I grew up as a typical American, speaking only English. I should have learned Spanish, since I lived three miles from the Mexican border in Texas and my home town of Mission was 90 percent Hispanic. But Anglos didn’t learn Spanish – the others had to learn English. I stumbled through Spanish in junior high and high school, but couldn’t take it seriously. While Jewish, I never attended synagogue, so I never learned any Hebrew.
However, a latent Jewish language gene lay dormant in me. Once it sprouted, I started a meandering study program that continues to this day; even this year, I’ve started poking around in a new language. Here’s how the interest evolved.
Once I graduated from college and moved to New York, I started dating Jewish women and found many excelled at languages. They inspired a lifetime of studies that often overlapped with whatever was spoken by my love interest of the moment. If she spoke Hebrew or Russian or Portuguese or Dutch, then I wanted to speak it, too. For the past 30 years I’ve diligently cycled through languages, including several rounds of Hebrew. While I can’t speak anything but English, an ability to call a woman “motek” (“sweetie” in Hebrew) or close an email with “beijos e abraços” (“kisses and hugs” in Portuguese) sure can smooth the flow of a promising new romance.
Language lust first expressed itself with Yiddish study at the Workmen’s Circle, where I studied Yiddish with a young teacher named Sheva Zucker, who later wrote “Yiddish: An Introduction to the Language, Literature & Culture.” I always loved the sound of Yiddish and the cultural connection through my Russian-born paternal grandparents. I worked all the way through the standard Yiddish textbook, “College Yiddish,” by Uriel Weinreich, jotting translations as I went along. My bissel Yiddish came in handy on my way back from a 1982 trip to Israel, when I helped a frantic elderly woman at New York’s JFK Airport find her way to a connecting flight. Such Yiddish as I could muster was the only language we had in common, and I used it to guide her through the airport and to a bus to her gate.
At the time I was dating a woman named Adina, a writer with a great Jewish education and incredible language skills. She spoke both Hebrew and Russian. She encouraged me to visit Israel, which I did. She also ignited the latent spark for Russian in me. I had always found the USSR and its Jews darkly fascinating, with a history concocted from nightmares. My father’s family came from there, and no doubt relatives spoke Russian as well as Yiddish. As I explored writers Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Robert Conquest, I decided Russian would be the next tongue to wag. I slaked my curiosity by reading a Barnes & Noble book, “Russian for Beginners.” The copy I lugged around on New York subways became so worn that I had to tape the cover on. I struggled to make sense of Russian’s subtle “hard” and “soft” sounds and mind-bendingly complex six declensions (I still remember them: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental and prepositional).
I finally worked up the nerve to take classes through the New York branch of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship in 1987, the high tide of glasnost and perestroika. I was so paranoid in the late Cold War about this bold move that I only wrote the group’s initials on the payment check– you never knew who was watching the bank accounts. I liked the class and used what I learned during a 1987 trip to the USSR with college friends, where we hit Moscow, Leningrad, Sochi and Tbilisi, with a side trip to the Stalin Museum in Gori, Soviet Georgia. Years later, bits and pieces of Russian knowledge served me well on Jewish dating sites where I often had contacts with immigrants who could appreciate a well-pronounced do svidaniya, (good-bye). I spared them my more secretive interest in espionage literature and phrases like smert’ spionam (death to spies).
Soon after I was married, my wife and I considered moving to Israel. With a burst of Zionist enthusiasm, we signed up for the grueling four-evening-per week course at the Ulpan Center. The Hebrew-only approach was exhausting, but the course stayed with me. Then the Gulf War I began and we moved to the New York suburbs rather than Israel. Still, I soon found myself doodling in Hebrew during business meetings. Ani lo yodea (“I don’t know”) was a favorite phrase, as was ya ne znayu (“I don’t know” in Russian). There must be some psychological meaning to my choice of those phrases.
The real linguistic fun revved up in 2003, when as a newly divorced single guy I plunged into the global smörgåsbord of Jewish online dating. Given the Tribe’s spread, I soon knew women who spoke, collectively, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Dutch, Turkish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Romanian, French, German, Italian and Swedish — and those are just the languages I can remember.
My teenage language studies proved valuable from the start. I connected with several women in Latin America and I sometimes chatted online with them in my very rudimentary Spanish. One teased me about my cyber-novias and talked about our quest to find the media naranja, or our better half.
My most serious and ongoing Jewish dating-inspired language adventure involves Portuguese. Until I met women in Brazil, I knew almost nothing about the country, apart from enjoying 1960s bossa-nova albums by Stan Getz. That changed when I visited one of the Girls from Ipanema, as I call them, in 2004. The relationship faded, but I loved the music and culture. I scooped up as much music as I could find at libraries and then began buying CDs by Elis Regina, Maria Rita, Robert Frejat, Rosa Passos, Seu George, Astrid Gilberto, Bebel Gilberto, Gal Costa, Os Mutantes and others. I even picked up the Brazilian nickname of “Peludo,” or “Fuzzy.” To this day I listen to more music in Portuguese than in English.
I bought a used Living Language-Portuguese book and dictionary and methodically worked my way along. A local woman who was fluent in Portuguese gave me a copy of the “spicy” Brazilian novel Tieta in English, and a CD by the rapper Gabriel O Pensador (Gabriel the Thinker). As a fan of the music of the late Brazilian soul singer Tim Maia, I innocently asked her to translate the title of his song “Eu Amo Você.”
“It means, ‘I love you,’” she said. I knew that, but I just liked hearing her say it.
At the time I was getting restless with Hebrew offered by Hadassah. I really wanted to know more Portuguese, so I signed up for six weeks of intensive, no-English summer Brazilian Portuguese at Brazil Ahead, a language school in New York. I struggled, especially with hearing and speaking, but I made steady progress in grammar and vocabulary and the rudiments of pronunciation, and for the first time heard the supergroup Tribalistas. The class’s only “problem” was that some of the instructors were so drop-dead gorgeous that I couldn’t concentrate on the lessons. After the class ended I kept listening to the music, watching excellent movies like “City of God” and picking up the Brazilian-New York free newspapers. I even tried translating the Portuguese posts on Facebook by the Girls from Ipanema that I still know.
After a few years I had pushed the Portuguese as far as I could. That itch for the next language demanded a scratching. I used family matters as a springboard for the next big thing. My son has been successfully studying German in high school, and my mother’s grandparents were German immigrants to Texas. My girlfriend also has a German heritage, so the language carries personal connotations. In fact, my name, “Wallach,” has the unfortunate German meaning of “gelding,” although in fact it’s Americanized Russian. The explanation I prefer over gelding: Wallach is an acronym of the phrase in Leviticus 19:18, “veahavta l’reyacha kamocha,” or “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Earlier this year I checked a mammoth eight-CD set out of the library and listened to every lesson with the textbook in front of me. After romance languages and Russian and Hebrew, German seemed unsettlingly familiar. The German roots of English shine through, plus the unavoidable relationship of German to Jewish history. Verboten . . . raus . . . Arbeit macht frei. . . aktion . . . Juden — no need to elaborate on this topic.
Looking past the emotional edge, German’s structure and vocabulary grabbed me on every page. Some of the words that stopped me cold with their easy links to English. Here are some random examples: links means “left,” donner and blitzen is “thunder and lightning,” kiühlmaschine is a refrigerator (how cool, literally, is that word formation?).
So with German, I’ve come full circle. The Jewish language lover in me spent decades immersed in languages I found wonderful in friendships and essential in Jewish worship. Now I’ve gone back to the language of my ancestors who settled in Texas in the 1800s and lived there, in the case of great-grandmother Esther Bath Michelson, into the 1940s.
After six weeks of German immersion, I’m enjoying a random language-sample cycle. I get weekly Hebrew at services at my shul in Westport, Connecticut, and for conversational support I listen to Kol Israel’s Reshet Bet radio station on the Internet. When in a Latin mood, I turn to Cuban, Tex-Mex and Brazilian channels on my favorite Latin music site, batanga.com. To keep the German momentum going, I’ll click on the German lessons offered by the Deutsche Welle service or listen to Wagnerian operas.
The same languages influence my taste for foreign movies, although lately I’ve been impressed by the Polish films “Man of Marble” and “Katyń” by director Andrzej Wajda. Polish — now there’s a language I’ve never studied. The time may be right for a spring tongue-twisting road trip. On to Warsaw!