Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mother, English, Yiddish, being American

Both mother and uncle Moe were born in Russia and came to the US when they were small children. While Uncle Moe spoke of his Russian grandmother, Laya Fagel, Mother would never admit being born in Russia, even if cornered. Only by chance do I know where she was born; it says on my birth certificate: Pinsk, Russia.

I had to fill out a questionnaire in school which asked for parents' nationality. I asked mother what to write in this space and she said, "Put in American." Neither she nor Moe, her older brother, spoke with a hint of an accent. Mother, in particular, could have been employed by the BBC. She spoke full sentences in grammatically correct English. In fact, she said she decided to be a lawyer because everyone said she was "such a good talker."

She was also fluent in Yiddish, which she spoke to her parents. Bubbe and Zayde had heavy Yiddish accents, although Zayde did attend and successfully complete English classes in the Columbus public schools, according to a certificate I now have hanging on my wall. But Yiddish was what they spoke at home, which makes it even more remarkable how good an English speaker mother was.

I could speak Yiddish too, and used to read the Yiddish newspaper to bubbe occasionally, a skill which I have tragically lost. I can't read Hebrew very well either, which is another story.

Russian was the language of secrets in our house. When mother and bubbe didn't want me to understand what they were saying, they communicated in Russian. I found this frustrating, and so did my father, who was born in Youngstown OH and never spoke a word of Russian in his life. His parents came from Hungary, but they also spoke Yiddish. Dad didn't have an accent either, but then he grew up in the US in various places including Peoria and Denver.

Mother didn't make a show of patriotism, but she loved living in the USA, particularly in that most desirable spot in the world, Columbus, OH. When the whole family moved, in stages, to Bexley, OH, she liked that even better. When we drove her through posh neighborhoods in upstate New York or New Jersey, she conceded that they were almost as nice as Bexley. High praise, indeed.


Anonymous said...

I truly believe that the glory of the world and its passing applies to human beings. I remember watching a film on Japan where certain people are identified as national treasures. A lady of over 100 who still made silk... an ancient sword maker... a maker of sushi... I loved him. he would go each morning to get his water for his rice from a spring. How should good sushi rice taste he was asked. He said, it was always different. Each grain of rice never tasted the same as any other.

I wish we had national treasures but since we dont, I have my own treasures and my granny was one of these. Not my mother. We fought and she is still angry at me. It has been 20 years. So sad.

airforcewife said...

My children never learned Russian from their father - which infuriates my MIL. My husband has many talents, but teaching languages isn't one of them.

So, in our house Russian is the language of anger and the worst curse words you can utter.

Anonymous said...

"Russian was the language of secrets in our house."

Besides being a beautiful literary line there, I fully understand what you mean. My parents spoke German when they wanted to keep things from me, and I found it infuriating. Perhaps it was doubly so because my older brothers and sister could understand German, which meant I was the only one they were interested in leaving out.

I got my revenge, though. I learned French, and now I routinely curse them in words they can't comprehend.