Like many American Jews of the past few generations, my mother’s parents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were talking about. They wanted their kids to assimilate and become full-fledged Americans, and that meant speaking English, not Yiddish: that so-called “dying” language that symbolized Jewish life in the Old World, before Hitler came along and destroyed it all. And so, my mother, like so many other American Jews, never learned her parents’ native language. Of course, it’s ironic that now I’m speaking Yiddish—and only Yiddish—with my own child, specifically so that he’ll learn and use the language. It’s also an ironic twist of history that when I speak Yiddish with my son, it’s my parents who don’t understand.
Reversing History: Raising My Son in a “Dying” Language
I’ll be honest: I enjoy the irony. It’s a positive reversal—some might say an antidote—to the modern course of Jewish history. Instead of allowing Yiddish to die, by refusing to give it to the next generation, I’m bolstering it and giving it a future. Instead of memorializing it as a nostalgic relic of the forever-gone Old World, I’m embracing it as an essential part of my modern, daily life right here in the New World. Instead of casting it aside in favor of English, in order to assimilate and become “more American,” I’m equally valuing both halves of my “Jewish-American” identity. Instead of defining monolingualism as an essential element of national pride and identity—whether English for Americans or Hebrew for Zionists—I am celebrating multilingualism as a hugely important Jewish, Zionist, and American value.
And you know, I get a lot of compliments for it. Sometimes people think it’s really cool. Others get nostalgic and tell me how they always wished their parents had spoken Yiddish with them, but alas, they hadn’t. The guy who installed our home alarm system told me my son is going to be a genius someday, because I’m raising him bilingually. At our synagogue’s barbecue for new members last weekend, somebody asked if I’d consider teaching a Yiddish class—she thinks it’d be really popular. It’s nice to be met by such positivity.
The Challenges of Raising My Son In A Language That My Family Doesn’t Know
But I’ll be honest: the fact that I’m raising my son in a language that none of my parents, siblings, in-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, or babysitters speak or understand can sometimes be uncomfortable, too. For example, when my son and I are hanging out with my parents, and my parents speak to him in English, I understand what they’re saying—but then when I speak to my son in Yiddish, it unintentionally excludes them. Mealtime conversations are particularly hard, because I want to continue interacting with my son in Yiddish, but at the same time, I want the conversations to include everyone at the table. And it’s not just about being inclusive or exclusive; I don’t want it to feel like I’m hiding secrets from people, or like I’m talking about them in a language that they can’t understand. That can be very uncomfortable when I’m at the playground with my son, for instance, and he’s interacting (or I want him to interact) with other children who are there. Sometimes I point at another child and say to my kid in Yiddish: “Do you want to say hello to them?” or “Look, so-and-so is going down the slide! Weee!” or “Hey, look, those kids want to play with you!” And if those other kids’ parents don’t understand Yiddish, will they worry what this stranger is saying about their children?
Besides all that, I want people to know what I’m saying to my son, because that’s how relationships develop, and that’s also how positive memories form. Birthday parties can be awkward, for example, when everyone laughs and smiles and sings the birthday song in English, and then I sing the Yiddish birthday song and the entire room falls silent. Of course, there’s also the “weirdo” factor, especially in a place like the United States where multilingualism is generally viewed in a negative light (even while it’s celebrated as an academic resumé builder). It sometimes feels like I don’t belong when I’m speaking a language that even my own family and friends don’t understand, and when I’m out in public there are xenophobes to worry about. That’s all really uncomfortable.