Think about the words we use

Dear Friends,

I have a new book to recommend but first a story (that I may have told before). Many, many years ago when I was in college there was this professor whom everyone feared — he was so tough. When you registered, you received the syllabus and what to prepare for the first day. It said to begin the textbook and go through the first chapter. When we arrived, the first question was: What instrument is the person on the opening page playing? Next: What are the three key points in the introduction? Whoever paid that much attention to the pictures in a textbook or the introduction? Well, from that day on, I have always read the introductions! Often, those are the most important words in the book!

Do it is with this book I am recommending: “People of the Word — Fifty Words That Shaped Jewish Thinking” by Mendel Kalmenson and Zalman Abraham (yes, it is on Amazon and it is from The introduction to the book starts with the idea that you can tell a lot about a people by noting the prevalence of certain words. Did you know that the Scots have over 400 words for snow? The authors share this question for debate: Does the language we use merely express our worldview and values, or does it shape them? The studies of Professor Lera Boroditsky are also shared with thoughts on words and on sentence structure. For example, she says: English speakers will say things like “John broke the vase,” even if it was by accident. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would say, “The vase broke,” omitting the guilty party. Does this lead to the American justice system of finding and punishing the person?

So what does the “introduction” share about the Jewish way of thinking in words? The authors share this from Salman Rushdie: “A culture can be defined by its untranslatable words.” Wow! How many Hebrew and Yiddish terms do you know that are simply not translatable? One of the most important Jewish values falls into this category: tzedakah! It is often translated as charity but that is forgetting the key part of the word: justice! We do not give only out of the kindness of our hearts but because it is the just and right thing to do to take care of others.

The second introduction of this book is titled “What’s in a Name?” Zalman Abraham writes: “Hebrew words and names are not arbitrary. They are definitive and expressive of the true nature of things.” From the beginning of the Torah, we learn not only about the names of people, those who are not named and those who have name changes at special moments, but also the power of giving names. “And the Lord G-d formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name.” (Genesis 2-19)

Wait — I haven’t even gotten to page 1 of the book! What are the 50 words? Would you believe that the very first word is “Happiness — Simchah.” And here is the last quote to get you interested: “Judaism views happiness as a way of thinking, which is something that we can consciously direct, as opposed to a state of being that results from a specific set of circumstances outside our control.” It is up to us — thinking happy is within our power! DISCLAIMER: I don’t get anything for recommending this book and if you buy every book I recommend, you will soon need lots of bookshelves! However, take this as a challenge to think more about the words we choose to use!

Laura Seymour is Jewish experiential learning director and camp director emeritus at the Aaron Family JCC.

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