Friday, September 23, 2016

Interview with Dr. Ilana Sasson on Judeo-Arabic

PHILOLOGY: Recovering Judeo-Arabic. Local scholar translates Karaite Bible commentary of Yefet ben Eli (LARRY YUDELSON, Times of Israel).
When Dr. Ilana Sasson of Teaneck was growing up in Israel, the child of Iraqi immigrants, she was embarrassed by the Arabic her parents would speak at home.

“I wanted people to speak Hebrew,” she said. “Kids who had Yiddish in their house felt the same. It was more so for those of us coming from the Islamic world, since Arabic was identified as the language of the enemy.”

Her childhood self would be quite surprised, therefore, that Dr. Sasson wrote a dissertation on a Judeo-Arabic translation and commentary on the biblical book of Proverbs. A revised version of the dissertation was published this summer by Brill Publishers as “The Arabic Translation and Commentary of Yefet ben Eli on the Book of Proverbs.”

I noted the book when it came out this summer.
So what is Judeo-Arabic?

Briefly, it’s the distinctive versions of Arabic used by Jews.

But it’s not so simple.

“There is a big debate now,” Dr. Sasson said. “There’s a scholar at New York University, Dr. Ella Habiba Shohat, who claims that we shouldn’t say Judeo-Arabic, we should just say Arabic.”

That’s because “Arabic has so many dialectics and so many levels. Every ethnic group has its own. Yemenites cannot understand Moroccans, their dialects are so far apart from each other.”

Jews, Dr. Shohat argues, may have spoken a different dialect than their Muslim neighbors. But still, it was closer to their neighbors’ than that of distant Jews.

Yet in the traditional understanding of Judeo-Arabic as a unique thing, there are two possible definitions, Dr. Sasson said. “One says that anything written or said by a Jew in Arabic is by definition Judeo-Arabic. The other says anything in Arabic written in Hebrew characters is Judeo-Arabic.” (As it happened, some of the manuscripts she worked from were written in Arabic characters.)
I generally think of Judeo-Arabic as Arabic written in Hebrew letters, but that's because that type of Judeo-Arabic is relevant to my own research. As the article says, the matter is more complicated. Some past PaleoJudaica posts involving Judeo-Arabic are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

As an aside, as I have noted before, there sure is a lot of good philology going on in Teaneck, New Jersey. See here and here and links.