From the mouths of (bilingual) babes
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Letter from Israel

From the mouths of (bilingual) babes

Abby Leichman meets her newest grandchild, Avital Chana. (Elisheva Leichman)
Abby Leichman meets her newest grandchild, Avital Chana. (Elisheva Leichman)

We got the WhatsApp message from our son Chaim around noon on July 5: “Miriam went into labor this morning. We’re still home and the doula is here. I’ll keep you posted.”

At 3:15, he sent a photo of our newest granddaughter wrapped in a pink blanket in her smiling mother’s arms. A fourth Leichman sabra, thank God!

Like her siblings, Yehuda (7½), Elisheva (6), and Tehila (3¾), Avital Chana entered the world following a labor filled with the singing and prayers of her parents.

Miriam is a music therapist, and last year, when they moved into their new house in the town of Adam near Jerusalem, she designed the music room of her dreams. It was here that she, Chaim, and the doula spent the intense hours before leaving — just in time! — for Hadassah Medical Center on Mount Scopus.

Before Tehila’s birth, Miriam and Chaim professionally recorded a CD of Miriam’s original Hebrew and English songs for laboring mothers, “Movements and Life.” (It’s very amusing to hear our grandchildren singing snippets from tracks such as “I Can Do This.”)

As she tunes in to the songs and spoken words around her, baby Avital will discover that English reigns supreme in her house (except when there’s an Israeli guest or service person) and in the homes of both sets of grandparents, while Hebrew is spoken in daycare and on the street.

Through miraculous maneuverings in her growing brain, she will sort it all out and learn to flip back and forth between languages effortlessly, depending upon her listener.

Well, almost effortlessly. Especially when they are about 3 or 4, the kids often mix Hebrew and English in the same sentence, sometimes even in the same word. Or they confuse similar-sounding English words.

For instance, Elisheva calls Barbie dolls “Barbiyot,” adding a feminine plural Hebrew suffix. Tehila sometimes asks for more tomato when she means potato.

True homophones are really tricky. One year, Yehuda told us he had learned in preschool that we do not wear “shoes made out of light” on Yom Kippur. The Hebrew words for “light” and “leather” both are pronounced “ohr,” though they are spelled differently. We were impressed by his attempt at translation.

Occasionally the children lack the English translation for a word they’ve heard in school, or there simply isn’t an English equivalent.

When I was walking Elisheva home from kindergarten one recent Friday, she started spinning a fantastic yarn, in English, about the silly things she had done that day. Then she stopped walking and burst out laughing. “STOM!” she cried, giggling uncontrollably. “Stom” is Hebrew slang for “just kidding!”

By the time they turn 2, the children’s Hebrew comprehension is at a much higher level than ours. From their point of view, actually, our Hebrew is nonexistent.

Last year, my husband took Yehuda along when he went to pick up Tehila from daycare. The metapelet (caregiver) greeted Steve in Hebrew, and Yehuda spoke up before Steve could reply. “He doesn’t know any Hebrew,” our curly-haired cutie solemnly explained to the caregiver.

In fact, we have come to realize that we are a modern version of our own grandparents, most of whom spoke Yiddish much more fluently than they spoke English. As children we found their Yinglish quaint, and as teenagers we found it a bit embarrassing.

The difference is that while we American kids had no interest in — or need to — learn Yiddish beyond a few key phrases we picked up during visits with the grandparents, Israelis understand that sooner or later, they must become conversant in English in order to get ahead in today’s world.

Our grandchildren are extremely fortunate in their bilingual upbringing, and we are extremely fortunate to be able to communicate easily with our sabra grandchildren. This bilingual tradition may not carry down to the next generation, so we’re conscious of enjoying it while it lasts.

Why, the very first time we met baby Avital she greeted us with both “hello” and “shalom.”

STOM! Just kidding. For now her communication is limited to the universal language of coos and cries. But before she’s out of diapers, this sweet new little girl will be teaching her old American grandparents new words.

Our Israel correspondent, Abigail Leichman, made aliyah from Teaneck almost a decade ago. She frequently reports on her life in her Letter From Israel.

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