I started speaking to my daughter in Hebrew pretty much the day she was born. It was part of a compromise between me and my Christian wife, who got to take her to church in return. The thinking was that we would each pass along the part of our childhood that shaped us most. Hebrew, which my Israeli-immigrant mother taught me before I learned English, was the obvious choice in my case.
At first I only spoke Hebrew to my daughter when we were alone. Then I read that kids do best with a second language when one parent adopts it exclusively. Even though my wife doesn’t speak a lick of Hebrew, we agreed that my dial would be permanently set to the language. Food negotiations, nighttime silliness, an endless succession of stories—all of this took place in my mother’s mother tongue. It was not unusual for my daughter to be in the car with both her parents, listening to me in one language and my wife in another.
Three-and-a-half years in, I can report that the experiment has been a relative success. My daughter understands Hebrew and will even speak it under duress. Her Israeli grandmother is increasingly optimistic that she’ll one day amount to something. And yet, despite all this, I’ve more or less decided to bag on the Hebrew-speaking.
Partly it’s because it was becoming a handicap in the parental competition for affection. To call our daughter mama-obsessed would be a gross understatement. My wife is the cool kid she will trail worshipfully to the ends of the earth, often by physically attaching herself to a limb. This was going to present a challenge under the best of circumstances. With Hebrew, the prognosis was damn-near hopeless.
For example, I am funny in English. Or at least I have my moments. Not so in Hebrew. My Hebrew self turns out to be much colder, more earnest, and, let’s face it, less articulate. On the best days I have the vocabulary of a precocious sixth-grader. (I once walked into an Israeli bakery and ordered a single blueberry—the Hebrew word for which sounds a lot like the word for “jelly donut,” but which, you know, isn’t.) Did I really want my daughter thinking her father was a humorless oaf?
But the identity issues ran even deeper. It may have been perfectly natural for my mother to pass down her Israeliness, but there was something gratingly inauthentic about me attempting the same thing.
This was not a conclusion I came to easily. From the time I could talk, my mother and I have communicated almost entirely in Hebrew, regardless of who else was around. (This included my father, an American Jew with only a passing knowledge of the language.) As a kid, I once answered a question my mother had posed in English, then realized she was on the phone. “When have I ever talked to you in English?” she scolded me after hanging up.
Between all the Hebrew-speaking and some periodic trips to the homeland, it was easy to think of myself as an Israeli in exile. I accepted compliments on behalf of the Israeli air force, whose reputation somehow reached my elementary school. I harbored a mild contempt for American Jews, whose relative comfort seemed to make them pasty-faced and soft. Whenever I heard one of the Yiddishized expressions they favor (say, “mah’-zul tov”), I would mentally replace it with the Hebraized version (“ma-zal’ tov”). Sometimes not just mentally.
The cracks in this bit of self-delusion have been showing for years now. Often people assume that, as a political journalist with an Israeli name, I have some deep insight into Israeli politics. In fact, I follow developments in Israel only slightly more closely than, say, Canada. Invariably, I end up outing myself as an ignoramus. The Israelis, for their part, rarely mistake me for one of their own. With the exception of a few family members, pretty much any Israeli I speak to in Hebrew will respond in English.
The low-point came in 2007, when my wife and I had lunch in Jerusalem with The New Republic’s Israel correspondent, Yossi Klein Halevi. It takes about three words to deduce that Yossi comes to his Hebrew by way of Brooklyn, where he spent his first few decades. I, on the other hand, was taught to speak with a native accent. And yet the waitress reflexively addressed him in Hebrew and me in English. I began to stew. Only later did I recognize this to be the cosmically just outcome. (Accent aside, Yossi speaks far, far better Hebrew than I do.) To an Israeli, we were at opposite ends of the status spectrum: Yossi gave up the security of his American lifestyle and moved to Israel. I seemed to be of Israeli provenance, but, as my deteriorating Hebrew attested, long ago decamped for some cushier locale.
If I were being honest with myself, I didn’t truly want to be an Israeli. I wanted the cachet of being Israeli without the existential angst. I discovered this earlier on the same trip, when a passport-control official held me up at the airport. I had been in the line for foreigners; her computer said I belonged in the other line. I waited around for an hour, at which point a weary-eyed bureaucrat showed me a scrap of paper with my Israeli Social Security number and informed me I was a citizen. “Impossible,” I protested. It was a bit like how it must feel to get slapped with a paternity suit. “Dimona? 1978?” he prodded. “Ah, right. Could be,” I said, both stunned and privately impressed with myself. It turns out that, unbeknownst to me, I acquired citizenship when I was two and my family briefly relocated to Israel.
The most immediate implication of this discovery was that I needed an Israeli passport to leave the country. The less immediate implication was that I would need to do the other things expected of bona fide Israelis—like, say, patrol the West Bank. When the full range of obligations later dawned on me in a poorly ventilated Interior Ministry office, I did what any self-respecting American would do: I decided to book it for home. “So I’ll just renounce my citizenship,” I told the woman handling my case. (We compromised on a “temporary travel document” that got me out of the country with my citizenship intact.)
Somehow, even after all this, the basic fraudulence of my Israeli identity didn’t sink in. When my daughter came along, I was determined to mold her in the Israeliness that shaped me as a kid. I assumed she wouldn’t truly be my child unless I passed along that same mix of superiority and alienation.
But the older my daughter got, the less plausible the whole routine felt. Last fall, she started going to pre-school five days a week. Like any parent, I was keen to know what she’d been up to all day. We’d turn out the lights at bedtime and lie on her bed, and I’d pump her for information. In English, my natural sensibility is patient and understated. My style in Hebrew was hectoring and prosecutorial. At some point it occurred to me that I was mimicking an Israeli. It also occurred to me that I was getting nowhere—my daughter was clamming up.
One night a few months ago, I finally switched languages. The effect was magical. I hear my daughter speak English all the time and still I was shocked by her verbiage. She would riff about what she’d done at the playground and what she’d concocted in art class. As is her wont, she would also tell me who’d bitten whom that day, and who’d broken down in tears. Part of it, surely, was that she is much more fluent in English. But that couldn’t have been the whole story. After all, she would answer me in English even when I spoke to her in Hebrew. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that, just as I felt more myself in English, I felt to my daughter more like her father.
Since then, I have settled on a new m.o. I still speak to her in Hebrew when our conversations are fairly rote, like giving instructions or asking basic questions. My emotional attachment to the language is too strong to abandon it. And I’m enough of an overachiever to want to milk the neurological benefits of bilingualism for all I can. Nothing would make me happier than if my daughter eventually became fluent, which she still shows an interest in doing.
But, if so, it almost certainly won’t be thanks to me. I’m guessing that I will speak Hebrew to my daughter less and less as she gets older—and really, I’m okay with it. If you come from an ethnic minority group, it’s tempting to see every step toward assimilation as something shameful, an act of desertion. But it’s not assimilation that eats away at the soul. It’s pretending to be something you’re not.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber