I majored in linguistics back in college. Along with my fellow language geeks, I spent hours poring over texts on transformational grammar and listening to field tapes with different North American English accents. While it was exceedingly difficult to find a job after graduation, the upshot of this course of study was a strong appreciation for and heightened awareness of language that I continue to hold dear.
Which brings me, indirectly, to Purim. For certain Jewish events, items and relationships, we almost always use the Hebrew term and rarely, if ever, its non-Hebrew counterpart. Purim falls in this category. Granted, the average Hebrew school student knows (even if the average Jewish adult doesn't) that "Purim" is translated into English as "lots." All the same, I can't say I can recall anyone casually saying, "Gee, I'm so excited about the Festival of Lots! I'm going to dress up as Queen Esther!” Instead, we’re consistently excited about and dressing up for Purim. In this way, Purim is a whole lot like tefillin and tallit. (Seriously, who puts on a set of "phylacteries" or a "prayer shawl"? And a mohel is a mohel, never a "ritual circumciser.")
In other cases, many of us gravitate toward using the English (or, for some, the French or Spanish or Russian equivalent). We're more likely to be familiar with a "eulogy" than a hesped. While issuing or receiving a get may be a recognizable phrase, it's usually more common to refer to a couple as "getting divorced." As much as the Hebrew words are heard in some settings, English feels more natural for most North American Jews.
Of course, English and Hebrew aren't binary, dichotomous categories in constant opposition to each other. Words like "kosher" have migrated over into English, giving them a foot in both worlds. People may refer interchangeably to Pesach and Passover, or the Tanakh and the Bible. In these latter cases, choosing one language over the other can convey a particular perspective; there is a world of difference between "delivering a d'var Torah" and "preaching a sermon."
On top of this, there are subtleties within each language. At the end of the week, we can observe sha-BAHT or SHAH-bos (or even "the Sabbath"). English phrases can have meanings that transcend the literal; "nine days" may be just a little more than a week, but "the Nine Days" is a summer period of intense traditional Jewish mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Throw in Yiddish, Ladino and other Jewish languages, and the situation can become even more complicated.
The complexities of language illustrate the broader issue of Jewish identity in North America. There are times when we focus more on the Jewish dimensions of who we are, like when we're attending Yom Kippur services, signing up for a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip or advancing the cause of social justice. At other times, we may identify primarily with the largely non-Jewish society that surrounds and is a part of us; we vote in elections, we celebrate Thanksgiving (either Canadian- or American-style), and we pay our taxes.
For most of our lives, however, we seek to balance and integrate the Jewish and Diaspora/secular aspects of who we are. Participating in an Alternative Spring Break is one way that some may choose to "do Jewish" while also being in dialogue with humanity as a whole, as is sharing thoughts in an interfaith discussion. Even when we travel to Israel or support a domestic political candidate, we do so with our Jewish and Diaspora experiences in mind. In short, being Jewish and being American (or Canadian or Brazilian or Russian) isn't an "either/or" question; it's a "both" answer to a deeper ongoing existential inquiry, and a matter of understanding life as more distinctively Jewish or more universally human in any given moment.
Embracing the Jewish and the non-Jewish simultaneously isn't always fun or easy. Many of us regularly face the dilemma of whether to take time off from work or school for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or other holidays, and the discussion over assimilation and continuity perpetually presents itself in uncomfortable ways. Even so, our ability to be culturally bilingual (or trilingual or beyond, depending on the situation) brings with it the potential to act with our whole selves, Jewish and otherwise.
With this in mind, enjoy celebrating this week's Festival of Lots. Eat your fill of Haman's Pockets (hamentashen), recite the Blessing of “Who Has Kept Us Alive” (Birkat Shehecheyanu) and get set for the Sabbath of the Red Heifer (Shabbat Parah) this weekend. Most importantly, I hope you – in all the Jewish, secular, American/Canadian and other aspects of who you are – have a wonderful holiday.
And watch your language.
Chag Purim Sameach.
Prepared by Rabbi Seth Goren, project consultant for the Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning.