Judeo-Provencal? Yes, Judeo-Provencal

By Jochnowitz, George | Midstream, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

Judeo-Provencal? Yes, Judeo-Provencal


Jochnowitz, George, Midstream


Yiddish and Ladino, the two best-known Jewish languages of the Diaspora, were spoken in areas where the surrounding population spoke languages that were clearly different. Yiddish is obviously not the same language as Polish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Romanian, and the other languages of Eastern Europe; similarly, Ladino can never be confused with Turkish, Greek, Serbian, or other languages of the Eastern Mediterranean.

But a type of Yiddish, Western Yiddish, was also spoken in Switzerland and parts of Germany, where it was not always clearly distinguished from German. Judeo-Italian was spoken by Italian Jews a century ago and still survives in a few words and expressions. Judeo-Arabic coexisted with Arabic in Iraq and elsewhere. Judeo-Persian, also called Farsi, was spoken in Iran, where the Iranian population also called their own language Farsi. It survives in Uzbekistan, where the local languages are Russian and Uzbek. It was even once spoken in the Chinese city of Kaifeng.

There is nothing surprising about the fact that there once was a Judeo-Provencal language. It was spoken in southern France, where most people today speak French but where Provencal was once spoken. The word "Provencal" is ambiguous. In general, when people speak of the Provencal language, they are referring to the speech of a large area, perhaps a third of France, extending from the Alps to the Pyrenees. Since the province of Provence is a small part of this area in the southeastern corner of France, there is often confusion whether the name of the language refers to all of southern France or just to Provence.

Since the word for "yes" in southern France was once oc, the name Langue d'Oc, language of oc, came into existence. It became the name of a province in the southwestern part of France, whose dialect is called Languedocien. The name Occitan has been suggested as the name for the entire family of southern French dialects, and this name is often used by scholars in France. But I will use the name Provencal for the language of southern France since it is more widely known, especially outside of France. Similarly, I will say Judeo-Provencal for the Jewish language of this area, despite the fact that many of its speakers lived in the area called the Comtat-Venaissin, which is adjacent to Provence but not part of it.

I feel this language is particularly important for a number of reasons. To begin with, it is the only Jewish language in which we find a women's prayer book with the blessing "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who made me a woman." The book was written in the 14th or early 15th century in Judeo-Provencal or perhaps simply in Provencal spelled out in the Hebrew alphabet. This book antedates the invention of printing in 1436, and there is only one copy in the world, as far as I know. It is in the Cecil Roth collection in the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds, England. It was apparently written as a wedding present to someone's sister, since the title page has the Hebrew words meaning, "My sister, be the mother of thousands of ten thousands," which is similar to the blessing given to Rebecca in Genesis 24:60. The verse in Genesis says "our sister" rather than "my sister." (1)

Jews lived in Provence at least as early as the first century C.E. They were expelled from France in 1306, readmitted in 1315, expelled again in 1322, readmitted in 1359, and expelled in 1394 for a period that lasted until the French Revolution--almost 300 years. Provence was not yet ruled by the kings of France in 1394. This changed in 1481, and there was pressure to expel the Jews from there as well, which happened in 1498 but was not completely enforced until 1501. (2)

Perhaps if Jewish life had continued in France, the blessing "who made me a woman" would have entered printed prayer books. But this is conjecture. There are no "would-haves" in history. In the 16th century, prayer books for women were printed in Italy, but none included this unusual blessing. …

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