I have to admit to feeling a rush of pride and satisfaction each time I hear my son call me Ima. And, for a gal who grew up begrudgingly bilingual, that’s a pretty big deal.
My first languages as a young child were English and Hebrew. With an Israeli father (and grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, cousins… you get the picture) and a mother who spent a chunk of her young adulthood in Israel, it should come as no big surprise that we were a bilingual house. My first words were “mom” and “aba.” I listened equally to Rafi and Tzippi Shavit, and my eyes were glued to both Sesame Street and Rehov Sumsum (and yes, I even had my own pair of brown, checkered slippers like Kippi).
But for some reason, instead of embracing this language gift I had been given, at some point in my childhood, I started to actively be embarrassed by it. I’m not sure why or when, exactly, it happened, but I remember feeling super embarrassed when my parents would speak Hebrew in public. Sure it was helpful at times–like when my parents were looking to buy a new car and could speak about it without letting the salesman in on what they were thinking. But all I saw was how it made me appear different, and I wasn’t too keen on it.
I rebelled in my own small ways as I grew up. My parents continued to speak Hebrew at home and while out and about, but I always responded to them in English. I still retained my knowledge of Hebrew, but chose not to exercise it.
Oh, to be young and foolish.
As I got older, I realized the incredible opportunity that my parents had bestowed upon me. Being bilingual had its advantages. When I started taking French in high school, I had little problem understanding the grammatical rules that didn’t apply to English because I was already comfortable with them from speaking Hebrew. Knowing two languages made it easier for me to learn a third, which in turn helped tremendously when my husband and I made our way through Italy, despite not speaking Italian (although I quickly picked it up with little trouble). I also grew to love that being bilingual allowed me to branch out from my familiar bubble and experience things I might not have had the opportunity to otherwise.
So when my son was born, I made a promise to follow in my parents’ footsteps and teach him Hebrew, knowing he would come to appreciate it like I did. Unfortunately, like many heartfelt parenting promises, this one didn’t pan out quite as planned.
I made hundreds of excuses as to why I wasn’t speaking Hebrew with my son: My husband isn’t fluent in Hebrew and I didn’t want him to feel left out. I felt silly having one sided conversations with my son in another language (because wasn’t it enough to do it in English?). It had been so long since I really spoke conversational Hebrew, I didn’t want to share potentially poor grammar skills. Really, the list was as weak as it was long.
As my son grew, so did his English vocabulary, and with each verbal milestone, I kicked myself for not having pushed ahead with the Hebrew. So, I did what little I could. When we played with his small animal toys, I would name each one in Hebrew, again and again, until he eventually said “parah” each time I made a “moo” sound. We’d count from 1-10 in Hebrew and label fruits, colors, and body parts together.
Slowly, he started to fit together pieces of the language puzzle. I clung to those little victories, like how he effortlessly called me Ima since he first started speaking.
And then? My son started gan (kindergarten) at a local Jewish day school and within a few weeks he was telling me about all the Ivrit he was learning. “It’s Ivrit, Ima, not Hebrew.”
I would catch him mumbling in Hebrew as he played with his Legos, and smile as he spontaneously broke out into Hebrew songs. Of course, I couldn’t help but laugh when he corrected my pronunciation of certain Hebrew words, or when I tried to correct a word or two he thought meant something different.
“No, Ima–that’s not right. You don’t know Hebrew.”
But what could I say? Yes, I do. Only I never really spoke it to you beyond a few words – for no good reason. Actually, that’s pretty much almost exactly what I said. I explained how his Saba (grandfather) spoke Hebrew to me all the time when I was a kid, and when it came to him, I dropped the ball. I told my son that I was so excited for him to learn Hebrew at school so that we could speak it together, and so we could teach his dad a few more words beyond amen. He didn’t seem upset that I had possibly cheated him out of learning another language from the get go–perhaps because he didn’t know any differently. And while I still wish I had just pushed ahead and spoke Hebrew with him from the moment he was born, I’m beyond thrilled to see him devour this newish-to-him language now.
As he learns more Hebrew, my son’s curiosity is piqued and his excitement grows. He doesn’t have the same relationship that I do with the language–both the good and the bad–and that’s okay. His Hebrew journey is his own, and I’ve finally gotten over my relationship with the language to add to what he’s learning in school. So, while we might not be sitting down to dinner tonight to talk about our day solely in Hebrew, I can see that it’s around the corner and I can’t wait. B’irtzinut (really).
If you’d like to get your kids started with Hebrew, try out these Hebrew alphabet refrigerator magnets and the Shalom Sesame DVD: Grover Learns Hebrew. Both items are from ModernTribe, and a portion of all profits will help support Kveller.