My mother’s eyes,
My father’s face
His quiet voice
An uneven landscape,
Still in formation
I was shaped by past-history,
To this day
I strip the layers,
To uncover truths forgotten,
Vehicles to broken pieces
Needing to be glued
Her curls, so admired
His quiet courage, the one of a leader
Her language left behind
With severed family life
Was never to become my mother-tongue
Turbulences I inherited from my parents,
Their features etched into mine,
These I will leave to my children
When the time comes
Language as a Legacy
“Her language left behind
With severed family life
Was never to become my mother tongue”
As a writer, I consider language one of my most precious assets. Lately when I feel homesick or ponder the inevitable end, or when I find myself speaking English to my daughters and cut myself short, to revert to Hebrew, my mother-tongue, and theirs, I think of my mother.
Ironically my mother’s mother-tongue was not Hebrew, neither was my father’s. Hebrew was their choice not only of a new language but also of a new life that will bear no resemblance to the one left behind. I can stretch the irony even further and point out that the Hebrew my parents and everybody else spoke in those first years of the new state of Israel was no one’s mother-tongue. It was a new crafted language, and while anchored in the Biblical one, it branched out with new phrases and idioms and even slang.
My parents had to struggle with this new–old language, and while my father made it, over the years, his own; my mother was never entirely comfortable. Being torn from her true mother- tongue (German) at the age of fourteen, she was never really at ease with Hebrew, and yet she never spoke to me in any other language. Her language while not officially banned was to remain her secret refuge.
It is evident to me then, that when talking about mother-tongue, I am talking about more than just vocabulary. I am speaking about myself at the deepest layers of my being; I am referring to an enormous pool of collective wisdom, cultural experiences, and great pain. Therefore, it is so difficult for me to ignore the feeling that by choosing to write in a language that does not belong to me I am betraying my parents’ trust. I am walking away from what was passed to me to keep and cherish; a legacy that goes deeper than words.
Would it be easier to write in Hebrew, I keep asking, especially on my visits to Israel when I listen to myself talking, amazed at how the language rolls with ease and the words so accessible. I have no need to search painfully for the ‘right’ word or work hard at making myself understood. One simple word carries an entire world of shared knowledge. I am not sure what the answer is, perhaps when I write in Hebrew there is too much self-awareness, too much inner criticism, too many people hovering over my shoulders watching me. Oddly, when I write in English, even though it sounds (and often looks) like I am having a tough time, secretly I am enjoying myself, it is freeing, and I can breathe.
I continuously argue this language conundrum with myself and wonder, is that the legacy that I will leave my daughters? One of confusion and unrest. Or one that cherishes the past and let it be a guide and an ally.
Let these words then, be my legacy;
“Be true to yourself.
Do what feels right.
Don’t let the past control you,
Let it be your guide.
Never forget who you are
Personal and family history
Are a rich reservoir
Wisdom to be built on,
And merge into your lives.”
I am pretty sure that my mother will read these words and nod in agreement.
Ariela Zucker was born in Jerusalem in 1949. She started writing nonfiction, mostly memoir, and discovered the great joy of writing poetry only recently.