It starts out like our usual afternoon together, my daughter is hot and sullen (so am I).
It’s been a long day at a desk, learning for the first time while sitting, looking at a chalkboard, getting used to these new rules, the culture of first grade.
Her backpack is almost as big as she is — bright pink with the Little Mermaid on it. She struggles to put it on, so many books for first grade.
And burdened with homework, now, already.
There are things she’d rather do, like build a pirate ship out of Styrofoam, tinfoil, and duct tape, or ride her bike down the dusty road and into the fields, or watch tv — and there are things I’d rather do, and things I need to do, too — but with a sigh she heaves the backpack to the floor, unzips it, and takes out her reading homework, and with a sigh, I sit down beside her while she opens her book.
Not even a month into school, and already she’s reading, her finger following the letters and the sounds.
And there it is. That moment when:
I think about this song my Gramma used to sing to me, a song in Yiddish that spills out of a primal feeling, a dark and shining shard of memory that isn’t mine alone – a memory from a time not long ago at all when we ran from the cossacks, when we hid from the nazis, when we were vulnerable, but defiant. They might smash our holy kiddish cups. They might burn our holy books. But we would keep learning our holy language, so that we, in turn, could pass it on to our children as the greatest legacy of all.
A fire burns on the hearth
and it is warm in the little house.
And the rabbi is teaching little children
remember, dear ones,
what you learn here.
Repeat and repeat yet again,
Learn, children, don’t be afraid
every beginning is hard.
Lucky is the Jew who studies Torah.
what more do we need?
When, children, you will grow older
you will understand,
how many tears lie in these letters
and how much crying.
When, children, carry on the exile,
in torture, you will gain strength from these letters
look inside them!
Learn, children, with enthusiasm,
as I instruct you. The one who learns Hebrew better
will receive a flag.
“Ah,” she pronounces slowly, pointing to the letter alef with the tiny t shaped vowel under it. Her finger rests just under the letter while she makes sense of it.
“Kamatz Alef Ah.” She says in Hebrew. My little girl, born in exile, is learning the language of our ancestors, the language that has sustained us as a people until this moment, right now, today.
My little girl born in exile has returned home to learn the language of our future.
And suddenly, it doesn’t feel like a burden anymore, these hours spent learning.
We are here, my children and I, by choice, in this complicated, crazy, wonderful, country. We are here, by choice, a link in the chain from generation to generation. We are here, by choice, a living testimony to all who have come before us, and a place marker to all who will come after.
And learning how to read the language that has sustained us throughout too many years in exile is not a burden. It is a blessing as sweet as the apples and honey we will enjoy together to welcome in the new year.
“Blessed are you, Eternal One, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this moment in time.” I whisper.
And I bend over the page, with my daughter, and we learn together.