In the fall of 2017, Eyal Rivlin—an Israeli-born Hebrew professor at Colorado University at Boulder—received an email from a student asking to matriculate into a Hebrew class. At the bottom of the student’s email, in the signature line, Rivlin noticed “they/them” pronouns, indicating that Lior Gross, his new student, did not identify within the gender binary. In Hebrew, nearly all words are conjugated in a feminine or masculine form, depending on the gender of the speaker. Unlike in English, where “they/them” is gender neutral, Hebrew has a masculine “they”—אתםֹ—and a feminine “they”—אתן, leaving no pronoun option for Hebrew speakers who identify outside of the gender binary.
“There’s a need that hasn’t been met because of the belief that it cannot be done,” said Rivlin, who consulted with colleagues in Israel on the best way to include Gross in Hebrew class. Some colleagues suggested that Rivlin’s student could switch off from male conjugations to female conjugations every other sentence, while another recommended that the student speak with the gender they were assigned at birth. The responses from his colleagues reiterated the problem; everyone was seeing the need, but no one had a solution that truly honored individuals who identified outside of the gender binary. “I figured either we do what’s done in Israel or create a new way to evolve the language,” said Rivlin. Ultimately he responded to Gross’s email saying, “‘How do you want to do this in Hebrew?’”
“I loved how excited he was to be an ally to nonbinary people,” said Gross. “When we began working together, I naively thought this was a little thing that we were doing so I could participate in Hebrew class. It wasn’t our intention to lead a large revolution.”
But it became clear that the Hebrew language was in dire need of exactly that. After a year of using Rivlin’s Hebrew classroom to experiment with different conjugations and grammatical structures, Rivlin and Gross officially launched the Nonbinary Hebrew Project in October 2018. Throughout the process, they received overwhelming support from the CU Boulder faculty and Program in Jewish Studies. It was quickly shared by Svara—a traditionally radical yeshiva that organizes a queer Talmud camp that Gross has attended for multiple summers—and it went viral.
“We were going for a structure that holds both masculine and feminine,” said Rivlin about the new structure, “something that would feel organic to Hebrew so it wouldn’t create a sense of alienation or foreignness.” The current grammar and systematics of nonbinary Hebrew can be found on their website, which labels this linguistic addition “a tool for that liberation.”
In addition to the liberation that it offers Hebrew-speaking members of the gender-queer community, nonbinary Hebrew has promising implications for everyone. Currently, there is a rule in Hebrew stating that groups should be addressed in the masculine plural if at least one male is present. Many feminists have pointed to the default masculine “as problematic,” said Rivlin, noting that nonbinary Hebrew could instead be used “to address large groups,” and even change “the way that Knesset meetings are held.”
Habonim Dror North American (HDNA), a Labor Zionist youth movement, is another community that is tackling the issue of binary pronouns in Hebrew. In 2015, it passed a proposal called “Revolutionizing the Hebrew Language” at its biennial Veida. Gross was a camper for seven summers at Habonim Dror’s Camp Moshava and was a mentor to the camper who spearheaded this change.
HDNA’s version of nonbinary Hebrew differs from Rivlin and Gross’s in the way they conjugate singular pronouns, but “works really well in HDNA settings,” according to Gross, who “used the work that they had done as precedent.”
During the summer of 2019, Gross attended a workshop on nonbinary Hebrew hosted by This Is Not An Ulpan, a Hebrew and Arabic learning educational project in Israel. “It’s really important to have an Israel-based team and a diaspora-based team to address the different needs for Hebrew use,” said Gross. While the Nonbinary Hebrew Project has gained some traction in the United States, movement has been slower in Israel.
The Academy of Hebrew, the authority on how Hebrew is used in Israeli governmental agencies, plays a major role in creating precedent for changes made to the language. Rivlin said that when the academy heard of his and Gross’s efforts, the response was that it was “too complicated” and “could not be done.”
Others share these concerns as well. Dr. Joanna Caravita, a professor, researcher and scholar of Hebrew at the Five College Consortium (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst), sympathizes with the academy’s resistance to nonbinary Hebrew, saying, “Pronouns are so basic and essential that they are so hard to change.” Caravita wrote her master’s thesis on the modernization of Hebrew and Arabic, and specifically on the priorities of the people who were doing it. She noted in an interview, “Language is social, and that’s one of the concerns I have with the Nonbinary Hebrew Project, that it has to be more widely accepted and used by a social group before it can be really enacted.”
When asked about those who might be wary of nonbinary Hebrew, Gross said they understand where it comes from. “As a people who carry a lot of fear around change because of our trauma, it makes a lot of sense why there is a lot of skepticism,” Gross said, but they also see the advantage of acting. “This is a big chance to take a leap of faith and say this is something that needs to change.”
Rivlin added: “This is about adding another option for those who need it. It’s not for tables and chairs, which also take on gendered adjectives in Hebrew; it’s for people to give them more of a place in the community and to expand the tent to say ‘you’re welcome here’ by using language that honors that.”
Gross graduated from CU Boulder in December 2018 with a master’s in ecology. Since graduating, they have spent time in both Israel and the United States, “following up on all my passions at the same time.” These passions range from Svara’s Queer Talmud Camp to researching soil and farming in Israel to maintaining the Nonbinary Hebrew Project’s website and continuing to improve upon it with Rivlin, their mentor and lifelong friend.
The work that Rivlin and Gross have done with the Nonbinary Hebrew Project has been expansive for nonbinary folk in finding their voice in Hebrew and in the Jewish community. While both commented on the project’s incompleteness, it’s obvious their chutzpah has opened a long-overdue dialogue on the topic of gender inclusivity in Judaism. Rivlin reminded us that Hebrew, like all languages, constantly evolves. He and Gross see the Nonbinary Hebrew Project as the next step in the Hebrew language’s evolutionary journey.
Rachel Levy is a rising senior at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and a Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Gilda Slifka summer intern.
This post originally appeared on the HBI blog on July 29, 2019.
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