Monday, February 11, 2013

A Lithuanian rabbi grapples in a most fascinating way with English in early 20th century America

I wanted to call attention to something really fascinating I found in the Reverend Benjamin Safer Digital Collection at the University of Florida. Safer was a Lithuanian rabbi in Jacksonville, FL, although he used the title Reverend because he did not have semicha. I'm not quite sure when he was born and died, although he was alive in 1954, the date of one letter of his I looked at, and he came to Florida in 1901. Here are pictures of him from that website, young and older.

What I wanted to point to are a few of his writings and jottings which would seem to show his efforts to acquire English, and what specifically he found difficult, and what he was comfortable with.

So here is a couple pages from one of his notebooks:

As you can see, what he was doing was writing down English words with their transliteration and definition in  Yiddish. There seems to be no pattern as to which words he chose; "devoid" "gust" "inertia" "vary" "haunt" and so on. My guess is that these were words that he came across in speech or reading and he wanted to remember them, or they gave him trouble or something. He probably wrote them as he came across them.

Next, is part of the text of a "sermonette" for Chanukah, for children. What is fascinating about this one is that it is entirely in English - written entirely in Yiddish/Hebrew letters. Evidently reading English was difficult, or still difficult, for him, although my guess is that he understood it and spoke it without too much difficulty. One wonders how many in his congregation realized that he was doing what we see below.

I haven't tried to read it yet, but you can see it begins with a Bible quote:

"רימעמבער דהי דייז אוו אלד"
.סשו מאזעס ספאק טו היז פיפל דזשאסט ביפאר היז דעטה

"Remember the days of old"
So Moses spoke to his people just before his death.


I should point out that much later we see whole letters written in English, so evidently he worked out whatever issues he had acquiring it. Without a doubt this collection is a treasure trove. 


  1. Semicha doesn't exist.

  2. Ironic. I'm going to funeral tomorrow in Jacksonville

    1. Why, what's wrong with jacksonville?

      (wink and gunpoint)

  3. Acquiring an alphabet seems much more difficult than learning a spoken language.

    Funny, I didn't even know many of these more difficult English words had a Yiddish equivalent - although sometimes he uses more than one word to explain himself. Apparently he couldn't come up with anything for anemic.

    1. Can't teach an old dog new tricks. It fascinates me that it was quicker and easier for him to read it this way, because the transliterations seem so awkward to me, like it doesn't match as well as Hebrew or Yiddish in English letters does. But I'm probably wrong and they're equally bad/useful depending on which you read better and quicker.

  4. I wonder if his surname was in fact סופר (Sofer), which was recorded as "Safer" because he pronounced it like a Litvak.

    1. On what basis do you assume so, Lipman? It could have just as easily been the common Lithuanian surname 'safir' or 'sapir' (as in Yaakov Safir, the shadar of the old Ashkenazi Yishuv and himself Lithuanian born).

  5. It is striking because his English syntax is excellent. Of course he may have been copying text from other sources.

    1. I haven't looked through all the material yet, but amazingly, I could not find his signature even one time. I was also curious to know if he spelled it "סופר." I did see here that he appeared to spell his last name "Soffer" (1903), but perhaps that is an "a" and not an "o."

      In any case, I did see from his naturalization certificate that he was born in 1873. And you can also hear some cantorial recordings of him singing!

      Finally, he appears to have retired to Israel, and was alive in 1958.

  6. Something very - I dont know, touching, about these specimens from 100 years ago. The labored efforts of a (presumably) shtetel Jew in Lithuania coming to the midbar in Jacksonville, and struggling to learn a new langauge.

  7. I had a hunch, which turned out to be true, that the phonetic transcriptions and definitions of English words are copied from Harkavy's English-Yiddish dictionary. I actually find the Hebrew-letter English sermon to be quite easy to read, but I think that's because I'm used to reading Yiddish, and the logic of the transcription is based on Yiddish phonetic principles.

    One thought: I'm pretty sure he spells "so" as סא , not סשו.

    Fascinating stuff indeed. Wish I had time to dig into the archive.

  8. Here goes:
    “Remember the days of old”
    So Moses spoke to his people just before his death. It is a fine saying, and we Jews do not fail to bear it in mind. We are fond of remembering the days of old. We remember them in this feast of Chanukah, this Feast of Dedication which we are reaping in honor of the Maccabees who bravely lived and died 21 hundred years ago.
    Their gallant deeds lit up the world of their day; but we take care that they shall light up our hearts in our day, just as our festival lamps which you see burning. For the memory of brave deeds must never be allowed to perish from our hearts!



Related Posts with Thumbnails