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I type this while holding a squirmy, feverish 3-month-old in my lap. Shh, shh, shh, I tell him. It’s OK, just relax and rest bubbeleh. I rub his back and pull him closer, patting his head, whispering, “Just lay your keppe down on mommy’s shoulder.”
He has no idea what I’m really saying, but the words must be soothing because slowly he’s settling down and snuggling in as I type with one hand. I can feel his stuffy nose breathing against my neck and my arm is falling asleep but I hesitate to lay him down, knowing he doesn’t feel good. I’m talking to him quietly, telling him maybe we will FaceTime with Bubbie and Gramps later after he rests. Go schluffy, I say. It will make you feel better. Let’s move this wet schmatte off your face (as he lays his head on a particularly drool-covered burp cloth) and you’ll feel better in a little while.
Suddenly I’m channeling all of my great-grandparents. Did I always throw this many Yiddish words into the middle of everyday conversations? Last time I checked, I’m a 40-year-old from New Jersey, living in Maine and I can’t speak conversational Hebrew, let alone Yiddish. In the last ten minutes, I used five Yiddish words and didn’t think twice about it. And apparently my older children, ages 7 and 9, have either never noticed, don’t care or they are just so used to hearing random Yiddish words they don’t know any different. My boyfriend who is not Jewish (and father of said 3-month-old), has never once questioned me as to what I’m talking about, and until recently, I never considered how weird some of the things I say must sound.
A Lutheran friend of mine (who recently revealed to me that she’s learned of some Jewish roots in her family and is doing research to learn more, and asks me questions as her resident Jewish friend), went in on a group gift for the baby. They had a custom onesie made for him with the word “tuchas” (which means butt) and an arrow on the behind, because she knew I’d find it funny. Of course I did chuckle, and a few weeks ago while sitting in the waiting room during my daughter’s cheer practice, it led to a whole conversation about Yiddish words. The “cheer moms” started quizzing me, looking up Yiddish on Google to see a. how much I really knew and b. how many words I actually use in conversation. In a room full of mostly straight-outta-Mainers, we all had a good laugh at the strangeness of it all, and the realization of how much Yiddish I use truly emerged.
Yet the strangeness has sat with me, making me feel even more different living in a place not known for diversity. I’ve caught myself changing my language to fit social situations, almost unconsciously. I’ve never been one to worry about “fitting in” as I’d rather just be me, but I’m coming to the realization that my version of being me incorporates my Jewishness as a given. So when I throw Yiddish into a conversation, I have this unrealistic expectation that the people I spend time with just get it. My reality doesn’t exactly match up in a world where the dying language of my ancestors has either become standard dialogue for the rest of the population (helllloooo Cawfee Tawk!), or a symbol of what connects me–and my children–to the past.
The baby is stirring, as he burps and spits up on my shoulder. Time to go clean up the schmutz, as I take solace in the words and pass on yet another tradition in my blended Jewish family.
Or at least, this is what my six-year-old daughter Laurel would have me believe. This week, I opened up her teacher’s monthly newsletter, scanning, as usual, for mentions of my own child. The final page usually includes what Laurel calls “jokes,” except they’re actually words “out of the mouths of babes” which sound funny to adult ears, but often mean more than they say.
This particular snippet of conversation went as follows:
Classmate: “I speak English, Chinese and Spanish.”
Laurel: “I speak English and Chinese and Spanish and Christian. And I speak Jewish too.”
I laughed, of course, when I read it, and Laurel chuckled, too. She meant “Hebrew,” of course, and “Christian” isn’t really a language. Yet even as the children in her class oppose English to their lessons in Spanish and Chinese, Laurel knows as an interfaith child that Jewish can be contrasted with Christian, and Judaism has a language which is not English.
Out of the mouths of babes, indeed. Religious studies scholar Susan Friend Harding, for example, argues in her book The Book of Jerry Falwell, that the way words are used in fundamentalist Christian culture is key to understanding that culture itself. Or, to put it another way, culture functions like a language, and finding one’s way through an unfamiliar culture is much like learning to speak, write, or understand a new language.
As she gets a little bit older each month, I find it fascinating to see how Laurel learns her way around patterns of tradition and observance. She does indeed “speak Jewish.” I hear her speaking Hebrew when we say blessings for Shabbat. I hear her adorable mispronunciations and as she follows her parents’ guidance through the words of the Shema, revealing her growing familiarity with the language of Judaism. Even her younger sister Holly, at almost 28 months, tries to say the prayers, which usually results in some very cute utterances.
She’s learning, too – I think – that churches and synagogues refer to similar types of places, but are not quite the same. One belongs to the “language” of Judaism, and the other to the “language” of Christianity. We, her parents, still dance nervously around the linguistic content of some of these religions: Ben remains as uncomfortable telling the stories of yet another Jewish holiday that exists because of some long-ago military triumph as I am answering her questions about Jesus – or even Santa Claus. In both cases, we try to treat the topics historically, and to say why Jews or Christians view these things as important. These conversations form one part of our daughters’ cultural knowledge and understanding, and one part of the “languages” they’re learning.
When I first wrote for this blog, Laurel at 5 was only beginning to understand what religion or holidays meant, much less that they could come from different backgrounds: Jewish, Christian, national, or secular, or something else entirely. What a difference a year makes, and as little Holly gets older, too, she’ll grow in her understanding of the “languages” present in our family.
Just last night, Laurel came into Holly’s room as I was putting her to bed. “I want to sing the Shema to my sister,” Laurel said, and she did, beautifully, her sister listening as the language of Judaism washed over her. This morning, the Shema is stuck in Laurel’s mind. She sang it repeatedly, joyfully throughout breakfast, and I have no doubt she’ll bring the language of Judaism with her to school today.
What “languages” do your children speak? With what traditions, knowledges, and practices must they become familiar, in order to speak, think or act in the traditions of your family?