I drove half an hour across town this morning to take my older daughter to gan nitzan (kindergarten). Once we got there we sat down at a small round table next to her teacher, who was painting the kids’ hands with bright blue paint. They were making handprints as part of a Passover project.
“Come on Frieda, let’s do this together,” I said. “It’s about washing your hands before you eat the matzah.”
Her teacher looked up and said something about the worksheet and Frieda’s handprint. I looked at her and smiled; at this point I no longer feel uncomfortable with the Hebrew that is frequently spoken in the classroom and hallways at the day school were my daughter is a student. I picked up the paintbrush and started painting my daughter’s hand. I didn’t say much, because I don’t speak the language.
After dropping my younger girl off at her preschool, I stopped by Dunkin’ Donuts to grab some coffee and muffins for the contractor and his team who are completing some renovations on our house.
I pulled out my phone and checked the text from the contractor. Two coffees. Extra extra.
Extra extra? I had no idea what that meant, but I ordered it anyway. The woman behind the counter seemed to know what I was talking about, even if I didn’t.
Because after 15 years of living in Boston, I still don’t speak the language.
I first became aware of this phenomenon when I was a college student in rural Vermont. A bunch of kids in my dorm were planning to go backpacking in “the ‘Daks.” I sat and listened for awhile as they planned their trip, but eventually curiosity got the best of me and I had to ask where the ‘Daks were. They put down their red Solo cups long enough to explain that they were talking about the Adirondacks.
Oh. Right. Those are the mountains in upstate New York where my family has a cabin. My cousins and I were the third generation to spend time there each summer; we learned to swim and waterski and row guideboats under the watchful eye of our grandmother. And now I’m taking my daughters there as well. But I didn’t grow up on the east coast, and a week or two each summer isn’t enough to get to really know a place. As much as I love it there, I never learned to speak the language.
This past winter, my husband and I took the girls for a walk in our neighborhood where some of the merchants had put sand in the bottom of small paper bags and placed candles in each one. The glowing bags lined the sidewalk. The girls were delighted, and wanted to know what they were called.
“Um… I think they’re farolitos. Or luminarias. I’m not sure. I can’t remember.”
Even though I was born in Santa Fe, and spent half of my childhood in northern New Mexico, I still can’t remember which word is the right one. Because when you grow up moving back and forth between two states, never spending more than a few years in each one, you don’t quite learn the language.
There’s a literacy to daily life that can only be developed by deeply immersing oneself in a culture over time. On the surface, it’s about the words we say, the times we say them, and the ways in which we interpret them. But when you dig beneath the extra extra (or the grande half-caf non-fat cappuccino, if that’s more your style) you find a deeper message, one that says, “I know you. You know me. We understand each other, and we belong here.”
Most of us don’t notice or appreciate these moments of connection, especially when we rush through them on the way to our next stop in the day. As with so many small graces in life, we only become aware of them when they don’t happen. When we use the wrong words, or we mispronounce, or we don’t understand.
It took me 31 years to find a place where I could speak the language. From the moment I found out I was pregnant, I started to study it, albeit unwittingly at the time. Each parenting book I read, each prenatal class I attended, taught me a few more words, a few new ideas. After my daughter was born, I kept learning from the other parents in the playgroups and playgrounds where I spent so much time.
Prunes. Daylight savings time. Teething. Dropped naps. Breast vs. bottle. Immunization schedules.
To the uninitiated, these words don’t mean much. But I know, as do so many other parents, that they are code for babies who wail through the night because they can’t move their tiny bowels or because their little teeth are desperately pushing against their gums. I know they are red flags sent up by mothers and fathers who are exhausted beyond all reason because schedules keep changing and sleep is infrequent and inconsistent. And I know that some of them are third rails that are best left alone, at least for the time being.
I know this because I finally speak the language of parenthood.
I also know that I don’t want my daughters to wait three decades before they can truly feel at home in a community through its conversation. I want them to experience the power of shared words and mutual understanding throughout their lives.
And that’s just one reason why I’m sending my daughters to a Jewish day school. Because I want them to know that they will have a place amongst the Jewish people, where they speak the language.