There were quite a number of years when I was growing up when I saw my paternal grandparents on a weekly basis. My mother was gradually earning her Ph.D. in comparative literature from the City University of New York, and my grandparents would often babysit. Grandpa Nathan was an extremely quiet individual, but Grandma Rose spoke freely to us children in her heavily accented English. For years I had had this idea that had Grandma Rose spoken to us in the language in which she had communicated with her own children, I would have been fluent in Yiddish by the time I reached high school. As a grandfather, I think differently. My thinking now is that had my grandmother spoken to me exclusively in Yiddish, I simply would not have understood her.
My two oldest grandchildren have reached an age where they speak full sentences: Noam turned three in November and Yehuda in April. Noam is exposed to both English and Hebrew at home, as my son Nathan tries to speak with him in English; Yehuda, however, is growing up solely with one language, as my son Elie speaks only Hebrew with him. This makes sense because Nathan is our oldest—he was nine and a half when we moved here in the summer of 1997, and Elie, our youngest child, was not even three years old when we made aliyah. When I speak with Yehuda, unless the context is obvious, there is no chance that he will understand my English. For example, if I ask Yehuda if he had fun in kindergarten, he will not react to my words. Interestingly, he will not say to me, “Saba, I do not understand what you are saying.” He will just not react. It’s almost as if my English words are some kind of background music. And so, if I want Yehuda to understand me, I have to speak with him in Hebrew. It’s true, I could perform this grand experiment where I absolutely only spoke English to Yehuda, and then in a dozen years or so, we could see if he had learned any English from me. I am unwilling to conduct this experiment because one thing is for sure: my relationship with Yehuda would be impaired because of it. In practice, I try doubling as much as possible; i.e., after speaking a sentence in Hebrew, I immediately give its English translation.
With Noam, things are somewhat different. He knows what “English” is, he knows that there are different words in English for Hebrew words, and he knows some of these English words. Still, he will never spontaneously speak in English, and if I want to be more of a grandfather than English-language instructor to him, I feel a need to speak in Hebrew—though here too I will often immediately give the English translation, hoping that that accomplishes something.
When Sarah and I were raising our children in Givat Ze’ev, we only spoke to them in English because that is our native tongue, and it was in our native tongue that we could most easily build a relationship with our children. Precisely because our grandchildren are growing up in exclusively (or close to it) Hebrew environments, the way to build a relationship with them is through Hebrew.
Postscript: I always thought that I would like to be “Grandpa” rather than “Saba”; however, “Grandpa” has lost the battle for two reasons: it is not a Hebrew word, and due to the “r,” it’s a tough word for a native-Hebrew speaker to pronounce. Do I want to absolutely insist that my grandchildren call me Grandpa rather than Saba? No. It’s enough that they experience the meaning of this English word with every fiber of their being: LOVE.
TEDDY WEINBERGER is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.