Back in 2009, Dr. Yona Sabar of UCLA wrote an article in The Jewish Week about his experiences as an Aramaic speaker. In recent light of the troubles facing Neo-Aramaic speakers in the Middle East it’s been circulating again, so I figured that I should re-share it.
“Burying My Mother Tongue”
Aramaic is my first language. I don’t get to speak it much with fellow native speakers in Los Angeles, where I live now. The number of Jewish Aramaic speakers has dwindled so much that we now quixotically call ourselves “The Worldwide Federation of Aramaic Speakers.” The group would fit in a small room.
Aramaic is considered the second holiest language after Hebrew. A language usually is not born holy. It becomes holy when it ceases being spoken and is mainly used as the language of scriptures, rituals and prayers. That is how Hebrew came to be called leshon ha-kodesh. After Hebrew faded as a spoken language around 200 BCE, myriads of Jews and Christians in Babylonia, Persia and the land of Israel picked up Aramaic, its Semitic sister. Two late books in the Bible, Daniel and Ezra, contain large sections in literary Aramaic. When Hebrew was waning as a spoken language, almost the entire Bible was translated into Aramaic for the benefit of the masses who couldn’t understand the original Hebrew. Aramaic became a part of the synagogue ritual for many centuries.