How you pronounce Hebrew often tells the listener where you came from, or how old you are. The major pronunciation differences are between Ashkenazi and Sephardi, although in Israel there is also a Yemenite group.
Here in America, the differences usually derive from the age of the speaker, with older people using the Ashkenazi pronunciation and younger people the Sephardi forms. Most Ashkenazi speakers came from Eastern Europe, and the Sephardim from around the Mediterranean across to Israel and North Africa.
What’s the difference? In terms of the Hebrew alphabet, the tav is pronounced as an s and the kamatz as an o among the Ashkenazi, as opposed to a t and a sound among the Sephardim. There are other variants, too, such as AdonOI versus AdonAI, ShabbOS versus ShabbAT.
In common speech, there are many words, some Yiddish or Polish, others in Hebrew, where there is a difference too. In pursuit of understanding how this happens, I conducted a very random poll of people of varying ages.
Of the three words I queried people about – challah, pushke and schmatah – only challah is Hebrew, and it is spelled with the ah ending. In terms of its pronunciation, those who grew up in Massachusetts and Rhode Island use the ee ending, if they use the words at all. One person, who grew up in New York City, said that at home they said challee, but in public, challah. On the internet, the standard pronunciation for the bread is challah.
Schmatah comes from Yiddish by way of Polish: szmata, where it means “rag,” as in, “Get a schmatah and clean up that mess!” Note that only one person uses the ee ending.
Pushkah, a charity box, also is not Hebrew, but seems to be derived from a Slavic (Polish or Czech) word for box, puszka.
Ten of the total 18 respondents follow a pattern, using either the “ee” or the “ah” for all three words. The outlier word is often pushkah, which can also be pronounced pishkee (yes, that is not very polite!).
Since all these words end in ah, where did the ee ending come from? One theory is that since Yiddish was written without vowels, people put in the vowels they liked or mostly heard in the area where they lived in America; this would fit in with the Massachusetts/Rhode Island connection. Another theory is that the ee ending is a diminutive or a more child-like ending, suitable for using in the family or with children, as exemplified by the native New Yorker.
Try your own survey with friends and family, and see what results you come up with!
RUTH BREINDEL is a past president of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association.