The Unexpected Links between Yiddish and Arabic

Besides having been spoken by large portions of Jewry for long periods of history, and being the languages of some of the greatest works of Jewish thought and literature, Arabic and Yiddish would seem to have little in common. But Alexander Jabbari points to shared vocabulary, mutual influence, and much else:

Through modern Hebrew, Yiddish words occasionally find their way into Arabic. A notable example in Palestinian Arabic is balagan, meaning “chaos,” borrowed from Hebrew.

While balagan came to Palestinian Arabic through Hebrew, the source of the Hebrew word was likely Yiddish. The word is ultimately from Persian bālākhāna, meaning “upper room” or “chamber.” It passed from Persian into Tatar or another Turkic language and from there entered Russian as balagan, where it came to refer to a temporary wooden structure for circus performances. Because of the circus context, the Russian word also acquired the connotation of “buffoonery.” When borrowed from Russian and put into Yiddish (and Polish), the chaos of the circus setting gave the word the sense of a mess, bedlam, or chaos.

In Ottoman Palestine, and especially in Jerusalem before 1948, it was common for Yiddish-speaking Jews and Arabs to understand each other’s languages, particularly in neighborhoods where the two communities abutted each other. . . . [I]n the 19th century, there were groups of Ashkenazi men in Jerusalem who learned Arabic, both spoken and literary. Arabic words became part of the everyday Yiddish spoken in Palestine—even for terms specific to Judaism, like khalake, a boy’s ritual first haircut, from the Arabic for haircut, ḥalāqa.

Some Arabic vocabulary even made its way into Yiddish through [more] circuitous routes. Take the Yiddish bakaleyne, meaning “grocery store.” Originally an Arabic word, it traveled through a number of other languages before reaching Yiddish. The Arabic baqqāl, meaning greengrocer, was borrowed by Persian, and from there it followed a similar trajectory to balagan, passing through Persian to Russian via a Turkic intermediary.

Read more at Newlines

More about: Arabic, Jewish language, Language, Yiddish

Why Arab Jerusalem Has Stayed Quiet

One of Hamas’s most notable failures since October 7 is that it has not succeeded in inspiring a violent uprising either among the Palestinians of the West Bank or the Arab citizens of Israel. The latter seem horrified by Hamas’s actions and tend to sympathize with their own country. In the former case, quiet has been maintained by the IDF and Shin Bet, which have carried out a steady stream of arrests, raids, and even airstrikes.

But there is a third category of Arab living in Israel, namely the Arabs of Jerusalem, whose intermediate legal status gives them access to Israeli social services and the right to vote in municipal elections. They may also apply for Israeli citizenship if they so desire, although most do not.

On Wednesday, off-duty Israeli soldiers in the Old City of Jerusalem shot at a Palestinian who, it seems, was attempting to attack them. But this incident is a rare exception to the quiet that has prevailed in Arab Jerusalem since the war began. Eytan Laub asked a friend in an Arab neighborhood why:

Listen, he said, we . . . have much to lose. We already fear that any confrontation would have consequences. Making trouble may put our residence rights at risk. Furthermore, he added, not a few in the neighborhood, including his own family, have applied for Israeli citizenship and participating in disturbances would hardly help with that.

Such an attitude reflects a general trend since the end of the second intifada:

In recent years, the numbers of [Arab] Jerusalemites applying for Israeli citizenship has risen, as the social stigma of becoming Israeli has begun to erode and despite an Israeli naturalization process that can take years and result in denial (because of the requirement to show Jerusalem residence or the need to pass a Hebrew language test). The number of east Jerusalemites granted citizenship has also risen, from 827 in 2009 to over 1,600 in 2020.

Oddly enough, Laub goes on to argue, the construction of the West Bank separation fence in the early 2000s, which cuts through the Arab-majority parts of Jerusalem, has helped to encouraged better relations.

Read more at Jerusalem Strategic Tribune

More about: East Jerusalem, Israeli Arabs, Jerusalem