Have you been to Tennessee?

Raising bilingual children is a wonderful experience because you see, in real time, that you are giving them an incredible gift. Language opens doors to other cultures, other people, and more. The thing is…it’s important to remember that there is mine and theirs, here and there.

In high school, languages were very important to my parents and so, at one point, I was taking French and Latin – until I realized that I just couldn’t handle it and so dropped Latin – after 2 years, my goal (and my parents’ goal) was accomplished. To this day, I can take apart words and understand the roots that make the whole to get a better understanding of words that may not be automatically understood.

That’s all I ever needed Latin for – mission accomplished. It is not a spoken language, not one that brings me closer to people or cultures alive today.

I started learning French in 7th grade. Into my fifth year of study, I was pretty good at it…but that fifth year defeated me. The school began offering Hebrew and I signed up right away – so instead of Latin and French, I had Hebrew and French.

The problem was, my heart was in the Hebrew and began resenting any efforts I made to continue learning French. Suddenly, it was just so much harder to get my brain to think in French. I so clearly remember the day the French teacher asked a question and thankfully chose someone else to answer. As the other student was answering, I realized that it sounded funny…and then realized that no, it was the silent answer in my head that sounded funny because I had, in my mind, answered the question in Hebrew.

I sat there trying to “fix” my mistake and realized that I couldn’t; after 5 years of studying the language, I ordered my brain to think of the word “I” in French…my mind kept saying, “Ani…Ani…Ani” – I in Hebrew. Gone was the word “je” and so much else…

I went home that day and told my mother what she already knew – that I was going to live in Israel, that I needed Hebrew, and that I was dropping French…and I did.

If I am bilingual, it is because I was born in a country where English was spoken, and somehow transplanted my heart at a very young age to a country where Hebrew is the main language. I fight here to learn more Hebrew all the time; and refuse the kindness of many Israelis who offer to speak to me in English. “I didn’t come here to speak in English,” I tell them. And no matter how many times an Israeli addresses me in English, I’ll respond in Hebrew.

“You can speak English,” they’ll tell me. “Yes, I can,” I’ll answer back in Hebrew and continue.

My children, the ones born there and the ones born here, are bilingual. They can carry a conversation fluently in both Hebrew and English, read both languages, etc. For most, if not all of them, Hebrew is their mother tongue. Ask them to count a stack of something, they’ll do it quietly in Hebrew. They’ll fight with each other – in Hebrew…and they’ll speak to their parents in English. What they lack is a knowledge of culture – and I’m fine with that.

So, around the Shabbat table this week, we were only three. Amira was with her husband; Elie with his wife. Shmulik was with Naama, but came to visit a few times; Davidi was with the other counselors of his youth group up north, and Aliza was home with us. Three at the table…

During lunch, I said something about a tendency…and she asked, “Have you been to Tennessee?” It took me a second to realize that she had done her best to match the word she’d heard with the words she knows. Apparently, she knows there is a state called Tennessee, but not a concept known as a tendency.

I explained what it was but kept smiling…I don’t mind that there are gaps in their knowledge of English – I’m proud that they all are comfortable in both languages but pray they will never make their homes anywhere but here. For me, it’s all about living here and having my children and grandchildren here. Language and knowledge of another culture is fine, so long as it is remembered that it is “other” and not ours.

No, the grass is not greener on the other side of the ocean…or, perhaps it is, actually…but it isn’t our grass, it isn’t our home. I know people who have gone back to live in America – most never really planted both feet here in Israel, others continue to focus on the materialistic things that can be had there. Those who come here and say, “back in America, we did this” and “well, in America everyone always…” are often the first to leave because the reality is that Israel is not America – for the good and the bad…but mostly for the good.

Life is, in many ways, harder here than in the States. I won’t deny it. But best isn’t always easy. Right doesn’t always get handed to you’ sometimes you have to work for it, and sometimes you have to work for it.

This morning, Elie did something really hard – he left his wife and infant to do some Reserves duty. It isn’t a long stint – only a few days and he’ll be back with his family. Schedules were coordinated and he was able to arrange a ride with his commanding officer if he could be at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem early enough. I agreed to drive him and was outside near my car as he approached. I watched him as he walked to my car, back in uniform with a large backpack on his back…pushing a baby stroller.

“You can’t take the baby with you,” I said as a joke and then saw his wife walking a bit to the side. She’s going to spend the night with her mother, lucky that Elie’s Reserves duty coincided with her mother visiting Israel. I’m so glad Lauren will be with her mother; that together they’ll take care of this adorable little baby…who will never remember that on this night, her father wasn’t there…though with another 15 or so years in the army, it’s likely at some point, she’ll watch her father walk off as her mother watched her husband and I watched my son this morning.

And as I watched him, I thought of Aliza and what she said yesterday. Although my children never have, I’ve been to Tennessee – it’s a beautiful state with magnificent views…but this morning, and every morning – even those in which my sons go off to the army…I’d rather be here, I’d rather they be here – in their country, speaking their language.

Maybe if Elie lived in America, he wouldn’t have to go back into the army, giving them weeks of his life every year. Maybe he wouldn’t have fought in one war and almost in another…it’s a burden a mother carries because I’m the one who brought him here. At some point, I’ll accept that even if I brought him, he’s the one who chooses to stay.

But this morning, it sits heavy on me…it isn’t easy for a new mother to handle an infant alone and in the darkest of hours, having your husband with you is important. My head understands why Elie had to go; my heart wishes life were different here while accepting it as part of the whole.

Nowhere I’d rather be; nowhere I’d rather Elie be…I just wish the burden of it was falling on me…

2 Comments on Have you been to Tennessee?

  1. Hi Paula,
    Thanks for the post. I found myself smiling and able to relate.

    As a Native English Speaker who came to Israel at age 10 (not so little anymore… but not big either)- I find it interesting that I honestly don’t know which language is my mother tongue. Subconsciously I can count or dream in both languages. Neither language is spoken perfectly, though I am fluent in both. Sometimes one is easier, sometimes the other. Usually it depends on what language I happen to be thinking in (if that makes sense).
    Interestingly, it is easiest for me to express myself to somebody who is bilingual; I find myself speaking “Hebrish”- throwing in terms from both languages that best some up my thoughts and knowing that I am communicating with somebody who has some level of experience with both languages and cultures.

  2. beautiful post Paula. We have been here 38 years, sent 5 boys off to the army, and 2 girls to national service. Why? Because this is our home, this is our language, this is our culture, and G-d said that this is the land which is most suitable for the Jewish people. And if we continue to speak English, it is in the same light as you said, another culture which nourished us until we were able to come here. We have raised our kids here, and they were privileged to not only be nourished by the land, but to flourish on it.

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