Tova Shvartzman for LABA Journal
At this very moment I have a concrete experience of the Other. This current Other is the English language. It is not a friendly Other like a neighbor. It is an alien Other. I need to express myself in this foreign tongue to establish connections between creativity and work with you all here today.
In ancient Jewish texts, that Other, an alien, plays an important role for Jewish memory and history. Biblical stories always teach us about that Other.
Let us discuss the story of Shibboleth. According to different sources, the Hebrew word shibbólet (שִׁבֹּלֶת) literally means, depending on the context, either a stalk of grain or stream, torrent. It derives from a biblical story that tells us how its pronunciation was used to socially identify and politically single out members of a specific group, the Tribe of Ephraim, whose dialect lacked the / ʃ / sound, unlike the Israelites of Gilead.
Chapter 12 in the Book of Judges describes the aftermath of the defeat inflicted by the Israelites of Gilead upon the invading Tribe of Ephraim around 1000 BCE. As the beaten Ephraimites attempted to cross the Jordan River back to their territory, the victorious Gileadites, securing their river fords and aiming to kill the fleeing Ephraimites, subjected each suspected survivor to a simple test:
“And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.” (Book of Judges 12:5-6, King James Bible)
In numerous conflicts between groups with different languages or dialects, the conflicting sides used shibboleths to expose hidden members of the opposing group.
Here are some examples of shibboleths:
– In the slaughter of Haitians in the Dominican Republic in 1937, Haitians and Black Dominicans were distinguished by their pronunciation of the word ‘perejil’, which means parsley. It is almost impossible for a Haitian to disguise French or Haitian Creole.
– In the Second World War, during the raging battles in the Pacific, American soldiers used ‘lollapalluza’
– In Israel’s independence war in 1948, the Israelis used passwords with the letter P because Arabs can hardly pronounce this letter. They usually pronounce B instead.
Today, in English, shibboleth has a broader meaning. It refers to any word or phrase that can be used to distinguish members of a group from outsiders, even in cases where those outsiders are not hostile. The word is also used sometimes to refer to jargon, the proper use of which identifies a member of a particular group or subculture.
The Parsley Massacre I mentioned before took place at the behest of Dominican President Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. In October 1937 Trujillo ordered his troops to mass eradicate the population that was of Haitian origin. The name Parsley Massacre is attributed to the fact that in order to identify the Haitian civilians among the black and mulatto Dominican population of the area, Trujillo’s police forces forced the victims to pronounce the word parsley in Spanish – perejil. Haitian Creole’s spoken language does not allow for soft pronunciation of the letter R (in Haitian Creole, parsley translates as ‘feet’, and in French as ‘persil’). This way, the Dominican police had a simple method to identify Haitians who could not pronounce ‘perejil’ the way the Dominicans did. They were later executed in cold blood.
I do not think anyone would kill us (or me) for failing to properly pronounce words in the beautiful New York City English. However, shibboleth certainly calls and challenges us, as Jews, to cross and surpass borders, to become like the Other, to replace our vocal SIN or SHIN.
All that being said, there is the BUT which necessarily follows. So, what is so important about this concept of Shibboleth is actually a better reading (Jews always read) of the concept of Otherness.
Shibboleth teaches us there is something unchangeable in the Other and that although the Other wants to change it, this can hardly be achieved. There is a real limitation to my will to be an Other, to be other than what I am. This unchangeable quality which sometimes the Other calls upon me to change – perhaps we do not want to change it, maybe our Shibboleth or Sibboleth is what makes us what we are. And if we try to change it, we could die by this attempt at imitation.
I’m grateful to LABA – New York, to Ronit, to Ruby, for they made me revisit this universal and unique episode from our ancient history.
What we are doing in Buenos Aires, as well as what you do here in New York, is to address every unchanging trait and make it a form of creativity.
In a World where differences are erased, singular features are what makes each one of us a unique being.
Perhaps knowing which is my SIN (either the Hebrew letter or the English word ‘sin’) or what is my Sibolet allows me, as the French say, to do something with this difference, to have “savoir faire”, to know how to do, what to do, to have the know-how, in other words: to keep our identity.
(Transcript of a lecture delivered at LABA’s study session on May 24th, 2017)
Tova Shvartzman, content director at LABA-Buenos Aires, is a psychoanalyst and professor of Jewish history at HaMidrasha HaIvrit, with an MA in sociology from the University of Buenos Aires. She is an acclaimed poet. Among her books: De grietas y Entretantos, Make yourself a Father, El sueño de Rav Ashi and La Trampa del Edén.