In an increasingly nonbinary world, is gendered Hebrew willing to adapt?
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'I felt very diminished until we developed this language'

In an increasingly nonbinary world, is gendered Hebrew willing to adapt?

While applauding the social impetus, Israelis are divided in opinions on an American-based initiative and question its grammatical integrity

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Lior Gross developed a nonbinary Hebrew system together with their professor Eyal Rivlin. (courtesy)
Lior Gross developed a nonbinary Hebrew system together with their professor Eyal Rivlin. (courtesy)

Not long ago in Israel, Rabbi Arie Hasit led memorial prayers and study at a service for a transgender Jew. Among those gathered were many members of the LGBTQ community, some of whom identified as gender nonbinary — neither male nor female. While the American-born Conservative rabbi  is generally not at a loss for words in his fluent Hebrew, this time he was.

“It would have been helpful to have had nonbinary language, to make sure I was inclusive of everybody there,” said Hasit, who resorted to switching off between the masculine and feminine.

This grammatical lacuna in Hebrew, a strictly gender binary language, has come up from time to time for Hasit, who was ordained by the Masorti (Conservative) movement and is the rabbi of an egalitarian congregation in the central Israeli town of Mazkeret Batya. A longtime ally of the LGBTQ community, Hasit said he would embrace creative changes to make Hebrew more welcoming to all.

Rabbi Arie Hasit officiates at a bat mitzvah (Louis Weijl)

These changes could come from 21-year-old American college student Lior Gross, for whom Hebrew poses a regular, personal challenge. Gross, who identifies as gender nonbinary, attends synagogue regularly, studies traditional texts, and plans on applying to rabbinical school. Yet, Gross (who uses the pronouns they/them/their in English) often feels invisible in the Jewish community, especially when Hebrew is used. The language in unable to encompass individuals like Gross, because its binary nature dictates that every noun, pronoun, adjective and verb take a masculine or feminine form.

It isn’t particularly problematic to refer to objects in binary fashion —shulchan (table) is masculine and shemesh (sun) is feminine. In addition, a trans person who identifies as either male or female can use the regular gendered forms. But how can one respectfully speak to or about a nonbinary gender person in Hebrew? There is no Hebrew form to call a nonbinary person up for an aliyah to the Torah, to give a blessing, or even for use in casual conversation.

Eyal Rivlin (courtesy)

Gross tackled the challenge in cooperation with University of Colorado Boulder Hebrew instructor Eyal Rivlin. Together they investigated nonbinary and queer references in traditional Jewish texts, as well as efforts to make nonbinary Jews feel comfortable in American Jewish communal settings, such as summer camp. They also took a cue from the introduction of gender neutral terms in Spanish.

Over the course of the last year, the duo developed a nonbinary Hebrew system, which has been given a test-drive in some of Rivlin’s classes. Then they uploaded it to the web in early November in the hopes of disseminating it and drawing feedback. It’s totally open source and available for use by anyone interested.

“This is really important to me personally. I felt very left out, unsupported and diminished until we developed this language that can hold me,” Gross told The Times of Israel.

As a Hebrew instructor, Rivlin, 44, said he believed that at this point the language is ready to expand beyond the binary — and also to break away from the masculine as the default.

“Hebrew has evolved and adapted over the centuries. We can make these additions in a way that is both authentic to Hebrew and inclusive and honoring of all people,” Rivlin said.

A chart of verb, noun and pronoun forms from Gross and Rivlin’s nonbinary Hebrew project. (courtesy)

The project has reportedly been well received in some American Jewish circles, including by the leadership and community members of Svara, a Chicago yeshiva that teaches Torah “through the lens of queer experiences.”

But the essential question is what Israelis — for whom Hebrew is their mother tongue and language of daily use — think of this new American initiative.

The Academy of the Hebrew Language:
‘We don’t just add things out of the blue’

For the world’s premiere institution for the Hebrew language it’s a nonstarter. The Academy of the Hebrew Language, whose decisions on new words, grammar, orthography, transliteration and punctuation for written Hebrew are binding on all governmental agencies in Israel, is uninterested in entertaining a nonbinary option to the language.

Gabriel Birnbaum, senior researcher at Historical Dictionary Project at Israel’s Academy of the Hebrew Language in Jerusalem, holds old notes written in Hebrew, August 23, 2017. (AFP/MENAHEM KAHANA)

“It’s not worth considering,” said Dr. Gabriel Birnbaum, senior researcher at the Academy.

“If anyone wants to invent, they can. If we were asked to invent a new language, we could do what we want. It’s a democracy,” he said.

Birnbaum, however, emphasized that one of the Academy’s goals is to conserve the historical continuity of Hebrew, and that binary gender is part of the Hebrew heritage.

“We don’t just add things out of the blue. When a new word is needed, there are rules to follow. We don’t just invent something to make someone happy,” he said.

The Academy, however states on its website that despite what some may think, it does not police spontaneous speech. The institution considers its decisions binding only for written texts and formal speeches. So, one could make a case for introducing nongendered speech from the bottom up, in a grassroots manner.

Language from the bottom up:
‘I could see trying this new system out in a deliberate way’

Tal Janner-Klausner teaches Hebrew. (Daniel A. Roth)

According to Israeli Hebrew teacher Tal Janner-Klausner, who identifies as nonbinary, gender queer and trans, this is already happening within the LGBTQ and feminist communities in Israel — though more frequently in informal forms of writing such as text messages than in speech.

Janner-Klausner, 27, coordinates the Jerusalem branch of This Is Not An Ulpan, a nonconventional Hebrew learning program that couples language instruction with social activism and community engagement activities. Janner-Klausner is excited about Gross and Rivlin’s proposed system and has reached out to the Americans to learn more about it.

“I could see trying this new system out in a deliberate way, perhaps during an intensive weekend course combining native speakers and advanced students,” said Janner-Klausner, who also teaches Hebrew to Palestinian adult learners at a college in east Jerusalem.

Hillai Peli (courtesy)

By contrast, Hillai Peli, a 24-year-old Hebrew University sociology and anthropology student who identifies as nonbinary, a-gender and transgender, is somewhat less enthused by the Americans’ initiative. While she agrees that there should eventually be a nonbinary form of Hebrew, she believes that such a system should be developed primarily in Israel. She also doesn’t think it would be adopted in a widespread manner in the near future.

Peli herself tried to subvert Hebrew’s gendered language in ways that others in the LGBTQ community were, but it didn’t work for her. For instance, she tried mixing genders within a single sentence when talking about herself.

“I did this for a while, but I stopped because people had trouble understanding what I was saying. I ended up moving toward female language when I started to take female hormones,” Peli said.

Why make Hebrew even harder?:
‘A red flag went up,’ says ulpan teacher

Tel Aviv Hebrew teacher Mor Buchnik is also not ready to try out Gross and Rivlin’s system. Buchnik, who was previously unfamiliar with the concept of nonbinary Hebrew, said she agreed with it from a social perspective but thought it was flawed from a technical standpoint.

“Right away, when I saw that this system uses the “eh” sound at the end of words [such as talmideh as the nonbinary form of talmid or talmidah — Hebrew for student], a red flag went up,” Buchnik said.

Mor Buchnik teaches a Hebrew ulpan class. (courtesy)

“This would totally confuse the immigrant students in my ulpan classes, who learn that in Hebrew the “eh” sound at the end of a word is a masculine indicator in some cases. For instance, moreh is a male teacher,” she said.

While Buchnik, 37, agreed that the demand for nonbinary Hebrew stems from the grassroots level, she thought that it would ultimately have to be worked out in a top-down approach by a team of experts. Citing existing efforts by feminists to create ways of speaking in a manner that does not default to the masculine, as well as liberal Judaism’s adoption of female liturgical language, Buchnik suggested including gender experts and leaders from the liberal streams of Judaism on such a committee. Experts in the linguistics of Semitic languages would obviously also be key to the effort.

Looking for a leap of faith

Janner-Klausner is less cautious and views Gross and Rivlin’s nonbinary Hebrew project as the speeding up a process that will happen anyway as a reflection of societal changes.

“Societies that have spoken Hebrew assumed there were two genders and favored men. It was about power dynamics and social assumptions,” Janner-Klausner said.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, credited with helping modernize the Hebrew language, at his desk in Jerusalem in 1912. (Shlomo Narinsky, first published 1918 in Jerusalem, via Wikimedia Commons)

Janner-Klausner isn’t worried about sounding odd when speaking nonbinary Hebrew. “It will sound jarring at first, just as modern Hebrew did at first. But we should take a leap of faith and make this a reality,” they said.

Gross will jump right in upon arriving soon in Israel. Following graduation from the University of Colorado Boulder this month with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ecology, Gross will spend a semester at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies as a biodiversity and food web intern, studying the biological soil crusts of the wadis in a hyper-arid part of the Negev and working with Jordanian scientists to document the ecosystem services of this environment.

“I will introduce [our nonbinary Hebrew system] as a method with which I would like to be spoken about, and I would love it if people used it, but I cannot control how other people will talk to or about me,” Gross said.

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