Learning Jewish Languages

So, Jewish languages other than Hebrew are all endangered, and even Hebrew many of us don’t speak. So, in honor of Preservation Day, I’ve gathered a bunch of language resources, and hopefully we’ll be able to learn our heritage languages more easily, as well as Hebrew, both biblical for the Torah, and modern for trips (or flight, as necessary) to Israel.

I’ll start with a request for help from the people who DO know these languages: the website duolingo has both Yiddish and Hebrew projects that need people to help them work.  It seems like a very effective language learning site, and it would help us preserve our languages.  And if someone capable of doing so started up a Ladino project, or any of the various Judeo-Arabic languages (I apologize, I know basically nothing about them) it would be great!

Next up is My Language Exchange.  This is a very versatile site that seems mostly to be about matching up people learning each others’ languages as pen pals.  There’s a little bit more structure, but it’s only available for the biggest languages.  However, and this is a BIG plus, it has people who speak Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino all, and I’ve had trouble finding any websites that even acknowledge Ladino.

Ancient Hebrew

So, for all that I know nothing about Judeo-Arabic and little about Ladino, Ancient/Biblical Hebrew is pretty mysterious to me.  I never went to Hebrew school, so anything here is good.  Right now, the only thing I have is a couple of posts from an old, abandoned tumblr (to an extent, it’s been replaced by tumblrs like littlegoythings, returnofthejudai and jewish-privilege)

So, here’s a post about how Hebrew was written and pronounced in ancient times compared to today, and another on German’s influence on Hebrew pronunciation, that might fit better in the next section.

Modern Hebrew

Now, Modern Hebrew, being the language of an actual, geopolitically important country is the easiest to find resources for.  In addition to Rosetta Stone, which is quite expensive (though my Dad swears by it, in six months he’s reading Israeli newspapers) there’s a free site run by them, Live Mocha, which includes Hebrew.

Thanks to all the resources available, Hebrew language learning resources have already been collected.  A couple of places that do that are Omniglot, Fluent Forever, and Ecott.  And then there’s the online parts of the Hebrew programs at UT Austin and Yale.

And then there’s Surface Languages and Transparent, for just straight up language learning.


And now, into the Diaspora! There are tons of Diaspora languages, but not all of them have their own names.  The biggest one, though, is Judeo-German, better known now as Yiddish.  It’s been a very active language, and had a cultural golden age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  

The Yiddish Academy collects Yiddish resources that will be helpful whatever path to learning the language you take.  For learning, there’s some traditional web courses at eTeacherYiddish, Surface Languages and Transparent.

And then, of course, there’s YiddishPop! I haven’t looked in detail at it, but YiddishPop seems to be all about learning Yiddish in a fun online environmentm, with lots of games and stuff.


Ladino, unfortunately, doesn’t have nearly the support that Hebrew and Yiddish do.  Fortunately, while I was looking for resources, @concentratedridiculousness responded to me and made a nice big post about Ladino, though most of the resources aren’t online.

In hebrew the word I (אני) and nothing (אין) contains the same letters. I found it an interesting idea, that only the order makes the difference between “me” and the “nothingness”, so I made this drawing with the two words.

Now that it’s the month of Adar, Purim is coming up in less than two weeks! The book of Esther has one of my favourite verses in the whole TaNaKh:

And who knows — perhaps it was for a moment like this that you became a queen?

Let me try to explain why I love this verse so much. The book of Esther is the only book in the Bible where the name of G!d does not appear even once. The story is entirely driven by humans, their actions, and their choices. The Jews in Persia face annihilation under the decree of the wicked Haman (boo) and Esther has to make the difficult choice of risking her life in order to try to save her people. This moment in the story (4:14), pretty much right in the middle, is the turning point. Esther makes her decision, reverses the trajectory of destruction, saves the Jewish people… and the rest is history.

But at this moment she doesn’t know that! She decides to step forward and change the course of the narrative, not knowing whether she would survive. “If I perish,” she says, “I perish.” It is that attitude of courage, I think, that carries us through a world where we don’t know if we will manage to save the day — but we do know that if we don’t step forward, no-one else will. This verse is my mantra: “perhaps it was for THIS moment that I became a queen!” Maybe this is the moment that I have been waiting for.

As a queer Jew, there is something especially empowering about the language of ‘queen-ness’. That while we all may wear a variety of masks and disguises in our day-to-day, we are, in fact, royalty. We are queens! A term that I have chosen to wear with pride. And maybe there’s a purpose — maybe I have become a queen just in order to reach this moment. That my life has given me the tools to prepare me, precisely for a moment like this.

And who knows — perhaps
it was for a moment like this
that you became a queen?

Happy Adar!

Calligraphy by me — see more at my website!