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Are Jewish words and expressions "No-Entry" signs for a general audience?

Keep the words you want in for authenticity and describe the scene for accessibility.

 Ever found yourself deleting or avoiding Jewish words and expressions in your writing (whatever Jewish means to you, Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino)? Often writers tell me they are worried about alienating their general audience or sounding 'too Jewish' so they avoid using any Jewish words or terms. No doubt there are many definitions of 'too Jewish,' so let's leave that for another post.

First things first: understanding your audience. Remember, readers come from all walks of life with varying levels of familiarity when it comes to Jewish culture and traditions. So, it is wrong to assume that all Jewish words are alienating. Words such as chutzpah, bar mitzvah, kosher, shul, mitzvah and Torah are no longer italicized or rarely. This means they have lost their foreign word status as far as most publishers are concerned, so they should lose it with writers too. (I'm not sure if kosher was ever italicized but it is still considered by many to be an unfamiliar word to a general audience and kasher certainly has been italicized as foreign.) 

Second, most people who read novels, in particular, are often the same people who enjoy learning new things, so they are not about to be scared off by a word or phrase they don't recognize. The opposite is true. Many enjoy learning new words. 

Third, when it comes to selecting Jewish words and expressions, think about their context within your story or message. You want to keep things accessible while still maintaining that authenticity. The key is to strike a balance between preserving the richness of your writing and ensuring that readers can follow along, even if they are uncomfortable for a few minutes.

Note: this is not at all about talking down to your readers. Readers do not like to be made to feel stupid, so avoid that at all costs. Using words such as 'challah,' 'kaddish,' 'yahrzeit,' and 'kiddush' or even entire sentences in Yiddish or Hebrew is not the same as sounding superior. I am not advising you to be condescending or to moralize to your readers.

Returning to our subject, let's progress to point four, which is the power of descriptive language. Instead of getting caught up in a word-for-word translation of Jewish customs, rituals, or concepts, focus on capturing the essence through vivid descriptions. Think about the emotions, scenes, and experiences that resonate universally with readers from all backgrounds. By doing this, you create connections that transcend cultural boundaries and make your writing more relatable.

It's important to provide context and explanations when you introduce Jewish words or expressions. You don't need to disrupt the flow of your narrative; you can seamlessly weave in a few clarifying sentences to help readers understand the meaning. Remember, you're not just sharing your culture; you're also inviting readers to appreciate and understand it.

Another important point is to remember that the Jewish community is incredibly diverse. When you mention Jewish food or any other aspect of Jewish culture, remember that it's not a one-size-fits-all situation. There's a wide range of Jewish identities and experiences out there, so it's crucial to avoid assuming that everything is the same for everyone. For example, when talking about Jewish cuisine, highlight the variety of culinary traditions within the Jewish community, rather than exclusively focusing on Ashkenazi dishes. (My own recipes for Yemenite Harish and Yemenite Matit/Matid are forthcoming in The Nosher: I thank the editor Rachel Myerson for accepting them and I will post them as soon as they are published.)

Lastly, don't be afraid to seek feedback from others. Beta readers, sensitivity readers, editors, writing coaches, your favorite FB writing group—whatever works for you. All of them can provide valuable insights into the cultural authenticity and inclusivity of your writing. 

Having said all of that, follow your own instinct. Too often, writers have told me they deleted words, phrases, or whole sentences because one person told them it was too alienating. Cruise through the international fiction section in a library or bookstore before taking such a one-sided stance.

 I have included some examples below.

  1. Kiddush:  Write a scene in your story where a family gathers around the table for a festive meal on Friday night. It's the perfect opportunity to mention the tradition of Kiddush. To make it accessible to a general audience, you can describe the scene without assuming prior knowledge. For instance, you might write, The family came together, raising their glasses filled with wine/grape juice, to bless the start of the special Shabbat meal. Each person took turns, expressing gratitude and wishing each other a Shabbat Shalom or Good Shabbos.
  2. Shabbat: When discussing the concept of Shabbat, you can use descriptive language to convey its significance while avoiding assumptions. Instead of assuming that everyone knows the ins and outs of Shabbat observance, focus on the universal elements of rest and rejuvenation. For example, you could write: On Friday nights, the family gathered around a beautifully set table to share a meal and reconnect with one another. I won't add the cliché part about the candles glowing in the background; you'll come up with something more original on your own, but you get the idea. Keep the words you want in for authenticity and describe the scene for accessibility.
  3. You can use the photo below as a prompt. Go on use the words: chuppah, chatan/chasson/kallah...
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Wednesday, 07 June 2023

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