Fusion & Koiné | A Diagram for Jewish Languages

This topic always gets me in trouble, as any attempt to synthesize century-old debates tends to do. But that has never stopped me before…

This week, in Mapping Diasporas, we deal with the topic of “mapping the unknown.” We are doing so by juxtaposing theory and practice.

First, we analyzed the fantastic libraries described by J. L. Borges (in The Library of Babel) and Umberto Eco (in The Name of the Rose), connecting their descriptions to the relationship between labyrinths and the maps (or forms) of knowledge, as well as to the very important notion of “nonsensuous similarity” expressed in Walter Benjamin hermetic text on The Mimetic Faculty.

Benjamin on Nonsensuous Similarity

In a highly undigital fashion, we also tried to use paper and pencil in a (seemingly failed) attempt to draw networked labyrinths and the linguistic patterns of “nonsensuous similarity” that these texts pointed us to.

Moving forward, we will be working on organizing several cartons filled with Yiddish books. These books were printed in the course of the (early) 20th century in various parts of the world. They were assembled by the former Judah L. Magnes Museum in a (failed) community effort to create a shared Yiddish library (the attempt continued elsewhere, and propelled the creation of the Yiddish Book Center).

While a selection of these Yiddish volumes, all printed in California, has been cataloged and became the object of a digital humanities project (and map) I created with Erin Faigin (History BA, 2016), the remaining volumes are now used for instructional purposes.


While their language is a commonality, there’s very little else that unifies these books. Most of them (the totality?) will be unreadable to students enrolled in Mapping Diasporas, and therefore I expect that organizing them will be either an insurmountable challenge or (as I hope) and act of unforeseeable creativity. I will report back on the results.

In the meantime, I will also point students to resources on Jewish languages, and on Yiddish in particular. But I will also share my (very primitive) diagram of the “nonsensuous similarities” that one can detect in how Jewish languages are structured”, which in the past I’ve referred to as a “Jewish language galaxy,” or a “galaxy of meanings.”

The (equally impossible) map of this linguistic galaxy consists of an  array (or constellation) of satellite languages positioned around an intertextual “center” composed by a core language (German, for Yiddish; but Hebrew itself, for modern Hebrew) and its relations with Hebrew and Aramaic. (Note that the diagram was conceived specifically to discuss the linguistic arrays found in Jewish prayer books).

Jewish Linguistic "Galaxy"

I will leave it at that, for now…


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