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Cambridge University Library

A Millennium of Jewish Women’s Voices

Or.1080 J1
Or.1080 J1 (recto): A woman named Archondou writes to her son, Fuḍayl, about her illness: “My eyes hurt very badly and I give three zuz every week to the doctor, and I cannot move from this place.”
Author: 
Sarah Bunin Benor and Abby Graham
Wed 2 Nov 2022

Historically, most well-known documents in Jewish languages have been penned by men. However, Jewish women have also recorded their voices in writing and in song. At the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) Jewish Language Project, we searched for Jewish women’s voices throughout history. We found documents and recordings in twenty languages (some with multiple dialects) from the tenth century to the present, including letters, poetry, memoirs, lullabies, translations of religious texts, and more. To give a sense of the chronological, geographic, and linguistic breadth of these voices, we curated an online exhibit. Visitors can visualize and browse the collection of more than 80 items using a map and a historical timeline.

When people think of Diaspora Jewish languages, they likely think of Yiddish. Although the collection includes old documents in Yiddish, like Tkhines and Glückel of Hameln’s memoir, we opted to focus most of the exhibit on lesser-known, underrepresented, or endangered languages. There are Judeo-Arabic henna songs from Morocco, Algeria, and Iraq; a Judeo–Esfahani wedding song from Iran; a nursery rhyme in Lishana Deni, a Jewish Neo–Aramaic dialect from Zakho, Iraq; a Juhuri poem, “Zuhun dədəji” (Mother Tongue) by Batsion Abramova in Makhachkala, Dagestan; and a translation of The Little Prince into Karaim, the Turkic language of European Karaites: Kiči Bijčiek, translated by mother-daughter pair Halina Kobeckaitė and Karina Firkavičiutė from Trakai, Lithuania.

Some of the women featured in the exhibit are famous (in certain circles) in their own right, such as Glückel and Asenath Barzani. Other women are famous by association. Although we don’t know her name, the wife of tenth-century Hebrew poet Dunash ben Labrat wrote beautiful Hebrew poetry in a letter to her husband. Miryam, sister of Moses Maimonides, wrote to her brother while her son was studying in Cairo. “I know that you’re very busy, but please, I’m not eating, I’m not sleeping. I’m so worried about my son. So please find out where your nephew is and let me know how he is.” However, most of the women whose writings are included in the exhibit would have been unknown in the historical record were it not for these surviving fragments of their writing.

Similarly, the exhibit features a few songs performed by star entertainers, such as Yemenite-Israeli singer Ofra Haza and Moroccan singer Zohra El Fassia. But most of the songs were preserved only because community activists, linguists, and ethnomusicologists recorded them. Examples include Menuḥa Tova Dahan sharing a Bukharian wedding song from Uzbekistan; Esther Peretz, from the Anti-Atlas Mountains in Morocco, singing a Zionist song in Judeo-Berber; and women from Cochin, India, performing a Jewish Malayalam song that offers blessings to a son.

The collection includes several letters, sometimes penned by women, sometimes by male scribes. Women wrote to their husbands, brothers, sons, and others, sending updates on their health, their financial situation, and historical events, and asking for updates or assistance. Several of the documents were preserved in the Cairo Geniza, most written in Judeo-Arabic, some in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Greek. Here are three Judeo-Arabic examples from the eleventh century:

  • A woman in Libya wrote to her brother: “I went out to inquire about your news, and they told me you were ill. I went out of my mind. I vowed not to eat during the day, not to change my clothing, and not to enter the bath, neither I nor my daughter, until your letter arrived with your news. The ships arrived, and I went down, with my hand on my heart, to hear your news. The men came down and told us that you were well. I thanked God who made the end good.”
  • Umm al-Khayr, the widow of Eliyya al-Dimunshī, wrote from Ragusa, Sicily, to her son Yehuda b. Eliyya, begging him to return home before she dies. She told him that his father died, so he should return to his conscience and awaken his soul, and say to himself, “My father died in my lifetime, and now my mother will too. This will be counted as a tremendous sin on my account.”
  • A refugee from Jerusalem, now in Tripoli, Lebanon, wrote to her brother, reporting on the invasion of the Seljuk Turks in 1070: “I saw them killed in terrible fashion... I am an ill woman on the brink of insanity, on top of the hunger of my family and the little girl who are all with me, and the horrid news I heard about my son.” She suggested it would be better to be captured, since those in captivity “find someone who gives them food and drink.”

A more uplifting part of the collection is prayer books in Judeo-Provençal and Ladino, some written by women and some written by men intended for women to recite. These works offer alternatives for certain prayers, such as the morning blessing that gives thanks to God, “who did not make me a woman”:

Judeo-Provençal (southern France), fourteenth century:

Benedich Tu Sant Benezet nostre Diew rey dal segle ke fis mi fena

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of eternity, who made me a woman

Ladino, fifteenth century:

Bendicho tu YY nuestro Dio, Rey para siempre que me fizo cumo su veluntad

Blessed are You, YY, our God, King for eternity, who created me according to His will

The cutest document in the collection is a Yiddish note from Ella, a girl from Dessau, Germany, who worked as a typesetter at her father’s publishing house. In 1695, she wrote:

The Yiddish letters I set with my own hand

I am Ella, daughter of Moses from Holland

a mere nine years old

the sole girl amongst six children

So when an error you should find

Remember, this was set by one who is but a child.

The materials presented in our exhibit are only a selection of extant Jewish women’s work. The older items are rare in their survival, and many similar items likely once existed. In fact, the historical record includes many additional mentions of women’s writings or of women who were literate.

We invite you to browse the exhibit and hope you enjoy reading and hearing these women’s voices.

This piece originally appeared on the Jewish Women's Archive blog, Jewish Women, Amplified.

Sarah Bunin Benor is Vice Provost, Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and Linguistics, and Founding Director of the Jewish Language Project at HUC-JIR (Los Angeles). She received her Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University in 2004. Her books include Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism (2012) and Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps (2020).

Abby Graham is a linguist and teacher focusing on heritage, Indigenous, and minoritized language revitalization. She curated an exhibit for the HUC-JIR Jewish Language Project highlighting Jewish women’s voices throughout history.

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