Can Hebrew Be Gender-Neutral?

Jewish Word | Gender Pronouns
By | Oct 08, 2018
gender neutral hebrew

On the first day of the semester, a fly on the wall might hear a college professor ask students to introduce themselves by sharing their names, intended majors and their own preferred gender pronoun identifiers, such as “ze,” “hir,” “hirs,” “they,” “them” and “theirs.” The practice of promoting gender inclusivity is becoming more commonplace on the American college campus, and it’s all part of the evolution of the English language.

But for Hebrew speakers, gender inclusivity is much more complicated. That’s because gender in Hebrew—as in Spanish, Hindi, French and other languages—is intimately woven into word construction. “Hebrew goes a lot further,” says Erez Levon, a professor of sociolinguistics at Queen Mary University of London who focuses on questions of gender and sexuality. He explains that the language is particularly restrictive because gender is conveyed through masculine or feminine verb, adjective and adverb endings and almost every other part of speech.

Take the noun “friend” in Hebrew. It translates to chaver for a male, chavera for a female, and chaverim and chaverot for a group of male and female friends, respectively. Levon says Hebrew can be “a challenge” for those who don’t fit into traditional gender categories or identify as nonbinary—those who don’t consider themselves male or female or don’t want to refer to gender at all.

Some Israelis within the LGBTQ community have come up with their own strategies to address this problem. One example is the practice of fusing male and female suffixes to create a gender-inclusive plural suffix such as –imot or –otim, according to Sarah Bunin Benor, professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College and linguistics professor at the University of Southern California. For example, chaverim is replaced with chaverimot when addressing a group of friends of different genders, rejecting the masculine default.

A more-common method of promoting gender inclusivity is gender reversal, in which biological men—regardless of which gender they identify with—use female signifiers in conversation, and biological women use masculine signifiers. Some choose to switch back and forth in a single conversation or even a single sentence—a practice Levon says communicates that “they don’t want to play that gender game.”

This is what Nir Kedem chooses to do. A professor of culture studies at Sapir Academic College in Sderot and lecturer at Tel Aviv University, Kedem specializes in queer theory and feminism. He is a cisgender (someone who identifies with the gender they’re assigned at birth) gay man, but sometimes uses feminine language to refer to himself in the classroom and in writing to his students.

“It requires a certain effort, but this is my preferred strategy,” he says, explaining that he has had a hard time getting comfortable with fusing gender suffixes. In his writing, Kedem sometimes uses slashes or periods to refer to genders, such as chaverim/ot or chaverim.ot instead of just chaverim. Or he may change the order of the suffixes to place the feminine first, as in chaverot/im.

Outside Israel, a policy normalizing gender inclusivity in Hebrew is found in an unexpected place—Habonim Dror, a North American Jewish youth movement that comes out of progressive labor Zionism. There, leaders have adopted the gender-inclusive plural suffix, chaverimot, in their camps and youth groups and created a new gender-neutral singular suffix, –ol, which has its roots in the Hebrew word kolel, meaning “inclusive.” Now, a camper who identifies neither as a male camper (chanich) nor female camper (chanichah) is a chanichol. Benor says the gender-neutral suffix –ol is an entirely Habonim Dror invention not found in Israeli communities.

A similar phenomenon is taking place in some American congregations, where congregants are called to the Torah using gender-neutral language such as mibeyt/mimishpachat, meaning “from the house of” or “from the family of” instead of the traditional ben or bat (“son” or “daughter”). At Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in Manhattan, congregants who prefer not to signal their gender are called to the Torah with mibeyt. “The Jewish community is much broader than simply those who identify as one gender or another,” says Sharon Kleinbaum, CBST’s senior rabbi. “Language should express the reality of our lives, so we have expanded the language as we use it.”

Benor doesn’t believe these policies will gain much traction in Israel. “They work in America because most American Jews are not fluent in Hebrew, and because the Hebrew words in question are used in primarily English settings,” she says. Americans only need to modify words they use in synagogue or at camp, but Israelis would need to change whole conversations. “The entire grammatical system would have to be modified,” Benor adds.

The road to gender inclusivity in conversational Hebrew is long, says Kedem. He points to official forms in Israel that use male language to address all genders. Some include disclaimers at the top, saying that although the form uses masculine language, it addresses both males and females. But Kedem has yet to see a form with an option to mark “other” for gender in addition to male or female.

There are signs that the Hebrew language is evolving with respect to gender, though. “Some of the feminine suffixes are falling out of use entirely,” says Levon. Just as Americans may refer to a group of women as “you guys,” Israelis are doing the same. This still promotes the use of masculine signifiers for people of different genders, but it might be a step forward for gender inclusivity. Although the trend doesn’t seem like a deliberate rejection of gender norms, says Levon, “it does seem that gender, in this sense, is becoming a little less important.”—Lara Moehlman

2 thoughts on “Can Hebrew Be Gender-Neutral?

  1. G Ellison says:

    What’s a gabbai/gabba’it (vechoolei) to do? Ta’amod, ya’amod, ya’amdo? I celebrate the search for proper nomenclature. This will not be easy.
    לא עליכם המלאכה לגבמור ולא
    . Obviously we have work to do.
    Gary Ellison

  2. Davida Brown says:

    I wonder what GOD thinks about all this gender confusion? According to the Bible: “…in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:27b) It might be a fun game for some, but it isn’t necessary. No, I don’t care to be called one of the “guys.” There are other words, like the folksy “folks.” Being on the outside of this new kind of vocabulary, I see enormous
    complications…hair-splitting, time-consuming work for everyone. Do we need this? We have the freedom, at least in most Democratic countries, but don’t push too hard because things might just go the other way. This is not progress. It’s nonsense. Let’s get serious about what matters!
    (for the record, I love Hebrews’ gender based language.)

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