Accentuating the Accent
My grandfather (zeide) died 77 years ago when I was only nine years old. And still, I can hear his voice chanting his prayers. He could read everything in “ivriss” but he could not speak “ivriss”… only Yiddish.
I remember stories he would tell me about Maishe (Moses) and King Shloime (Solomon) and “Yankel’s” (Jacob) favorite son “Yossele” (Joseph).
My paternal grandfather was a Litvak, whereas my maternal family were Galitzianers. The Litvak side would say “Koidesh koidesh koidesh” and the Galitzianers would say “koodish koodish koodish”.
Zeide would always remind me how important it was to do “mitzvois” (mitzvot) and he would take my ten little fingers and count out ten “mitzvois” which were incumbent upon me to do. I remember today his story of “mitzvois” but I cannot remember which ones they were.
Occasionally I would visit zeide in his shtiebel, Linas HaTzedek, and he would pick me up in his arms and shower me with kisses.
“Ver iz dos?” (Who is that?) asked some of his fellow daveners. And zeide always replied “dos is mein tayere shaina einekel” (This is my dear beautiful grandson).
Now in my old age I forget many things. I cannot remember what I ate for supper last night. But I still remember the few years of my life when I was so happy to love and to be loved by my zeide.
I think he would have been very proud of me. If he were alive, perhaps he would talk to me in “ivriss” and I would respond to him in ivrit.
It is his accent that I remember so clearly. Years later, remembering it, I could always smile. I still see zeide sitting at the kitchen table, a black square yarmulke on his bald head, sipping tea from a glass that once held a yahrzeit candle. First, he would put a sugar cube in his mouth, then he would pour some hot tea from the glass into a round saucer, and when it was cool he would sip it.
From a bowl of fruit on the table he would choose a red apple or a juicy orange and with his small pen-knife he would peel it, slice it into bite-size pieces, recite a bracha as he slid the pieces gently in my mouth, and while I was chewing on it, he would kiss my head, pat my hair and tell me “a gezunt leben auf dein keppele”, a healthy life upon your head.
My grandchildren have not heard me speaking to them in Yiddish. Rak ivrit. Only Hebrew. “Ivrit hi sfat ha-am ha-Yehudi”… Hebrew is the language of the Jewish people.
I often wonder what we would have done without the genius of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of the re-born modern Hebrew language. His complete set of the Hebrew-language encyclopedia is one, if not the largest, of language encyclopedias.
And we have repaid him in every city, town and village in Israel by proudly creating a rehov Ben-Yehuda, a Ben-Yehuda street. His name is the most popular and widely known name across the length and breadth of our country.
We once had a language war in Israel. It happened shortly after the first world war. The Haifa Technion began instruction in all classes in German, since the financial sources to create the famed institute of technology was mainly funded by Jews living in Germany.
But the students revolted. They refused to communicate in German. They went on a strike and did not attend classes until the German language was set aside and was replaced by modern Ivrit. Rak Ivrit !
Yet, in spite of the fact that I taught Hebrew language in the university, I often long to hear my zeide’s voice again as he recited his prayers in “ivriss”.
Hayu zmanim. Those were the days.