Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A Jewish boy makes an offer of protection in Hebrew in 1839.

Many 19th century Missionary narratives offer fascinating insights on Jewish life, as seen from the outside. Below is a description of an incident in Safed in 1839. A Sephardic youth makes a request, in Hebrew, of the missionary Robert Murray M'Cheyne's walking stick. He offers to use it to protect him from Arabs, "תן לי המטה הזה ואם הגוים יבוא אני אכה אותם בעץ הזה":



Reminds me of a passage or two in Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, although that took place in Afghanistan in early 2002.

11 comments:

  1. Seems a little strange. 1) Did the Jews refer to the Arabs by the generic "goyim" that Jews used to refer to Christians? Nobody in Israel does that today. 2) Why does he switch from mateh to eitz in the same sentence? 3) The language also sounds a leetle too biblical, like a hebew dialouge in a Marcus Leahman story.

    I wonder if the missionary is paraphrasing, rather than recording exactly what he heard.

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  2. Of course it's likely that he was paraphrasing. But it's also possible that the boy didn't realize that McCheyne wasn't Jewish, or if he did, he was so used to referring to the locals that way that he said it anyway. As for the language being biblical, I think that gives it a ring of plausibility. This was improvised language. "Goyim" is, as far as I can tell, a generic rabbinic Hebrew term for gentiles that crossed Jewish ethnic borders - it certainly isn't Ashkenazic.

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  3. In general, "goyyim" = Christians in both Yiddish and Ladino, and thus, in the Hebrew written by speakers of these languages. Note in ספר ניצחון ישן, we find the line: מיהו דניאל מה היה? ישראל או גוי או ישמעאל.

    However, a friend has told me that she has done anthropological research on Jewish Yemenite immigrants in Monsey, and she says that they use "jöyim" (feminine: "jöyaat", with Arabic feminine plural ending!) to refer to Muslims.

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  4. The entrepreneurial and blunt nature of the child's offer rings true, based on my impression of modern-day Israelis.

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  5. I would love to see a study on Yemenite immigrants in Monsey. Is it published?

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  6. No, it's not published -- still very incomplete. Maybe one day.

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  7. "Did the Jews refer to the Arabs by the generic "goyim" that Jews used to refer to Christians"

    a bukharian friend of mine once told me that in the old country they called the local muslims goyim and the russian christians something else that i forget now (it was something deragetory, maybe חמורים?)

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  8. Abba's rantings -- that's fascinating. Just shows how it's all relative. "The goyim" are the gentile group whom you encounter the most -- or at least, the group which your ancestors encountered the most. (Ladino-speakers in the Ottoman Empire might have encountered Muslims more often than Christians, depending on the precise location, but their ancestral term "goyim" referred to Christians.)

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  9. Maybe it's because I grew up in the modern world. To me, all goyim are goyim.

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  10. Of course, there's another way to read what the boy said. He might have been suggesting that he needed the protection for himself, and that the only decent thing for this rich visitor to do would be to donate the stick for a worthy cause.

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  11. My impression is that in the responsa written in the Ottoman empire (e.g., sixteenth-nineteenth century Turkey and the Balkans), Muslims are generally referred to as תוגרמים or ישמעאלים, whereas Christians are pretty consistently ערלים. In this one of R. Haim Benveniste (בעי חיי חלק א(ב) סימן ר"ב עמוד רנב), he actually refers at one point to *three* different groups: תוגרמים, ערלים, עמלקים. I have no idea what he means by עמלקים:

    http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=622&pgnum=167

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