The inbreeding of the exiles

More than once, while conjugating Hebrew verbs in one of the many ulpan classes I had to take, I fantasized about marrying my bubbly, energetic, exotic-looking Sabra ulpan teacher.

By
May 29, 2019 20:49
4 minute read.
The inbreeding of the exiles

English-speaking immigrant family. (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)

Sometimes, lying in bed late at night, I chuckle thinking that my three sons all married women who speak in heavily accented English – when they speak it at all – and that none of those women, unless forced, will read anything I ever write.

The bad news is that they will never read anything that I ever write. The good news is that this includes what I write about them.
This cuts both ways.

While I never imagined, growing up in Denver, that I would not have a single native English-speaking daughter-in-law, by the same token none of my daughters-in-law, growing up in Israel, ever thought they would end up with the son of English-speaking immigrants.

And not just any English-speaking immigrants, but Americans who sound, look and feel American – who still vote in American elections, still watch American sports, and still celebrate Thanksgiving (even if one day late, always on a Friday, not on a Thursday).

Forget that. One of these daughters-in-law, Skippy’s wife, never thought she would ever marry an Ashkenazi. Yet here we are. Call it the inbreeding of the exiles.

Another daughter-in-law, The Lad’s new wife, comes at the whole experience from a different angle. Though she never ruled out marrying an Ashkenazi, she naturally leaned toward a family of native Hebrew-speakers. And for good reason – she is a Hebrew-language teacher.

Here is a woman who speaks perfect Hebrew, who knows all the grammatical rules, who studied linguistics at the Hebrew University, who teaches Hebrew for the matriculation exams, but who is now relegated to sitting at meals with in-laws who mix up masculine verbs with feminine adjectives and who couldn’t tell a hif’il verb from a hof’al verb if both those verbs were actual objects sitting right there on their dinner plates.

Talk about marrying into the wrong family!

MORE THAN once, while conjugating Hebrew verbs in one of the many ulpan classes I had to take, I fantasized about marrying my bubbly, energetic, exotic-looking Sabra ulpan teacher.

It never dawned on me that what would be more likely was that my son would marry her equivalent. He did, and to our daughter-in-law’s grammatically sensitive ears, our Shabbat table conversations must sound like the screeching of a cat’s claw on a blackboard.

Yet, good-natured as she is, the Lad’s Wife cringes not and pretends not to notice my Hebrew errors, my wrong word choices, and the accent that my youngest son has told me makes even the Hebrew I utter sound like English. But she has not corrected me once, never muttered even a word of grammatical admonition. True, she’s been in the family for only a month. But still.

AH, HEBREW. It’s the challenge that dogs immigrants from their first day of aliyah, regardless – really – of their level of fluency. Accents and grammatical errors make immigrants stick out and feel self-conscious, erect invisible barriers in their path toward full social integration, and put a serious strain on advancing up the ladder of Hebrew-language broadcast journalism.

It also creates dilemmas for parents. Because if you’re a non-native Hebrew-speaker whose children were born in a Hebrew-speaking land, what language should you then speak to them?

Should you speak to the children only in Hebrew, because – after all – haven’t we returned to our land, our language and our destiny? Isn’t this what Eliezer Ben-Yehuda did with his kids, and the reason Hebrew is a living and vital language today?

Or, on the other extreme, should you speak to them only in English, because English is the lingua franca of the modern world, because you want to help your kids succeed, and because language acquisition is so much easier at a young age?

I’ve known folks on both extremes. I’ve met a father from Miami who insisted on speaking to his children in Hebrew with a Yemenite accent, and parents from New York who have instituted a reign of terror in their home to ensure that not one word of Hebrew – not a one – is uttered by their kids within the hallowed walls of their English-speaking abode. Outside the home? Ya’ala. But not inside.

The Wife and I took the middle path. Sure, we wanted our kids to speak English, but we were not going to wage war over it. Besides, at a certain point in time, I just wanted my kids to speak to me. In any language.

“Just speak to me, son, speak to me,” I’d implore.

WITH THE kids now all grown, I thought those dilemmas were behind me, that this was just a one-generation problem. But it’s not. I am now facing this predicament with my grandson, Skippy’s son, the one we like to call Sparky.

Last week Skippy and his wife went away for a week, leaving 18-month-old Sparky in our care for a couple days. You think he was confused by this change? Forget it. I was confused. I was confused by many things (it’s been a long time since I’ve had to strap a baby seat into a car), but nothing more than which language I should use with the boy.

Sparky’s parents don’t speak to him in English, though Skippy might throw in a sentence from time to time when we’re around; so what use is it for me to speak to him in my native tongue? It’s not as if as a result of being in our presence a couple hours a week, he is going to end up reciting Shakespeare. I have friends whose grandparents spoke Yiddish around them, and they didn’t exactly turn into Sholem Aleichem.

So Hebrew it is. But there is definitely an upside: Finally someone who won’t notice, or care, when I mix up the gender of my verbs – at least until he is old enough to feel embarrassed.


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