Language gives us the opportunity to express ourselves. But language often has to change to make room for alternate perspectives and identities. That's exactly what a student and a Jewish Studies professor at the University of Colorado Boulder discovered last year when thinking about gender and how it relates to grammar in Hebrew.
In December 2017, Eyal Rivlin, a Hebrew-language instructor at CU Boulder, received an email in his inbox. The message came from Lior Gross, a student a year away from graduating with bachelor's and master's degrees in ecology. Gross was inquiring about enrolling in one of Rivlin's Hebrew courses for the following semester.
After reading the email, Rivlin noticed something unique in the email signature: Gross indicated a preference for the pronouns "they/them/theirs." Gross identifies as neither male or female, but rather as non-binary. Upon reading this, Rivlin asked Gross to meet, hoping to find the best way to address the student in his classroom.
Rivlin arranged the meeting because in Hebrew, as in Spanish, gender is often indicated by the spelling of a word itself; in both languages, the distinction is usually built in at the end of the word. Such linguistic rules offer limited options for non-binary individuals to express or identify themselves.
"There were two options: force Hebrew as is, which didn't feel right to me, or we could take the harder road, which would be serving and honoring," says Rivlin.
Rivlin and Gross met and began brainstorming ideas for how to make a Hebrew-language classroom accessible to non-binary students. As the spring semester approached, Rivlin called family members in Israel, the country in which he was born and grew up, and asked them for their thoughts. "We have no idea," they said.
Forced into this cultural conundrum, Rivlin and Gross decided to go an alternate route: They created a third option.
An example is the Hebrew word for student. "Talmeed" is used to describe a male student, "talmeeda" a female one. In the new system developed by Rivlin and Gross, the two endings are mixed, giving birth to "talmeed-eh," a non-binary version of the word.
Not knowing how others would react to this non-binary Hebrew alternative, Rivlin started experimenting with the new word ending in the classroom. His pupils picked it up quickly. "Students were choosing to use it in class and on written exams. That showed the evolution of our culture," says Rivlin.
After seeing it work in the classroom setting, Rivlin and Gross waned to share their innovation with a wider audience. In October 2018, they unveiled nonbinaryhebrew.com, a website explaining how to use the new ending. "The response from all over the world has been absolutely mind-blowing — people saying, 'Wow, thank you. I never knew how to make this work in Hebrew,'" says Rivlin.
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For Gross, it's been just as mind-blowing: "We really are changing Hebrew. It didn't dawn on me until all of this started spreading. It's so amazing."
In addition to the overwhelming support the two have received, non-binary Jews have also been reaching out to express just how happy they are with the innovation.
"I really want to honor Lior in this project," says Rivlin, noting that he has grown through his work with Gross.
Gross feels a similar indebtedness to Rivlin: "That's what being an ally looks like."