Language and culture are powerful tools that allow us to express who we are and where we come from. It’s important to remember one’s roots, no matter where we find ourselves in the world, for parents to pass traditions and languages down to their children. My father’s first language is Yiddish, and to this day, I am sorry that he didn’t think to pass it on to me. It is the language that he spoke with his parents (and the language that my grandfather would switch to in later years when he was telling a joke that he felt was inappropriate for us kids and my mother to hear), and it was the lingua franca of his youth. Yiddish is a language rich in culture and history, yet in years to come, the only ones who will speak it will be the ultra-Orthodox, many of whom continue to use it on a daily basis, preferring to preserve Hebrew as a language to be used only in prayer.
Despite knowing only a few words of Yiddish (and by a few, I mean that I can probably count them on one hand, two at the most), I am well aware of my family’s history. I’ve heard the stories of how my paternal grandfather ran away from the Russian army and how my grandmother rescued him from a firing squad. I know that they spent time in Argentina on their way to the United States. I know how poor my father was growing up (he always likes to say that he doesn’t have a middle name because his parents couldn’t afford to give him one), yet I know that he still had a mostly happy childhood. My mother, on the other hand, had a typical American childhood – growing up in Brooklyn (with both of her parents having been born in the US as well), going to summer camp with her sister and cousins, vacations, etc. Unlike my father’s family, my mother’s family did not have financial problems due to a number of reasons, a primary one being the familial connection to one of New York City’s preeminent department stores of the mid-20th century.
But I digress. Language and culture. Fast-forward to today, as we raise our son, trying to instill in him knowledge of his family’s past. Thanks to his parents, he is a Persian-American Israeli, and a first-generation sabra to boot. We are speaking to him only in English so that he will feel equally comfortable in both English and Hebrew, and our “work” is paying off for us so far, as even though Hebrew has begun creeping into his growing vocabulary, English is his primary language. On the other end of the spectrum, however, we want him to know that he is also Persian, and to this end, we have taught him (so far) how to count to ten in Farsi (which he does in both English and Hebrew as well). We are slowly introducing a few other words in Farsi as well, for even though his identity as a Jew, an American and an Israeli will most likely deny him the opportunity to ever enter the country where his father was born (yep, Jews born in Arab or some Muslim countries are being denied their right of return – let’s save this subject for another post, shall we?), we feel that it’s important for him to understand and be proud of his Iranian roots. He already loves rice, and I’m hoping that one of these days he will enjoy the only Persian dish I know how to make – Ghormeh Sabzi. We will pass on the stories told to us by my husband’s parents and uncles about life in Iran when things were good, introduce him to Persian food (excellent, and highly recommended!), and hopefully do our best to make him familiar with the language.
In the meantime, we’ll concentrate on the counting. After only a week or so, he’s already quite good. One of us will throw the first number at him – yek. He responds with “doe” (two). Somebody throws in “seh” (three), and we continue this way, alternating up to ten. Ten is “dah”, which the little one always follows up with a rousing, cheerful, “haydad!”, which means “hurray!” in Hebrew. And he can almost say “sabzi”, even though he refuses to eat it, so we are making some progress. If we play our cards right, we’ll have one fabulously multi-cultural kid on our hands. Haydad!