The Word They’ll Learn the Best


babies playing

First words. What was my own first word? Probably “Mama,” though now my mother doesn’t remember. She does remember my brother’s first word, which was “arrow.” This is because she was constantly driving around the block with him in his car seat trying to put him to sleep. He would see the arrow on the speedometer and my mother would say “arrow” and so he too repeated “arrow.” It was inevitable, he spent most of his time trying to get to sleep in the car.

What will my daughter’s first word be? Adrian and I wonder this often. We speak Spanish and English in our house. Adrian is Mexican Catholic and I am American Jewish and we have Hebrew letters all over the house. There is a Virgin of Guadalupe in our room and the Hebrew alphabet on the fridge. We wonder if little Helen is confused. She has begun to make many noises and just a few weeks ago she was saying “mamamamamamama.” At first we thought it was me she was calling. She’s eight months old now and it’s a bit early for her first words. But I was ecstatic when I heard “Maaaaaa!!!” come out of her mouth. But then, she stopped saying it. Now she’s making noises. We are happy with noises, too.

What we wonder most is what language she will choose. We speak Spanish at home, English at Grandma’s house and Hebrew on holidays. Also, we hope her first word will be something nice. We live in New York and our language here can be, well, special. We really hope her first word doesn’t fly out of her mouth unannounced during rush hour traffic so we, mostly me, have had to tone it down when in her company.

Every Thursday when Adrian goes to work I pile Helen into the Chevy and we go pick up my mother and head off to my sister-in-law’s house. My brother works as well so it’s usually a girl’s day except for my twin nephews, Jacob and Nathan, who are just two-and-a-half months older than Helen. We look to them for what to expect with words. They haven’t started speaking yet either, though they make a lot of different sounds as well.

In the Torah there are two sets of famous twins. First, there are Jacob and Esau. They are the most well known because they are famous for being the “good” twin and the “evil” twin. But, if I am going to make comparisons I’d like to compare my nephews more to Tamar’s twins, who the Torah describes as both being righteous. Tamar’s twins also came early, as did my nephews.

Our Thursdays are spent playing and observing and waiting for words. This week Nathan can stand while holding onto something and he makes a low gurgle and smiles. Jacob can stand, too, but he doesn’t like to get down by himself and he loves to look at books. Helen bangs a plastic donut against her head and is content. It’s a marvel to watch these three cousins interact. Helen and Nathan seem to be the best of friends and Jacob lies in the middle of the play rug and flips the pages in his cloth book. I won’t be surprised if Jacob’s first word is a whole sentence and he one day blurts out, “E equals Mc squared.” Nathan will probably say, “Let’s go Mets!” and I still wonder about Helen. Adrian has started to say “Hola” and wave to her. I have started speaking to the twins in Spanish. They look at me like I have three heads but I think they look at me like that anyway.

I’d like my daughter and my nephews to learn basic Yiddish words as well. Here are a few I’m highlighting that will serve them well on their journeys through life:

1. Feh. Feh is like spitting. It’s when you disapprove or find something gross. If someone asks if you like politics you can say, “Feh.”

2. Plotz. To plotz means to explode. If you are shocked by something then you could just plotz!

The most important word and one used most frequently in my household is…

3. Nu. Nu means, “Hello?” “Well?” “Huh?” When Helen doesn’t want to eat I say, “Nu? When are you going to finish this?”

Now that I’ve added another language to the list I’m worried that Helen will never want to speak. Maybe that’s why my brother said “arrow” for the longest time. He could never get a word in edgewise with my parents always clucking. But, I think the word my daughter and my nephews will learn quickly enough is a word everyone uses with them all the time. In English, “Love” or “I love you.” In Spanish, “Amor” or “Te Amo.” In Hebrew, “Ahava” or “Ani ohevet ata.” In Yiddish, “Oy vey.” Just kidding. In Yiddish, “Ikh libe dikh.”

three babies playing

Meet the Stretelech


My children believe in Christmas elves. And leprechauns.  They also believe that there are little elves who live in our backyard. Last year when spring came, the elves moved in to our pine tree and set up a mini Adirondack chair, a white picket fence, and a miniature watering can outside. And they nailed a small 12-inch door into the tree trunk. Last weekend, while everyone was taking a nap, they left a little note on the counter announcing they were back and leading the kids on a scavenger hunt around the yard. These are our stretelech, Yiddish for magical little people.

My husband discovered the stories of stretelech at the Conference of  American Jewish Educators conference after seeing David Arfa speak. Later he asked his Yiddish-speaking grandmother about them. She confirmed that as a child she was scared of the shtretelech. Like many fairy tale creatures over the past century, they have morphed from evil trolls into mischievous pranksters.

So who are these little Jewish elves? Apparently they live outside for most of the year, but relocate behind our stoves during the winter. Children are excellent at spotting stretelech in the woods, but adults have trouble identifying their tracks. Some stories identify them as musicians. Others as shoemakers.  One Yiddish folk teller says the Elves and the Shoemaker story about the poor shoemaker who wakes one morning to find that someone has mysteriously made a pair of exquisite shoes, is a stretelech tale.

One of the things I really loved as a kid were fairy tale creatures. I remember chasing the end of a rainbow with a very real belief that there would be a pot of gold, guarded by a mischievous little leprechaun.  And even though I never really believed in Christmas elves, I loved the idea of tiny people making toys and singing Christmas carols. So I was excited to learn about the stretelech, and since there is so little known about them, I could make their story whatever I wanted. I read (in the Encyclopedia Britannica) that Jewish fairy tales are “conspicuously absent” from Jewish legends, “because fairies, elves, and the like are foreign to the Jewish imagination, which prefers to populate the otherworld with angels and demons subservient to God.” Well! This just isn’t true, not when I know there are a group of stretelech who live in my backyard.

For a picture of what a stretelech might look like, click here. Otherwise, you’ll have to search for one on your own.