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Nonbinary Hebrew

 

I’ve been told, for years, that things are never all black or all white, but shades of gray in between. And I believe that. But I didn’t consider that these shades of grey could be applied to gender as well. The subject came up recently at my synagogue, when the clergy added their preferred pronouns onto their email signatures. None of the clergy members identify as nonbinary, but there are young people in the congregation who do, and this addition was meant as a sign of respect for them.

This is all new to me, and I’m still not sure I understand why someone would identify as nonbinary, rather than seeing themselves as a woman with some traditionally masculine qualities, or a man with some traditionally feminine qualities. But I realized quickly that I would need to think about this in more depth now that I’m teaching in the synagogue school, because Hebrew is a gendered language, like Spanish and French, and there are no clear ways to refer to a person who is nonbinary. Even if none of my students identifies as nonbinary yet, they may have family members who do.

English, surprisingly, is a much more egalitarian language than most, and nonbinary individuals have taken to using the pronoun “they” to describe themselves. The flexibility of the language, and the constant additions that have made English so hard to learn have also made it more capable of meeting our needs as society evolves. Hebrew, on the other hand, is an old language based in a male-dominated culture. If there is one man in a group and the rest are women, we have to use the Hebrew word for “men,” period. If a group of children is equally mixed between boys and girls, we have to use the Hebrew word for “boys” to describe the whole group, because there is no non-gendered word for “children.” This gender preference shows up in all of the Hebrew prayers, which led me to the obvious conclusion, growing up, that God must be a Man.

067

“That’s ridiculous.”

When I first read some Hebrew blessings written in female language, a few years back, I felt wildly uncomfortable. It just sounded so strange! And I’m not the only one who found the change uncomfortable, and unsustainable. Women have been trying to push the Hebrew language into more gender equality for decades, without much success.

This whole topic feels prickly and uncomfortable for me, because I default to male gender words in Hebrew without thinking twice. I automatically say boys or men, or refer to male doctors or teachers. And even when I say or write “I” sentences, as part of my refresher Hebrew lessons, I default to male verbs automatically, because it doesn’t occur to me that I might be talking about myself.

281

“What about dog words? Is Hebrew all people-centric too?”

I decided to search online to see how other people have been addressing this issue and I found a few articles about a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder who worked with their Hebrew professor to come up with a possible non-gendered addition to the Hebrew language. The two of them were inspired by the introduction of gender neutral terms in Spanish (though I haven’t come across these in my Spanish lessons so far, and only recently heard the term “Latinx” to refer to people of Latin American descent without referring to gender). The system the teacher and student came up with adds a neutral gender pronoun to Hebrew, and a way to construct gender neutral conjugations, at least in the present tense.

This new system has been controversial, and people have found it hard to learn. It’s also not the only attempt to address this problem. A Jewish summer camp in the States (not the one I went to) came up with another gender neutral term, specifically for “Camper,” in Hebrew, though they don’t seem to have gone further than that into adding new conjugations. It’s hard to know if either of these ideas will generalize to society at large, or if a new system will be inspired by them, or if none will take off at all.

And the fact is, it’s been hard for me to get used to using the word “They” to refer to an individual, in English, so I can’t imagine the discomfort Hebrew speakers must feel at being told to learn a whole new system in order to speak their own language correctly. But if we leave things as they are, with no gender neutral terms, where does that leave the people who feel like neither gender describes them? How can they ever feel accepted if they can’t be referred to correctly by their communities?

244

“Now you know how I feel. You keep calling me a dog. It’s rude.”

As a society, we make so many assumptions and have so many expectations about ourselves that are attached to gender. Would that change if we all used gender neutral language? Would we lose something that makes our lives meaningful by referring less often to gender? I don’t know. I’ve always considered myself female, and despite whatever discomfort I have with societal expectations of women it still seems like an accurate description of how I experience my gender. But it intrigues me to think about this question, of how much might be roiling under the surface of this dilemma of language. How much of our lives have actually been determined by the language we use to describe ourselves? And what kinds of surprises might we find if we take some small steps towards change?

YG with Cricket

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

92 responses »

  1. This one really has me puzzled. I was talking about it with my granddaughter who is 12. She told me that gay/bi/trans is now taken for granted by people her age. She said probably she wrestles with nonbinary and gender fluid the way I wrestled with the three she mentioned. She may have a point.

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  2. Very well thought out. I just hope I don’t encounter such a person. I am not good at this sort of stuff.

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  3. I think the Scandinavians are ahead of us all on this one with some nurseries using only gender neutral terms! When I helped out at playgroup ( 3&4 year olds ) if we said ‘ -girls on this side boys on that side’ half the children would be left in the middle unsure what they were! I was a tomboy but I don’t think I would have liked to be treated as gender neutral. However as we now know medically and scientifically that some people are born intersex it is valid to work out how to change or add to all our languages.

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  4. It’s very difficult for me, I admit. I am completely sympathetic to those who feel differently inside themselves than I do. But I am feeling my age and feel that there are so many times so very many genders adds so much complexity to life. We are lucky that English is not as reliant on “gender” as many other languages, although in many cases it’s bogus, as in assigning gender to inanimate objects.

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  5. I am all for using ‘they’ for an individual. As it is now, there are so many first names that could be either a boy or a girls name. It gets confusing to write ‘him/her’ or ‘he/she.’ Maybe it’s just me who has a problem assuming men are in charge when I know plenty of females who are, so it feels rude to write to a male when I should be addressing a female. I think we need to get with the times, but then grey has always been a favorite color or mine.

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  6. Wonderful, insightful post; thank you. Change is always challenging. I’m 62 but strive to be open to new approaches, being sensitive to those who may feel marginalized by language, biases, attitudes and the unwillingness of so many to adopt new approaches. Yes, it may feel strange to use “they” rather than “he” or “she” but if doing so improves the quality of life for some, I’m all for it. What can it hurt? I like that you’re already thinking about how this concern, and your own use of languages, might affect your students; they’re lucky to have you.

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  7. I expect over the next five to ten years we’ll see some rapid evolution in many languages to accommodate non-binary identification. We live in interesting times.

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  8. Great post with excellent questions. Might we lose some unstated expectations tied to gender? Might the surprises be a blessing to the well-being of all? Who knows?!!!

    A few weeks ago I was at a presentation titled “Gender, Gender Identity, and the Church.” Yes, using “they” is hard. But for those persons who have had the courage to state their preference, it is the least I can do to honor their request. It will take some practice.

    God language without gendered pronouns can be tough. And I’ve been practicing for two decades! Twenty years ago when I was in seminary we were required to use “inclusive” language for God and God’s people. In the last year or so I heard a music director talk about using “expansive language” for God – a phrase I’ve adopted. It sort of feels like letting God out of a box.

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  9. The title of your post had my hopes up! I had hoped you came across the perfect Hebrew solution.

    A year or so ago, I started looking at constructed languages and for a little while because I was fascinated with the idea of having a base language for communication between peoples while still preserving the beauty and elegance of native tongues. I was trying to learn Lidepla (Lingwa de Planeta) which I chose over Esperanto because I became irritated that Esperanto reverted to maleness quite regularly. I thought it was such a wasted opportunity–if you are going to create a language for universal communication, why oh why would you continue to prefer masculinity when you have a choice to be neutral or balanced except when you specifically intend a certain gender? More people know Esperanto than Lidepla, but it was the principle of the thing.

    I have let it go entirely for now, feeling some urgency to learn to speak languages that I can use to help others more immediately. Times are crazy, right now. But, maybe someday.

    This is all just to say that it gender in language is fascinating and complex and it will be interesting to see if modern Hebrew can find a workable way to evolve.

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  10. I remember from learning French at school that masculine and feminine confused me but until reading your post today, I never thought about language as being gender specific. You were either Boys/men/males or girls/women/females yet now we have so many alternatives, it’s no wonder there is so much confusion about self and identification. I accept there are differences that are no longer clearly defined but have to admit I find it disconcerting.

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  11. This was so interesting to read – so many things I’ve never thought about.

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  12. Wow! What an interesting post. I had no idea that Hebrew was male dominated, particularly as I’ve always viewed it as more enlightened than Christianity having the Shekinah, the female divine spirit. But I know what you mean about this new world we’re living in; we’re all in the same boat, learning about how to include people who have been ostracised and excluded. Good on you for addressing this with sensitivity and respect.

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  13. Fascinating post, Rachel! Like you, I am happy to identify as female with that same discomfort around societal treatment and expectations of our gender, but I am glad intelligent folks are studying languages in more detail to make them inclusive.

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  14. This took me back to learning French, at the age of 11. I couldn’t understand why an armchair was a masculine word, yet a window was ‘feminine’. My teacher grew impatient with my constant questioning, eventually declaring, “It just is. Learn to live with it”. I think that is the same way that future generations will come to understand terms that are no longer gender-specific, whatever their religion. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  15. Thought provoking and helpful. I will be thinking more about the points you raise here. Thank you.

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  16. I have trouble with “they” Aren’t we all multiple people. I don’t mind finding a word for those who feel they are something other than the male/female gender. I almost feel like I would be using the “royal we.” We need something more or maybe I am “they” also since there are so many parts of the real me: spiritual, psychological, introvert, extrovert, I could go on and on . Sexuality is only one small part of the whole.

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  17. Well written and thought provoking. I enjoyed this post. 🙂

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  18. Great post, exploring your questions with thoughtfulness and care. Though I’ve tried to become thoughtful in my pronoun usage myself, I never thought about how much more of an issue it would be a language where words are traditionally masculine and feminine. I’m so glad that there are people out there like your clergy who are working to be inclusive.

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  19. Another beautiful post dear ❤️ keep going

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  20. Pingback: Tangents | sparksfromacombustiblemind

  21. What is the point in having “gender neutral language” or “nonbinary”, when the basic biology is that one is either female or male? People can call themselves whatever they want, but they are either XY or XX. That’s a scientific fact of life that is ridiculous to deny.

    By the way, you can always use ילדים וילדות if you want to describe a group of both boys and girls in Hebrew. It’s not like there’s no term for girls…

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    • Of course you’re right, there are terms for girls. It’s the default to male terminology that bothers me. The word אנשים means people, but is a masculine word. The word נשים only refers to women, not to people in general. We have some of this in English too, of course. We have historically used the word “man” to refer to human beings. But we have the option of saying “humans” or “people” instead. I think the gendered language issue is complex and worthy of a lot more discussion than we’ve given it so far, as a society. I don’t really understand the feelings that lead someone to identify as non binary, but I’m hoping to find out more.

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      • I think this whole issues is getting out of proportions. By now there are people who say they are “gender fluid”, or “questioning”, whatever that means! It feels we start to lose some common sense (which, unfortunately, is not so common! 🙂 )
        As for אנשים I always saw it as a combination of נשים and א. So in a sense, women are more represented in the word… 🙂
        But aside form this specific word, you’re right and there are some rules in Hebrew that define plural as prominently male. I grew up in a Hebrew speaking society, and it never really bothered me, mainly because I know that women always had a very valued place in Judaism. A child’s Jewish religion is established only via the mother, and many more examples. It’s far from black and white (if that is still a PC allowed expression… ).

      • I remember one of my rabbis in high school saying that women are separate from men because they are up on a pedestal. He really meant it, and was never patronizing about it. But most of the other rabbis, and boys, saw girls and women as inferior. If changing aspects of the language can change those relationships, or at least support change, isn’t it worth the effort?

      • Sure, as long as we’re not going too far with it all, which I think is already happening. Way too many women now treat men like they’re the enemy, and inherently evil. It’s a real shame and doesn’t improve anything.

    • I just want to say ‘One’ is not either male or female, there are many more variations than XX or XY , (eg some forms of Turners syndrome). Also some people are intersex and have both ovaries and testes. Susie x

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      • It’s so interesting to me that we learn about all of these genetic variations in bio class, but we forget to extrapolate it into the outside world. I remember reading the novel Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, and suddenly understanding that there were real lives behind all of this.

      • Oooh, I’ll have a look at that book x

      • So what do you suggest? that we’ll use different terms for every medical condition?
        Language is all about generalization. When you say “blue” it refers to many shades of blue. The same should be with genders. Very simple.

      • No, it was just that you were so definite it was a biological fact, when it actually isn’t. As a midwife I use gender neutral pronouns a lot as I don’t want to call someone’s baby ‘it’!

      • In fact, the hermaphrodite condition you’re talking about is very rare, and at birth, most demonstrate one gender more clearly. To use this marginal phenomena (that actually has a scientific term) as an excuse to prevent parents to address their babies by their gender is ridiculous.
        Glad you still find it awkward to call a baby “it”… At least that.

      • I’m sorry I never actually said anything about preventing parents addressing their babies by their gender. I’m also talking about addressing babies before they are born and not calling them ‘it’ . I really think we are completely crossing wires here

      • How about we just stop this here. I appreciate different opinions, but this conversation is starting to feel unproductive. I want to thank both of you for sharing your perspectives and for taking the subject seriously. Best wishes, Rachel

      • because you can’t just say “the baby?” Not meaning to be snarky, but there are alternatives other than “gender neutral” when the baby is either a boy or a girl and not a unicorn, no matter how the baby’s parents might feel.

  22. Great post Rachel, thanks for sharing!!!

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  23. The thing that bothers me the most are the biological males who “identify” as female and enter women’s sporting events and win because of their male body. This means that a biological female soon won’t be able to compete successfully in sporting events and that’s just plain UNFAIR. I guess I’ll just identify as a billionaire and go to the bank to get some of my money.

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    • As far as I understand, biological males aren’t allowed to compete in women’s professional sports. There’s been a lot of controversy over a biologically female runner who has “too much” testosterone to compete fairly with other women. The decision keeps going back and forth, trying to way fairness to other runners versus the right of the particular woman to be who she is by nature.

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  24. I, too, have noticed the proliferation of gender pronoun preferences in email signatures lately. I have been wondering whether to to add this to my own email signature. Then again, gender identity is not that important to me (although I respect its importance to others). As my father used to say, call me whatever you like, just don’t call me late for dinner.

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    • Ha! I would feel awkward adding something like that to my email too, and thinking about that discomfort was really what led to this post. I haven’t resolved the discomfort yet, but I’ve become a little more aware, so that’s something.

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  25. In the Chicago area, “you guys” can refer to anyone from a classroom of boys and girls to a handful of white-haired ladies. 🙂

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  26. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I need to spend more time reading and thinking about this issue. My faith tradition has a hard time dealing with the idea of homosexuality never mind nonbinary gender. Your clergy members are very enlightened.

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    • The thing that amazes me is that this issue of how we refer to each other and how we define gender opened the door for so many people to speak more openly about who they are. And, as a culture, we had no idea how many people were being held back until now.

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  27. As a non-binary person who uses they/them pronouns, I appreciate that your faith community and you are paying attention to being inclusive in the way you approach gendered language. I think it is confronting for many people when they encounter gender in a way that doesn’t fit the strict binary that pervades our society. Respecting/sharing pronouns and so forth go a long way in allowing people of all genders to be included; a full understanding of how/why someone isn’t a man or a woman isn’t needed to be kind.

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  28. I can see that this is a tricky one. My first career was as an actor. I decided to call myself an actor years ago even though I am a woman and have always identified as such. There are no lawyeresses, doctoresses, just lawyers and doctors. So why actors and actresses? Especially puzzling since in the era of Shakespeare actors were all male playing both the male and female roles. I hope that Hebrew will be a living language and be able to adjust. But I am not Jewish so it is easy for me to say. Anyway…very interesting post Rachel.

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  29. I just don’t understand the whole “identify” thing. You are what you are, if you think you’re a unicorn, show me your horn, I don’t care how you “identify.” I guess I’m just too old.

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  30. Yeah, like suziecreamcheese said. Me’thinks we think too much. Sadly, people don’t know what or who they are. Don’t get me started on raising children ‘gender neutral’ so they can follow their tendencies and ‘decide’ what they are. I have no problem if one’s tendencies lead them in a different gender direction, but children haven’t a clue. Raise them as they are and their tendencies will work out. I personally find it more interesting that ‘societal thinking’ wants to make reality whatever it say it is. A rock is still a rock, even if everyone says it is hard water. But I digress.

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    • exactly! If you decide as an adult that you’re a yellow finned penguin who eats rainbows, fine, but children who can’t decide what cereal they want for breakfast shouldn’t be making life altering decisions for themselves.

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  31. I’m glad your congregation is taking steps to make sure all of your members feel supported! It can be hard to stay with a faith community sometimes when people are too rigid to accommodate the wide variation that humanity produces.
    I personally do not identify as genderqueer or non-binary… but neither have I ever “felt” like a “woman”. (I’m honestly more upset when people get the sex of my cat wrong than I am when people used to guess my sex wrong when I had short hair!) I’m glad some people are starting to recognize that gender is just a label that we assign to certain behaviors and that we don’t have to be limited by those labels (or by our sex.)

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    • Oh my goodness! I get so grumpy when people think my dogs are boys! I do my best to smile and be polite, but inside I’m roiling with rage. I wonder what that’s about? It makes me think that gender is much more important ( to me and to a lot of other people) than I would have thought. And it makes me even more convinced that we need to respect how people self identify, because it’s such a visceral thing. When I was in first grade I had to get my hair cut short and the other girls made fun of me by calling me a boy’s name. It was humiliating and has always stayed with me, because they KNEW it would hurt. There’s so much more to unpack about gender and how we feel about it and talk about it. It’s not simple at all.

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  32. Hmmm… My first and last objection to taking a gendered language and ruining it, is this:
    In a non-gendered language like English a word like ‘child’ being gender-less brought people to call the child ‘it’. Making a person into a thing.
    That’s disrespectful to a human being, no matter how old.
    The Jewish faith puts Life as the most sacred value of all. The Hebrew language is aimed at respecting Life, even after death…

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  33. God the Father in Heaven is one with Christ the Son . God is for many masculine as mother Mary is the mother of our Lord and Savior! Cheers!❤️

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  34. Such an interesting debate which will definitely render a lot of opinions for solutions. Great stuff!

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  35. It has been so long since I have logged on to WordPress and I am so glad I did. Your article is so well written on a difficult subject. Thank you for your thoughtful views.

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  36. A thought provoking post, Rachel, which I have been thinking about for a couple of days and realised the words ‘they’ and ‘that’ offend me. I am not a child, I am not a girl, I am a woman. This universal word does not define me as a whole person, just part of my overall composition. However, lumping me in with ‘they’ and dropping the word ‘who’ in favour of ‘that’ takes away my humanness and makes me feel like I am surrounded by nonentities. Are we not taught to be individual thinkers, striving for distinction in whatever field we chose in life? How sad to be bundled in a blanket labelled ‘They’. Sincerely, Gretchen.

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  37. This was an amazing discussion Rachel. I am in the age group that really needs to examine our attitudes to these issues. Old school hardline feminism doesn’t cut it here. Lots to think about.

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