The Man Who Taught Arabic in Yiddish



Have you been wanting to learn Palestinian Arabic? Bistu a yidish redner? (Are you a Yiddish speaker?) Then, Getzl Zelikovitz was your man.

Born in Lithuania in 1863, Zelikovitz was somewhat of a linguistic prodigy who was said to have memorized 500 words of Talmud by the time he was 10 years old. He went on to study Oriental languages at the Sorbonne, and became an interpreter for Lord Kitchener who won a critical battle that secured British dominion over the Sudan. (According to one source, Zelikovitz was later expelled from Sudan when his sympathies did not lie with the British.)

He moved to New York in 1887, where he worked as a Yiddish writer and journalist. And that’s where he was when he published a Yiddish-Arabic phrasebook.

Dr. Rachel Simon, Senior Librarian at Princeton University, who authored an article about the book, writes that the goal of the book “is to teach colloquial Palestinian Arabic—namely, not literary Arabic—to Jewish Legionaries, settlers [kolonisten], merchants, tourists, learned people [maskilim], laborers in Palestine, and maybe even Hebrew teachers abroad.”

Some groups are trying to encourage today’s Israeli Hebrew speakers to do the same.

Recommended from JTA