Just in case having one husband, three kids, and a half dozen freelance writing jobs weren’t enough, I’ve recently added another activity to my already tottering plate: taking the three aforementioned kids (expressing varying levels of enthusiasm) to JAR-Ptitsa, a new program at our temple designed to teach Jewish children about their heritage via music, art and drama… in Russian.
My African-American husband had no objection to it (especially as it leaves the house to himself for several hours while we’re gone), but he did point out, “You realize that’s the equivalent of me teaching the kids about their culture at a Friends of the Confederacy meeting.”
His point being: Why am I so determined to teach my children Russian when it’s the language of a country that, as far as he’s heard from every Soviet immigrant he’s ever met (and he’s met more than his share; not to mention spent many an evening as the only non-Russian speaker in a crowd), Jews were at best shunned, on average mistreated, and at worst, killed?
Teaching them Hebrew, he understands perfectly. But, why Russian?
It took some thinking on my part. But, eventually, I had an answer for him.
My desire to have my children understand and–God willing–eventually speak (right now, they tend to listen in one but still answer in the other) Russian has nothing to do with a love of Pushkin (though I am named after a heroine in one of his poems), Anna Karenina (I thought her husband got a bum rap), or Tchaikovsky’s music.
I am not enamored of romanticized Russian culture, with its tales of horse-drawn sleighs speeding fur-draped noblewomen about the tundra (unlike those who believe they were all Cleopatra in a past life, I’m pretty certain that had I been born in the time of the Czars, nobility would not have been my station) on their way to glamorous balls in ornate palaces where the caviar and vodka flowed like… like… like whatever it was the serfs were sweeping up on their hands and knees outside. Again, I’m pretty sure that if I were around in those days, my place of residence would look more like the Fiddler on the Roof’s.
Nor am I pushing the second language because years of research has shown that learning more than one way to communicate (it doesn’t have to be verbal, sign language counts, too) helps develop an infant’s cognitive abilities, strengthens their focus, and builds more neurological pathways within the brain. It also increases a person’s earning potential and expands their professional opportunities (not to mention, presumably, their social ones).
That’s very nice, but it’s not my primary motivator.
My primary motivator for my kids learning Russian is because it’s the language my parents and other extended family speak. My parents manage English, too, of course. But, their first, instinctive, reflexive language is Russian.
I want my kids to really get to know these people who are two generations, a continent, and several lifetimes removed from them. And I think language plays a key role in that. Becoming acquainted with Russian means becoming acquainted with a time and a place and a world that (to go back to my husband’s earlier example) is just as much gone with the wind as the Antebellum South. Their grandparents, and their grandparents’ native language, is my kids’ strongest link to not only what was, but how it was–and how it wasn’t. Sure, they can read about the Soviet Union in books and they can learn facts and dates and maybe even gain insights that lead to outstanding college papers and cocktail party arguments with members of the American Communist Party. But, it will be at a distance. A distance which being told the same thing by someone who actually lived through it, if not removes, then at least transcends a bit.
Russian, to me, isn’t Pushkin or Putin. It is, quite simply, the language of my family. When we all get together, I want my kids to understand the stories that are being told and the jokes that are being made, and the references to people no longer there. I want them to feel like they belong, like they’re a part of what’s being said, rather than like neutral UN observers wearing bulky headphones, always a beat behind trying to figure out why that angry, little, bald man is beating the table with his shoe. I want them to get to know the family members around them, before it’s too late. To observe them in their natural habitat, as it were, rather than hear them struggling with a syntax that will always feel somewhat forced and stilted and, as a result, limit the interaction.
For my kids, I don’t care if Russian introduces them to Czars with The Great appended to their names, to internationally renowned architecture, to classic literature, to politics, or to the fact that vodka can be distilled from a potato (though all are interesting topics in and of themselves, no doubt). For my kids, I just want Russian to bring them home. It’s not the language whose memory I’m trying to keep alive. It’s the people it came from. The language is merely an instrument.
For more on teaching languages to your kids, read Alina’s previous attempts to teach Russian to her kids, how one mom screwed up the bilingual thing, and how Jewish preschool can help your kids learn Hebrew.