Shev al hasir v’taase pipi,” I instructed Daniel, my 2½-year-old. He stared back at me blankly. “Sit on the potty and pee,” I repeated in his native English. The bewilderment on his face deepened. “I can have new diaper now?” he suggested, reasonably.
“Lo, Chamudi. Ain od chitulim,” I said, and, seeing his frustration mount, quickly switched back to English: “No, honey, no more diapers. But…”
Too late. I ducked as the toy car in his hand hit the wall behind me; the potty went skidding across the floor. “No potty! No Hebrew!” he yelled, in tears.
I sighed. He was right, it was too much. The potty was a must, but the Hebrew, once again, could go.
One of my biggest regrets, as an Israeli-American mother, is my ongoing failure to teach my sons Hebrew. I’ve tried, of course. Before the birth of my eldest, Ethan, my husband and I were confident that I would speak only Hebrew to him, my husband only English, and we would live bilingually ever after.
This was five years ago. The Israeli-American establishment — today a well-funded, nationally centralized infrastructure with a respectable seat by the Jewish-American table — was in its primordial stages. Hebrew-based programming was just beginning to take root here. My husband and I didn’t know how, exactly, we would reinforce this endeavor: We were among the first of my Israeli friends to have babies, and the one bilingual parent-couple we did know advised against it. “We spoke Hebrew to him since he was born … but once he understood that everyone else here speaks English, he refused to answer,” they warned.
My husband and I are both offspring of Israeli-American parents, but he doesn’t speak Hebrew, either. He was raised in the U.S., when the wisdom of the times was that bilingualism confuses children and binationalism sets them apart. Speaking Hebrew to our baby while my partner could not understand me painfully highlighted the cultural gulf between us. Worse, it made me feel all alone. When Ethan took ill, at 2 months old, and I faced the possibility of his death with my husband but without my family by my side, Hebrew took on the ring of isolation — cold, definitive isolation. I dropped it.
I tried again when Ethan was 2. All my friends had babies by then, and they were all speaking Hebrew to them, getting together at the now prevalent Hebrew music classes, story times, and Kabbalat Shabbats. The tables have turned: Now I was isolated for NOT speaking Hebrew to my son. Scrambling to correct course, I enrolled him in the same Hebrew music class my friends attended, vowing to switch over to Hebrew at home as well. But Ethan didn’t like the taste of exclusion any more than I did, and would run out of the classroom to hide in the broom closet. “Can’t you at least say the instructions in English, so that he can participate?” I begged the madricha (counselor).
“This is a Hebrew-immersion program for Hebrew-speaking, Israeli-American children. No English. He’ll adapt, kids are very good at that,” explained the young madricha, who obviously didn’t have any 2-year-olds of her own. Seeing my mulish expression, she added, “Maybe you should put him in a program for English speakers who want to learn Hebrew.”
I stared her down. We both knew that a program for English speakers likely meant enduring tedious, socially awkward interactions with nice but clueless American-Jewish parents who I would ultimately fail to befriend and inevitably offend while trying to do so. Being Israeli herself, she stared me right back down. Ethan and I left that class, and gave up on Hebrew at home shortly after.
I picked it up again when Daniel was born, and this time nearly made it. There was something undeniably sweet and nostalgic about singing Hebrew lullabies to my infant. I was settled now, less scared and Hebrew was evocative more of a faraway home than of a home lost. But Ethan was jealous of the newcomer and of our private language. Not wanting him to see his baby brother as the Zionist usurper, I put switching to Hebrew on hold. A couple of years passed.
This time, though, it’s different. This time they both actually want to learn the language — we just came back from a visit to Israel, it’s still fresh in their minds, and they are highly incentivized to curse their Israeli cousins out in Hebrew — but now Daniel has to learn how to go on the potty, and the going is hard enough without going in a foreign language. Not to overwhelm him, maybe I should put it on hold just one more time?
We’ve been in a standoff for nearly an hour. “Daniel, Shev al hasir v’taase pipi,” I give it a last-ditch attempt, “sit on the potty and pee. Please … B’vakasha?” I groaned. Suddenly, something clicked in his expression. He stared at me intently, then back at the potty, then at me. “Lo,” he said deliberately, and walked away.
Orli Santo is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.