The walls move outwards

CU Boulder language project aims to give nonbinary Hebrew speakers the words they need

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Eyal Rivlin with student Lior Gross at Gross’ graduation in December 2018. Gross, who helped found the Nonbinary Hebrew Project with Rivlin, graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ecology.
Courtesy of Eyal Rivlin

When Lior Gross emailed Eyal Rivlin to ask about joining one of Rivlin’s Hebrew classes at the University of Colorado Boulder last spring, Rivlin noticed Gross had included nonbinary preferred pronouns in their email signature: they, them, theirs.

It was a simple observation that could change the way 9 million Hebrew speakers around the world communicate. That email was the launching point for the Nonbinary Hebrew Project, an open-source project founded by Rivlin and Gross that creates a framework for a third gender construction in Hebrew.

Hebrew — like French, Spanish and one-quarter of the world’s spoken languages — uses grammatical gender, categorizing nouns as male or female, but also gendering adjectives and verbs according to the speaker’s gender. For people who identify as genderqueer, nonbinary or gender questioning, gendered language can greatly limit the way they express gender identity, which is to say nothing of the psychological effects such limitations impose.

Gross says nonbinary Hebrew speakers sometimes alternate between gender constructions from sentence to sentence, or switch their constructions based on who they are speaking to. Others have created their own words and phrases with no rules to apply to the language overall.

So Rivlin, an Israeli whose first language is Hebrew, asked Gross how they wanted to go about communicating in this “very binary” language.

“Part of my teaching philosophy is to make sure that every student feels safe and welcome and able to be fully themselves in my class,” Rivlin says. We’re sitting on the floor of his office in the University Club building, and Gross, back in Baltimore with their family after simultaneously earning their bachelor’s and master’s in ecology this December, completes our circle as a smiling, bespectacled face on Rivlin’s MacBook screen.

“It’s a small class and highly interactive because it’s a language class,” Rivlin explains. “I actually get a diverse student body, whether it’s students who are not Jewish, students who are Muslim, Christian, auditors, people who are older, trans students. And so it’s important for me to create an environment where everybody wants to participate, everyone wants to come to class. So when I noticed Lior’s signature, I had a moment. I’d had trans students before that either identified as male or female, but how [can Hebrew work for] nonbinary [students]? It inspired me to actually be proactive before the semester began and really think about that.”

Gross and Rivlin met up to discuss possibilities. Initial research showed incomplete workarounds, but there wasn’t a solid framework set up to handle nonbinary grammar and systematics in Hebrew. So Rivlin called family and friends back in Israel to ask if they had any experience with using nonbinary grammar — no luck there either.

“My approach, with Lior’s inspiration and the need that arose in the classroom, was to say, ‘Well, what can we do? What actually is possible?’” Rivlin says. “Lior found some precedents in Spanish and so kind of using that information I wanted to create something that would feel organic and fluid for native Hebrew speakers so it doesn’t sound jarring, so it makes sense; something that if you could explain it in a minute or less, anyone would be able to apply that if they know the language.”

After some trial and error, using the classroom as a sort of laboratory, Rivlin and Gross created a third gender category by adding the “-eh” suffix to most words.

“What I like about the suffix that we came up with is that the sound of it … is associated with masculine endings, but the letter that we added to go with it is the letter H, which is associated with feminine endings,” Rivlin explains. “So in a way, when you look at it, it looks feminine but it sounds masculine. It holds both. It’s not a foreign sound and it doesn’t clash with other existing Hebrew rules. We looked at other possibilities and that one, when we applied it and experimented in the classroom and with each other, felt organic, it sounds good.”

The new construction also has the added benefit of allowing Hebrew speakers to address a mixed audience in a nonbinary way, where previously the masculine plural would be the default.

Gross sees the Nonbinary Hebrew Project as part of a global language revolution.

“We started doing the project and I started learning more and it turned out there are a lot of things people were doing in other languages at the same time,” Gross says. “It was really cool to see that there’s kind of a little bit of a revolution going on right now … in English alone: What are these words, what are these labels, how do we talk about ourselves and how can we change the conversations we have based on the words that we can use? Then getting to apply that to other languages that we speak to try to hold more people… It’s just a whole wave of momentum that’s happening.”

In the fall of 2017, the first school textbook promoting a gender-neutral version of French was released in France. Canada made its national anthem gender neutral just last year, and three provinces — the Northwest Territories, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Ontario — allow “X” on birth certificates. Sweden added the widely adopted gender-neutral pronoun hen to its dictionary in 2015. Germany put a working group together last year to find ways to modernize German to include gender-neutral language in a way that people could actually speak.

For Gross, the Nonbinary Hebrew Project is a natural progression for a language whose history includes an almost 2,000-year period of non-use as a common spoken tongue. In a paper about the project, Gross calls the history of Hebrew “one of innovation and molding in order to fit the conventions of the era, especially in terms of attitudes towards gender.”

In an op-ed for The New York Times in 2016, rabbi Mark Sameth lays out a compelling case in favor of gender fluidity and neutrality, based on the Hebrew Bible, read in its original language.

“In Genesis 3:12,” Sameth writes, “Eve is referred to as ‘he.’ In Genesis 9:21, after the flood, Noah repairs to ‘her’ tent. Genesis 24:16 refers to Rebecca as a ‘young man.’ And Genesis 1:27 refers to Adam as ‘them.’”

Even more fascinating is the four-Hebrew-letter name of God — YHWH. Sameth says the word was “probably” not pronounced Jehovah or Yahweh, as Israelite priests would have read the letters in reverse as Hu/Hi, Hebrew for he/she.

“Counter to everything we grew up believing,” Sameth writes, “the God of Israel — the God of the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions to which fully half the people on the planet today belong — was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a dual-gendered deity.”

Rivlin adds to this, recounting the story of God coming to Moses in the form of a burning bush: “When Moses asks God, ‘What should I tell people is your name?’ in Hebrew it’s ehyeh ’ašer ’ehyeh: ‘I am that I am,’” Rivilin says. “It’s an ever-changing, ever-evolving name.”

This is what is fundamentally most important to Gross: The history of inclusivity and gender subversion in the Jewish faith. From Gross’ perspective — and they aren’t alone — it’s built into the very DNA of Judaism.

“I think that having this sense of mutual reciprocity and community is really important for understanding how, in a lot of different Jewish movements, there have been pushes toward inclusivity,” Gross says. “Again and again we innovate and change. Two generations ago, their Judaism isn’t recognizable to us and our Judaism isn’t recognizable to the sages of the Talmud. And the rabbis who were writing the Talmud, their Judaism wasn’t recognizable to their contemporaries who were part of the temple cults.

“It was said that on holidays at the temple, even though there was a certain size of the actual building, no matter how many Jews came there was always enough space for all of them because the walls moved outwards,” Gross says. “We have the opportunity right now to do that through language and we have the opportunity to do that through all sorts of different types of accessibility and justice in our communities. The values are right there in our texts and our songs and the stories we tell our kids.”

The Nonbinary Hebrew Project is an open-source offering. For more information, or to help add to the project, visit nonbinaryhebrew.com.