrew and Jewish studies but are on aspects of general linguistics and are held abroad. As for articles, I have been making a conscious effort of publishing more and more of them in English for reasons that must be clear to everyone. Here, too, I have decided to restrict the use of Japanese to articles for the general public in Japan. But in Hebrew, Yiddish and Esperanto I hope to publish more in absolute terms, if not in relative terms.

2011-10-14

Anglophone immigrants in Israel

Israel is said to have the highest percentage of immigrants among its citizens in the world. In spite of a growing general tendency of nationwide intercommunal integration, many immigrants still seem to flock together among themselves partly because of their common language and mainly because of their common culture, making a number of micro-societies within a macro-society called Israel. You can spend your lifetime not only without having any contact with any of these micro-societies but even without being aware of their very existence.

When I spent five years here in Jerusalem as a PhD student from 1988 and 1993 for the first time, I was initiated to the micro-society of Russophone immigrants. Since then I have a special sentiment to this community and its members. This time, that is, since I was offered a position here and immigrated here about seven years ago, I have had the privilege of getting acquainted with the micro-society of Anglophone immigrants, mainly from the United States but also from Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Actually, almost all the new friends and acquaintances I have made during these seven years are Anglophones. Most of the Anglophones I socialize with are frum, whether "FFB" (frum from birth) or "BT" (ba'al tshuva), and highly educated. And since I socialize mostly with them to the exclusion of sabras, I find myself speaking more and more English, especially on Sabbaths and holidays.

Although I did not expect this, I am very happy that I have become acquainted with this community and its members in Jerusalem. Some sabras, especially what few sabra friends I remain in touch with regularly, may not like to hear this, but honestly speaking, and if I am allowed to generalize, I feel far more comfortable with Anglophone immigrants than sabras, though I speak Hebrew much more fluently than English. This is because generally speaking, I find more things in common socioculturally with the former than with the latter, including more awareness of the fitness of our own bodies and the environment. I also like their version of Orthodox Judaism as well as the fact that many of them have kept the Ashkenazic traditions far better than their Israeli counterparts such as the pronunciation of Hebrew when davening.

It seems to me that those immigrants from Anglophone countries have had a number of positive effects on the Israeli society beyond their micro-society and have made unproportional contributions to the Israeli academia. We need more of them in Israel, but on condition that they will also take the trouble of learning Hebrew.

2011-10-07

Back to the study of the Talmud at a yeshiva

In spite of my difficulty in learning unspoken languages, I am starting to learn Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, the language of the Gemara part of the Babylonian Talmud. The truth is that this is as a linguistic preparation for studying the Talmud in a yeshiva in the next academic year (i.e., 2012/2013), though only in the morning. I may sound funny as I am already planning what to do next year though the new Jewish year has just started. But since I am supposed to receive my first sabbatical next year, I already have to start planning how and where to spend it in order to make the best use of this precious gift.

Ideally I would spend my sabbatical in Manhattan, but I had to give up this idea immediately for a number of practical reasons. So I have decided to stay in Jerusalem. Initially I was thinking of spend my entire sabbatical for starting to plan my first book in one of the areas of linguistics that fascinate me now. But partly after starting to take online courses in Judaism on a website I stumbled upon (Jewish Pathways) rather recently, and partly after shmoozing with one of my spiritual mentors, the head of a famous elite yeshiva in Jerusalem, about my traditional Jewish learning (or to be more precise, insufficiency thereof) at one of the recent Sabbath meals at his, what used to be a very vague desire has come to take a more concrete shape, until I have decided to spend my sabbatical at the same yeshiva in Jerusalem where I spent about four months more than ten years ago (Ohr Somayach). Ideally I would spend the whole day five days a week there, but I also have to spare enough time for my own academic work. So the compromise I have found is to study at the yeshiva only in the morning when the Talmud is learned.

I have already spoken to the rabbi who is in charge of the specific program among many they offer and received his approval. I am already quite excited. Now I am reminded of the pleasure I experienced when I studied in the past. It was one of the most enjoyable and unforgettable experiences I have ever had in my entire life so far. But I had one serious problem with one subject there back then - study of the Talmud. Since then I have always sensed some kind of inferiority complex for not having the ability to swim the sea of the book which has shaped the traditional Jewish ways of thinking and living more than any other book in the vast classical Jewish library. I hope that this time I will get over first what used to be the biggest barrier for me, the language of the Talmud (or to be more precise, uncertainty of how to pronounce it), and acquire enough proficiency in it so that I may navigate it more or less independently.