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Feb 7 2013

Parenting in a Different Language

By at 11:55 am

parenting in Hebrew“We didn’t sign our son up for preschool,” my ex messaged me this morning.

Huh?

Evidently, somewhere in between everything, Expat Barbie over here missed the memo. Literally. A memo in Hebrew that went out to the parents about signing up for gan.

And ooohhhh, this raised issues for me. Nasty, mean issues like crusty alligators that lurk beneath the surface of my (deep) neuroses, emerging periodically to bite and snap in a carnivorous power struggle.

I’m reminded of a girl in my elementary school–Shella had chocolate eyes and hair that shone like the sun at high noon. At first, she wore dresses with too many frills. At first, her mouth shaped her words differently than ours. But that began to change. She cut her long silvery blonde hair by herself with a pair of toy scissors. She started wearing ripped jeans and t-shirts, just like us. American slang scattered from her lips carelessly, tripping her parents as they stumbled to catch up to her.

And at parties and on playdates, her parents were parlayed to sidelines. They’d speak to her in Russian, and she’d ignore them. They’d shout at her to LISTEN, and she’d run away. And with lilting language, they would try to coax her back, but it never worked. She’d slam the bedroom door and turn up the radio.

New Kids on the Block would shake the walls while her mama would pound on the door.

Vikluchi muziku!!!” Her mother would shout.

“Don’t tell me to turn down the music! You never understand me!”

(Let’s be real: Parents and children don’t always speak the same language even when they¬†do¬†speak the same language. For Shella’s parents, this was a two-fer.)

And so it went: Shella’s parents watched her slip away into a world that wasn’t theirs.

When we came to Israel, I thought about Shella’s mama, and I promised myself that I would do whatever it takes to not be like her. At first I was embarrassed to twist my tongue over the unfamiliar words in Hebrew. At first, I was afraid to make a mistake or say something stupid. Because the thing is, in English, I’m smart. I know my shit. I know how to navigate bureaucracy and how to negotiate with my children over why they need to wash their hands before dinner, or why they can’t eat marshmallows for breakfast.

But in Hebrew, I’m gobsmacked. It’s like waking up after getting hit with an anvil and little cartoon birds with yarmulkes are flying in circles over my head.

Shalom shalom shalom shalom shalom they tweet ad nauseum until I’m nauseous.

And this means I parent differently.

When we’re alone at home, I speak English to them. I tell them stories about Los Angeles, and we look at pictures of my family–old pictures, crinkled around the edges that show my mother’s mother sitting in a toy wagon. “She looks like me, mama” my daughter says, pointing at her great grandmother’s pretty face. I show them old videos so they can see the way I grew up. They laugh while they watch my father get soaked by an errant hose at my 5th birthday party. “Is that you, Mama?” my son asks pointing to the sun-browned American child in cutoff shorts and a purple shirt.

It is.

But when we’re around other kids, I speak in Hebrew because I want to fit in, too.

“How’s your Hebrew so good after only being here two years?” people ask.

“My kids are teaching me.”

It’s a poignant role reversal, and I love it. They let me in their world through their language, and I let them in mine the same way. And it’s working. Mostly.

They don’t like to speak in English, but I know they understand. And sometimes, they’ll surprise me. Like last week when we were at the market and I dropped a can of tomato sauce on my foot.

“Fuck!” I exhaled as my eyes prickled with tears and pain radiated through my foot.

“Fuck! Fuck!” my son chirped while rummaging through the toy bin.

Out of the mouths of babes.

It’s a tricky balance: I didn’t want my kids sidelined, and while I will never be as Israeli as them, I didn’t want to be like Shella’s mama, nodding and smiling even as her daughter would insult her in rapid fire English. I didn’t want to be like Shella’s mama, a relic from another era. If my kids are going to talk shit about me, I’m going to know exactly what they’re saying and exactly how to respond.

Still, there are these moments when I realize that I am different. Moments when I realize that I am missing out on the nuances–like a memo in Hebrew about signing your kid up for preschool. And these are the moments that suck so hard that I think about trotting back to LA where the signs make sense. Look. I’ll break it down for you. I love it here. But parenting in another language is freaking hard.

But I’m lucky, and the lessons of Shella’s mama are carrying me forward. Because in my desperate effort to speak Hebrew, I’ve actually managed to speak Hebrew. And because of this, I’ve made friends in Hebrew–friends who will show me how to read the signs until my kids are old enough to help me.


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