Today, when most people think of "Jewish language" they immediately think of Hebrew. This certainly makes sense. Hebrew is the primary language of Israel as well as the language in which Jews formally pray, and the Hebrew alphabet is used to write Yiddish, even though Yiddish is a Germanic language. It is presently the most commonly spoken Jewish language by far.
And Hebrew is a pretty cool language to sing in. Not only is it beautiful, it also, even when used for secular purposes, retains its spiritual underpinnings. Hebrew words rely on a unique system of roots and connections that signal certain important religious concepts. For instance, the word "adam" (ah-dahm) is the Hebrew word for "red," but it's also the word for "man" and "human" and the proper name Adam, while also closely related to the word "adamah," which means Earth. This is intended to demonstrate the fact that man comes from the the Earth, that Gd made Adam from the red clay of the Earth, and that when (hu)man dies s/he returns to the dust. Some Jews believe that the Hebrew language was designed by Gd. So even when we sing secular Hebrew music, we're still singing distinctively Jewish music.
Consider this beautiful secular love song by Idan Raichel, "From the Deep" or "Mimiamakim." "Mimiamakim" has very distinct meaning for Jews. A prayer that we say during the holiest holiday of the year begins with the words"from the deep" or "from the depths," and it's meant to describe how, on Yom Kippur, we cry out for Gd from the very depths of our souls and from the very depths of our sorrows. Idan Raichel, in this piece, uses these words to demonstrate the intense longing with which he is calling out to his partner.
You'll also note that Idan Raichel has regularly collaborated with Jews of varying ethnic and language backgrounds, including Ethiopian Jews who have immigrated to Israel. Several of Raichel's collaborations feature Ethiopian Jews singing in the Ethiopian language Amharic, such as in "From the Deep" above and in the song "Bo'i," which Makela covers.
After Hebrew, Yiddish is probably the most recognized Jewish language, especially among Americans. Yiddish is a Germanic language with some Slavic and Hebrew influences, written in the Hebrew alphabet, and, as a spoken language, is very similar to the Middle German that was spoken during the Medieval period, when Yiddish originally developed among Central and Eastern European Jewish communities, known as Ashkenazic Jews. Since the majority of Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are of Ashkenazic ancestry, this is the Jewish language that was brought to the United States.
Ashkenazic immigrants played a major role in shaping Jewish popular music during the first half of the 20th century, and Yiddish itself has had a profound influence on American English. Many recognizably Yiddish words are frequently interjected by Jewish and non-Jewish English speakers alike, such as "schlep," "nosh," "kvetch," "klutz," etc. Other Yiddish words are often taken for granted as English, such as "maven," "spritz," and "glitch."
Yiddish language goes hand in hand with klezmer, a Jewish musical tradition developed by Ashkenazic Jews in Europe, who were heavily influenced by Romani (sometimes known by the pejorative term "Gypsy") music in Europe, given that both groups were frequently marginalized. Klezmer, in turn, has had strong influences on a variety of other musical forms, including jazz and cabaret. It also shares some similarities with jazz manouche, a distinctively French form of jazz, popularized and possibly invented by the Romani artist Django Reinhardt.
While not particularly beautiful to most, Yiddish is known for being a highly expressive language, often providing the perfect word for expressing a particular sentiment when no English word will do. This expressiveness has had an important influence in instrumental klezmer music, in which it is common for musicians to attempt to emulate human voices and expressiveness with particular riffs. In this way, certain klezmer instrumental sounds are said to be "kvelling" (to speak about with great pride) or "kfetching" (to complain), etc.
You can hear the klezmer influences in this current Yiddish piece by artist Yoni Eilat:
(for a fun instrumental example of music combining klezmer and jazz manouche elements with funk, check out this piece by French band Les Yeux Noirs)
Makela is currently working on bringing our first Yiddish piece into our repertoire, "Bei Mir Bistu Shein," a Yiddish pop song from the 1930s, a time when there was a thriving Yiddish cinema and there were still enough Yiddish speakers for secular popular music to frequently be produced in Yiddish. The song was sung in Yiddish at the Apollo in 1937 by African-American performers Johnnie and George, prompting American composers to translate it into English while retaining some of the original Yiddish language. The English variation of Bei Mir Bistu Shein went on to be covered by several popular American artists, and became the Andrews Sisters' first ever big hit. The song also became internationally popular, including in Germany, until the NAZI government discovered that the song was rooted in Yiddish, not German, and promptly banned it from German radio. Click here to hear the Andrews Sisters version on Youtube.
Yiddish is to the Ashkenazic Jews of Central and Eastern Europe as Ladino is to the Sephardic Jews of Spain and North Africa, who maintained large populations in Iberia until the Spanish Inquisition led to mass conversion and exile. Ladino essentially enjoys an Old Spanish core with richly varied influences from other old Iberian romance languages and a variety of MidEastern languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic. It is a painfully beautiful and unfortunately highly endangered language today, with very few speakers left. Many Sephardic Jews with roots in Spain ended up migrating throughout other parts of North Africa and the MidEast, taking Ladino with them.
Enjoy this hauntingly beautiful Ladino song by Israeli-born Morrocan/Persian artist Mor Karbasi:
Yemenite Jewish Languages
The term Yemenite refers to the Jews of Yemen, most of whom today live in Israel. Yemenites traditionally speak Yemeni Arabic and/or Yemenite Hebrew. Yemenite Jews are sometimes characterized as part of the greater group of Mizrahi Jews, which generally refers to Jews whose roots have consistently remained in the Middle East, rather than by way of Europe like the Ashkenazim and Sephardim. It's a somewhat difficult distinction to make, however, since all Jews are said to be able to trace themselves back to ancient Israel, including the Ashkenazim and Sephardim who eventually spread into Europe. Furthermore, many of the Sephardim fled Iberia to live in the Middle East centuries ago where they intermingled with Arab Jews, making Sephardic and Mizrahi populations sometimes hard to distinguish from one another. Yemenite Jews, however, are a clear and distinct subgroup among the Mizrahim, as their religious practice and language have distinct qualities.
The following piece is a pop variation on a traditional Yemenite folk song performed by the rising Yemenite pop group A-WA, and sung in Yemeni Arabic. What looks like hip hop dancing is actually a traditional Yemenite folk dance:
Click here for a fascinating article on the Yemenite influences in the song and for the story behind A-WA. Interestingly, A-WA found great inspiration in the Andrews Sisters, the American group that helped to popularize Bei Mir Bistu Shein.