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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.
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 otcha.” In Yiddish, “Oy vey.” Just kidding. In Yiddish, “Ikh libe dikh.”
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.