Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav


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What is the history of the cursive Hebrew type (כתב)?

Cursive forms of Hebrew arose in every Jewish community during the Second Exile to communicate or write in Hebrew in secular contexts (i.e., when not writing Scripture). As in the case of the cursive forms of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt, and the lowercase letters and italics in the Roman script in the Middle Ages, the cursive forms of Hebrew developed in a bid to write the printed letters more quickly. Thus, the three-strokes of printed letters such as aleph, bet and tzadi became just two-stroke ones; and two-stroke letters such as gimmel, dalet, etc. became continuous, fluid strokes, etc.:

Evolution of cursive aleph and dalet (from “Aleph Through the Looking Glass”)

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Are Israelis not familiar with the word “yahrzeit”?

yahrzeit-candlesThis is a good question,* because it highlights a common misconception that many Jews in the diaspora (and non-Jews, come to that) have about Israelis.

With the exception of old-timers from Eastern Europe and the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox communities (who regard Hebrew as being suited for prayer and religious study rather than for everyday conversation), the vast majority of Israelis do not understand Yiddish, nor use Yiddish terms.

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Why hasn’t Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) been transmitted to young Sephardim in the way Yiddish has been transmitted to young Ashkenazim?

(My answer to this question at Quora.com)

Yiddish is being passed down to the younger generation only among the Ashkenasi ultra-Orthodox Jews (in Israel and in the U.S.—mainly Brooklyn). They do so because they consider Hebrew a sacred language to be used only for the study of Scripture, and not for the profane needs of everyday life.

Everywhere else Yiddish has pretty much died out.

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Do descendants of Jews living in Eretz Yisrael before Zionism have a distinct status or identity in Modern Israel?

Actually, yes. Broadly speaking, there were two types of Jews living in Eretz-Israel in the nineteenth century before the first Zionists arrived: small Ashkenazi Orthodox kollelim (communities supported by donations from their communities of origin abroad), and Sephardi Jews who were the descendants of Spanish Jews who had reached the Holy Land, directly or indirectly, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s.

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The perils of Ashkenazi pronunciation

Hebrew pronunciation among Diaspora communities is broadly divided between the Ashkenazis (communities originally from Central and Eastern Europe) and everyone else – i.e., Sephardis, the Mesopotamian communities (Iraq, Iran), Yemenites, etc.

The difference lies mainly in the pronunciation of the Hebrew letter tav, and a vowel known as kamatz: in Ashkenazi pronunciation, the tav is pronounced like an /s/, and the kamatz is pronounced /ô/. In other communities, the tav is pronounced /t/† and the kamatz is /ah/, respectively.

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