Episode 92: Beyond the Binary: Making Hebrew More Gender-Inclusive

Jen: Hi, it’s Jen Richler, here with another episode of Can We Talk? First, a word from our sponsor, Joy Stember Metal Arts Studio. One hundred percent woman-owned and staffed! Award-winning metal artist Joy Stember specializes in handmade pewter Judaica for a new generation—mezuzot, kiddush cups, candle holders, and more. Her work is inspired by the clean lines and repeating patterns in urban landscapes and architecture. Celebrate life’s important moments with an exquisite treasure. See the entire collection at J-O-Y-S-T-E-M-B-E-R.com and use the code JWA15 for a 15% discount.

Now, onto the show.

[Theme music plays]

Jen: Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.

Think fast: What gender are your headphones? How about the car you’re driving? These might sound like absurd questions, but in Hebrew, they have clear answers (headphones, called ozniot, are feminine, and car, auto, is masculine, in case you’re wondering.)

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Hebrew is a very gendered language; every noun in Hebrew is either feminine or masculine. That’s true of a lot of languages, like Spanish and French, but Hebrew goes a step further, also making all pronouns masculine or feminine, including “I” and “you.” This makes it nearly impossible to utter a sentence in Hebrew without using gender. So as a Hebrew speaker, how do you refer to a mixed gender group?

For a long time, the answer was to default to the masculine form. So, if you wanted to say “welcome” to a mixed gender group, you’d say “bruchim ha’baim,” the same way you’d welcome a group made up exclusively of men.

This solution obviously erases women, which doesn’t sit right with some people.

Dafna: As a woman I want to be, uh, equally represented, and if I want to be equally represented, I have to be equally represented in the language. It's that simple. You have to be represented in the language in order to be represented in your mind.

Jen: But the gender binary in Hebrew presents another problem. Where do non-binary people fit in?

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In this episode, we talk to three people working to solve Hebrew’s gender problem.

Michal: Hi, my name is Michal Shomer, I am 32 years old, and I live in Tel Aviv, in Israel.

Dafna: I am Dafna Eisenreich, I’m 38 and I live in Rehovot.

Tal: I'm Tal Jenner-Klausner, I live in Jerusalem, and I'm 31.

Jen: Michal, Dafna and Tal are part of a growing group of activists who are challenging the status quo and taking Hebrew beyond the gender binary. In this episode, I talk to them about the different ways they create and promote a Hebrew language that includes women and people of all genders.

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Jen: I'd like to start by having you each tell the story of how you became interested in the topic of gender inclusivity in Hebrew. Tal, maybe we can start with you.

Tal: Uh, sure…So I am both Israeli and British. I was born in Israel, in Jerusalem, and I moved to England as a child. And so I came out as non-binary, understood that I was non-binary, when I was living in England, when I was eighteen or nineteen. And so I went through that process mostly in English, and just put to the back of my mind dealing with how to talk in Hebrew.

And when I moved back here seven years ago when I was 24, I needed to really decide how I was gonna speak, and, sort of, had to go through some of the process of understanding what my gender means in Hebrew again.

And I'm also a Hebrew educator for an organization called This Is Not An Ulpan, so I also deal with Hebrew professionally. And so I needed to find a way to express myself in Hebrew and also to explain to students who also wanted to find ways to use Hebrew in a way that's inclusive.

Jen: Dafna, can you talk a little bit about how you became interested in the topic of gender inclusivity in Hebrew?

Dafna: Yeah. It happened by chance. I was working in a rape crisis center in Tel Aviv and I was studying for my major in Gender Studies. In Israel, like in many other places, the rape crisis centers are a part of the feminist movement. So I was very sensitive to the whole idea of language and how language constructs reality.

And also I started driving a car instead of riding my bike. And, uh, because of that move, that change, I started to hear more and more radio, which I didn't before on the bike. And I was getting annoyed by driving because the radio spoke in the masculine form. Like, “listeners” and “buy now, shop now,” whatever. And one time when I yelled back at the radio, I just—I thought, what can I do to change this?

And I had an idea to use International Women's Day to invite media to broadcast on that day in the feminine form in Hebrew. So this is how I started it all. I invented this initiative called Dabru Eleynu.

Jen: Dabru Eleynu, meaning “Talk to Us,” started as a Facebook page in 2016 and grew into a bigger project that includes lesson plans, lectures, and workshops on using gender-inclusive language.

Dafna: And since then, I'm basically into language and gender, and how language excludes or includes women and other genders.

Jen: And how about you, Michal? How did you get into this work?

Michal: So I see myself as a feminist from a young age… Sometimes it's intuitively, sometimes it's in a more educated way. But specifically, I'm the creator and designer of Multi-Gender Hebrew. So this is, like, where I started to publicly work on that.

So Multi-Gender Hebrew has two main goals. One is to make women present in the Hebrew language. And another goal is to form a linguistic space for non-binary identities. So I basically designed twelve new characters, and they are added to the Hebrew alphabet, and you can use them to read and write in a multi-gender way.

Jen: Is this an example from Multi-Gender Hebrew? The words that are above your head on Zoom, they can be read two ways. “Bruchim ha’baim,” “ברוכים הבאים,'' which is the masculine plural form, and it means welcome. But you've created characters so that it can also be read as “bruchot ha’baot,” “ברוכות הבאות,'' which is the feminine plural form.

Michal: Yeah. I try to combine the feminine and masculine forms together in one letter. And you can—as you said—you can read it as either masculine or feminine, but you can also read it as a multi-gender form altogether. It's like in English, when you see the word “you” or “they,” you don't have to decide which gender it is.

Jen: Dafna, can you talk a bit about the work that you do with Dabru Eleynu and other work you do?

Dafna: Yeah. So Dabru Eleynu basically, like, an advocacy initiative that promotes gender inclusion in Hebrew. What I mostly do is try to convince people that language inclusiveness is something that we should worry about or that we should care about. It can actually change the way that we perceive reality and [the way] that we react and respond.

So this is one…I don't know…path that I'm going through. And the other one is that I teach people how to write in a more inclusive way in Hebrew, which is also correct by the rules of the Hebrew Academy Academy.

Jen: The Academy of the Hebrew Language succeeded the Hebrew Language Committee, set up by Eliezer Ben Yehuda in 1890. Ben Yehuda led a movement of Jews who wanted to bolster a national Jewish identity and decided one way to do that was to revive Hebrew as a spoken language for daily life, not just a holy language for prayer and religious study. It was a wild and improbable idea—no language had ever been successfully revived before. But it worked. Today, Hebrew is spoken by over eight million people in Israel.

As part of the effort to create a modern, living language, the committee coined thousands of new words, many of which are still used today. The Academy still creates new words—for example, when new technologies come on the scene. It also sets standards for grammar, spelling, and usage.

You might expect an organization like this to be stuffy, but the Academy is actually very popular among Israelis. Its Instagram feed has hundreds of thousands of followers and features colorfully illustrated, attention-grabbing posts that often reference Israeli popular culture.

The Academy of the Hebrew Language is generally considered the authority on how to speak and write Hebrew correctly. But they haven’t set clear standards for speaking and writing in a gender-inclusive way. That’s where people like Dafna come in.

Dafna: It’s very difficult to write neutral sentences in Hebrew, but it is possible. We do have some words and conjugations that we can use that allow to read and write in Hebrew in a neutral way or semi-neutral way. And I teach people how to use those ways.  

Jen: Can you give maybe a couple of examples?

Dafna: Yeah, of course! So the infinitive in Hebrew is neutral, so I can say lichtov [to write] instead of ktov, [write] which is the masculine way.

Jen: In other words, rather than giving someone a command, like “Write this down,” which in Hebrew is always gendered, you could say something gender neutral like, “It’s necessary to write this down”—it doesn’t sound quite as clunky in Hebrew.

Jen: How about you, Tal? Can you talk about your work?

Tal: Yeah. So I work in education, in language education. So I produce materials explaining about gender-inclusive Hebrew and to make it accessible for people who are learning Hebrew and to understand the different options. Also for teachers, how to support gender diversity in Hebrew classrooms.

I also work with the Non-Binary Hebrew Project, which is based in North America, which is a project developing gender-neutral spoken Hebrew that can be both spoken and written, adding an extra grammatical form.

Jen: For example, in conventional Hebrew, there are two words for “person”: ish for a male, and ishah for a female. In non-binary Hebrew, there’s just one word: isheh, which can refer to a person of any gender. 

Non-binary Hebrew isn’t widespread yet. It’s mostly used in North America in Jewish contexts—like being called up to the Torah for an aliyah, or in a marriage certificate.

Jen: I'd love for each of you to say a little bit about the kinds of reactions you've gotten—both positive and negative—to the work that you're doing, and also just more generally, to the project of making Hebrew more gender-inclusive.

Michal: Some people are very, very excited, and looking forward to use it, to find more opportunities to use Multi-Gender Hebrew, or to use the language in an inclusive way in general, not only with Multi-Gender Hebrew. And there are some more conservative people or people that are more afraid of change that are against it, or that are worried about it.

But there are two interesting things. So, one for me is that there is a lot of reaction. There's a lot of response, and I feel like everyone has something to say about it. So for me, it's a success, because it means that I was able to get to a point that really matters to people, to get to something that people care about.

And the other thing is that these arguments against Multi-Gender Hebrew, or against any other method to use the language in an inclusive way, are very similar to arguments in other languages.

Jen: Can you say a little bit of, like, what some of those common objections are?

Dafna: We can see a few common categories of objection. The first is canceling the argument: it's not important, there are more urgent issues to worry about, like sexual violence, for instance. So it was very helpful for me to say, I did try to fight sexual violence, I know all about it, and still I'm worrying about the language! So, the first one is canceling.

Another one is, like, you are raping our language…to use the sexual violence terms in order to object to gender inclusiveness. It's very common as well, also around the world.

Another one is— especially in Hebrew—it's difficult. I mean, it's taking too long to write inclusively and, you know, we have to work, we have to communicate. We can’t do it when it's taking so long. So this is another one.

The other one is, like, the holy language.  And apparently every language is holy [laughter in background] when it comes to inclusiveness, because in French and in Spanish, in every other language that we see a trend towards gender inclusive language, we see the same objections. That it ruins the language, it's disrespectful to our tradition—even though in Hebrew, it's so irrelevant, because Hebrew has borrowed from so many languages during its existence for thousands of years.

Michal: And also, there are a lot of changes within the Hebrew language throughout time.

Jen: It’s true that Hebrew has borrowed from a lot of other languages, including English. Even the word “Academia” in the Language Academy’s name comes from an English word. And modern Hebrew has changed a lot. Of the many words the Academy has coined over the past century, some have stuck, and some haven’t. For example, when text messaging became popular, the Academy created the word misron, which comes from meser, the Hebrew word for message. But the official word never really caught on. Most people just say “SMS,” an English acronym.

It’s not just vocabulary that’s changed—over time, there have also been changes in accepted pronunciation and grammar. Like any other living language, Hebrew evolves as people use it in everyday life. People who object to changes in modern Hebrew might not realize how much it’s already changed in its relatively short history.

Tal: I think that, um, a lot of the objections often mix, like, ideological and a kind of instinctive emotional anxiety about change in the language or discomfort with change in the language. A lot of people, even if they support the idea of gender equal and gender inclusive Hebrew, if they are Hebrew speakers, they find it difficult or even distressing at the beginning. With any of these changes, if it's using both forms in speech, if it's the multi-gender letters, if it's how I speak in mixed grammar.

Jen: Mixed grammar means sometimes using the masculine and sometimes the feminine to refer to yourself or others in spoken or written Hebrew. These days, it’s what many non-binary Hebrew speakers prefer. But it can feel awkward or even unpleasant at first.

Tal: Like nails on a blackboard. Many things that are new and that are in something as intimate as the language you speak can feel threatening, but when you get used to them and you hear them in different contexts, it releases that discomfort over time.

And I've seen that process so many times and also experienced it in myself. Um, when I started using lashon meurevet, mixed address, it felt very uncomfortable. I didn't like it. It just felt less bad than using one or the other. And over time it became comfortable. Same thing happens in English with “the”  used for the singular.

Jen: You also mentioned this objection of, like, you're focusing on the wrong thing. And I'm curious how you respond to an objection like that.

Dafna: For me, in my opinion, it's different, um, forms of the same problem. To be excluded from the language is the same as being excluded from the parliament or the playlist or professional, you know, conventions. It’s just being excluded.

We do have studies that show that language and reality or language and perception are very much connected and that, uh, language can affect the way we perceive things or, even represent, like, mental representation of professions.

The masculine generic form affects women’s, uh, perceived ability. And we see that it affects the way they perform at tests like in math or like studies, like SATs.So, women who answer a form in the masculine form will get lower grades. It's that affecting. And, from my experience, it's very surprising for people to see it, to understand that language has so much power over their reality. Because we take language for granted. We experience language as nature; it's something as natural as the air we breathe. And, uh, when we start destructuring it, it threatens the very basis of our existence.

Jen: I'm curious how much you think the negative feelings about the inclusivity, gender inclusivity, in Hebrew, how much they are related to a kind of sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, in Israeli society.

Michal: It is related, very much. I mean, uh, Israel is a pretty conservative society, I would say. So, I'm sure these things go together.  

Dafna: I think that, like many other aspects of feminism, people support [it] as long as it doesn't bother them. Like I can be for equal rights for women as long as they don't take my position as the manager of this and this, or as long as they don't, uh, make me have to make dinner for myself. OK? So, in that way, I think that both people who are considered conservative and people who are considered progressive, both can oppose gender inclusive language because it threatens not just their ideology, but their existence.

Tal: I think almost every single, if not every, gendered language that there is, um, privileges, the masculine form. So it's clearly not a coincidence. It reflects the dominant social assumptions about who matters and what the norm is.

And it's a key feminist idea that the way that sexist society works is that the masculine is the universal and the feminine is something, um, special or unusual or, like, different.

And in terms of, um, objections, like, from from my field, from linguistics and language education, a lot of people have assumption that there's a correct way to speak, um, and that the Academy for the Hebrew Language decides what is the correct way to speak and write, and that's how we should use Hebrew and teach Hebrew and learn Hebrew.

And this is based on, um, what's called a prescriptive view of grammar, that there is an authority for how the language works and we should speak according to this normative way. But actually, what's generally accepted in the field of linguistics today is descriptive grammar. That language change is natural and good and happens in many ways all the time. And we can describe the way that that happens. And then linguistic activism, like what we are doing, is saying language reflects social norms, and we want to help that happen better and faster.

Jen: I don't want to only focus on the objections and the negative reactions, because I know that you've also gotten a lot of positive response. So can you each say a bit about the reactions when you hear positive responses from people, what are they telling you about why this, uh, why these efforts mean something to them? Why this is important for them? Dafna, maybe we’ll start with you.

Dafna:   Okay, Dabru Eleynu is on social media, so I see how they support the growth during the years. We have now more than 10,000 followers. But I want to go back to the first year when I just started Dabru Eleynu. I also published, um, a lesson about gender and language. And one teacher, male teacher, that conducted this lesson, wrote me back and said, “The female students in my classroom, uh, grew, uh, a few centimeters higher today because of the class.” And he said it was amazing to see what he did for them.

This is how people react. They grow, they feel seen, they feel acknowledged, they feel they're recognized. And this is a very, very, um, human need to be seen.

I see growing, increasingly good reactions to this and also increasing demand for gender inclusive language. Okay. So, uh, it all started with me not hearing the feminine form in the radio, so now when I drive, I can hear like for example “Kolot Hachayalim v’Hachayalot“, which is the sound of the female and male soldiers. It's a radio show on Galgalatz, which is one of the most listened stations, radio stations, in Israel. And I'm like woohoo, okay. Yeah, this is so exciting. Yay, you're talking to me. This is exactly what I wanted.

Michal: The reaction that I get, uh, that I get personally, like, on private DMs, you know, or on our Multi-Gender Hebrew Facebook page and Instagram, it's like, I think 99 or 98% positive. For example, one response of someone saying, a non-binary person saying, that the Hebrew, uh, was literally hurting them, you know, in some aspects. So this is something that enables them, you know, to feel at home in Hebrew or to feel better with their language, with their own language. So this is really amazing.

Tal: I think it's worth saying that there's been a huge change in the last seven years. It's really in the mainstream now to use gender equal Hebrew. It doesn't mean that everyone does it in every place all the time, but it's not a marginal thing to do anymore, and ten years ago it was. It's still controversial, there's still, uh, pushback, but it's not a marginal thing anymore, and I think that's a huge achievement.  

Jen: Do you think that there's, like, a momentum where things are going to keep evolving in the direction of more inclusive, and, if so, what gives you that hope that things are heading in the right direction?

Tal: In general, I am optimistic about gender equal and gender inclusive language in Hebrew based on the positive change, the massive change of the last few years. And I think that the, um, appreciation and use of gender equal Hebrew opens up more possibilities for non-binary expression in Hebrew in Israel. However, I can't ignore what's happening in society and politics. It makes it harder to imagine that continuing. It makes it more likely that there will be more pushback, uh, in different ways. And I don't think we can take it for granted that that direction will continue.

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Jen: You can learn more about the multi-gender Hebrew project at multigenderhebrew.com; the Non-Binary Hebrew project at nonbinaryhebrew.com; and Dabru Eleynu at D-A-B-R-U-E-L-E-Y-N-U.org

If you want to learn more about gender inclusivity and Hebrew, check out our episode called Regendering the Torah, about a project that switched the genders of every character in the Bible.

Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team also includes Nahanni Rous and Judith Rosenbaum. Our theme music is by Girls In Trouble.

You can listen to Can We Talk? at jwa.org/canwetalk, or wherever you get your podcasts. Please help us spread the word by sharing this and your other favorite episodes with your friends, and share your feedback about Can We Talk? with us at jwa.org/podcastsurvey.

I’m Jen Richler. Until next time!

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 92: Beyond the Binary: Making Hebrew More Gender-Inclusive." (Viewed on April 24, 2024) <http://jwa.org/episode-92-beyond-binary-making-hebrew-more-gender-inclusive>.