Mother tongue vs. cousin tongue

Fun facade in Neve Tzedek neighborhood

Old and new, side by side in Tel Aviv

We were in a shop in Jaffa with my cousin Zilla, who is a native Hebrew speaker and also quite fluent in English. Chuck and I were speaking Hebrew and she was speaking English and so the shopkeeper spoke to us in Hebrew and then to her in English. She scoffed at him and said (in Hebrew), “Hebrew isn’t exactly their mother tongue.” I laughed and said, “No it’s our cousin tongue!” That’s kind of how I feel, like our Hebrew is a distant cousin to our native tongue of English.

Chuck and I are in sync in so many ways and our love of the Hebrew language is just one example. Remember we met in Jerusalem 50 years ago and for a few years, we thought we would make aliyah and live in Israel when he finished his medical training. So, back in NYC, we tried speaking Hebrew to each other, we listened to Hebrew radio news, we subscribed to an Israeli newspaper. Obviously we never moved to Israel, and likewise, we’ve never achieved full fluency in Hebrew, much as we love speaking Hebrew.

What does that mean? We can do everyday business fluently in Hebrew. Reserve a table at a restaurant on the phone, converse with cab drivers, talk about the weather and how we met in Israel 50 years ago, rave about our grandchildren, ask for directions and understand them, etc. What we crave is being able to discuss complicated issues, politics, societal ills, etc. with the kind of vocabulary and fluency we pride ourselves on in English. So, when cab drivers, waiters, and museum guides hear our Hebrew and say, “You live here, right?” we respond with grins saying, “no, we live in NJ. ” That always elicits the same response. “How is it you speak Hebrew so well? Where did you learn it?” We swell with pride, however short lived.

In an effort to advance our fluency, we have the most talented Hebrew tutor I can imagine. Lior worked with us when we were here six years ago, and to our delight, she is once again our tutor, and this time, our friend Cindy has joined our lessons and added to the fun. Lior is masterful at getting us to converse on a high level, with lots of scaffolding from her. We’ve talked about LGBTQ rights and issues in Israel, racism here and at home, the Me Too movement, social media, family relationships, political correctness and so much more. Frankly, we don’t have the vocabulary we need for these discussions, but Lior’s rule is NO ENGLISH. Instead we have to do our best to describe, in Hebrew, what we are trying to say and she feeds us the words we need and writes them down for us. (You should have seen me acting out “sexual attraction” when Cindy didn’t understand the Hebrew phrase!) When we get frustrated, she reminds us to slow down, there’s no rush, keep trying. She’s amazing. And, I must say, Chuck is the star pupil in our group. He has a natural facility with languages and he is dogged about advancing his fluency. He watches TV with Google Translate by his side, he reads the Hebrew newspapers, and accesses lots of videos and podcasts in Hebrew. He’s my non-native Hebrew speaker hero!

At age 70, I accept the fact that Hebrew will always be a distant cousin to my English language skills. Being here, trying to speak Hebrew, gives me profound respect and empathy for immigrants here and at home who struggle everyday to achieve fluency in the language of their new home countries in order to survive and not as privileged tourists. And for now, I will continue to LOVE speaking Hebrew whenever I can!

We’re off to Haifa to my cousin Zilla’s for Shabbat. Wishing you all Shabbat shalom!

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Mother tongue vs. cousin tongue

  1. Stephen Gamm

    We have loved your musings about living as a majority rather than as a minority. We both have always felt it, especially, when we were in Israel for Shabbat and Purim. Love your writing, Keep them coming, Love, C & S

    Sent from my iPad


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