Opinion |

My Palestinian Husband Banned Hebrew From Our Home. Our Daughter Is Fighting Back

Until the occupation ends, he says, there can be no Hebrew in our home. So I started listening to Israeli music in the car. That's where the rebellion started - and its consequences

Mya Guarnieri Jaradat
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Letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Letters of the Hebrew alphabet.Credit: Rafael Ben-ari, Dreamstime
Mya Guarnieri Jaradat

The rebellion started small: Arik Einstein in the car.

After my Palestinian husband cleared our daughter’s bookshelves of Hebrew and anything related to the Jewish holidays, I complied with his wish to keep our house free of Judaism. The request seemed fair - she was attending a Jewish preschool and was getting plenty there. So I went along with it. For the most part.

Sure, there was the Sukkot book my daughter and I read in the park together. There were the Shabbat candles I would light late Friday afternoon, far ahead of sundown, stashing them away before my husband came home from work. There was the Hebrew that slipped out, beyond my control.

But for the most part, our life became Hebrew-free.

My husband, a West Banker, doesn’t have anything against Hebrew, per se. But he can’t always control the emotional reaction he has to the language soldiers used as they tackled him and pinned him down in the mud. He can’t control his feelings towards the words he heard as they searched him, as they let him go, allowing him to stand and continue on his way with muddy clothes and soiled pride.

My husband can’t always control his response to the language of checkpoints and IDs and permits. To the language of the occupation.

Palestinians make their way through Israeli Qalandia checkpoint to attend the first Friday prayer of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque, near the West Bank city of Ramallah June 2, 2017.
Palestinians make their way through Israel's West Bank Qalandia checkpoint to attend the first Friday prayers of Ramadan in Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque. June 2, 2017.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

I understand, of course. But I’ve also tried to reason with him. I’ve explained how Hebrew was the language my great-grandmother used to record family births and deaths, how she tucked that piece of paper into her bosom as she fled anti-Semitism and pogroms in her native Poland, how this Hebrew record of our history sailed with her to New York City.

I told my husband about the time I was visiting from Israel and my grandfather produced that long-yellowed piece of paper from a drawer, presenting it to me. To him, it was completely unreadable. And so I translated it, rendering the words of his long dead mother alive: "Joy! Joy and happiness upon the birth of…" and, "It is with great sorrow that I record the death of…"

I told my husband how my great-grandmother was no Zionist. When my grandfather wanted to go to Palestine in 1948, to join the Haganah and fight in the war, my great-grandmother’s answer was a resounding "No."

In my mind, Hebrew and Zionism are separate. You can embrace one without embracing the other. But to my husband, Hebrew and Zionism are inextricably linked. Until the occupation ends, there can be no Hebrew in our home.  

Then a new job sent me outside of the home.

A few months after our second child was born, I began working as an adjunct composition professor. This entailed a 30 minute commute and, in these heady moments alone on the I-95 - away from my husband and children and away from the conflict - I realized that I was free to do whatever I wanted. Provided I could also drive.  

So I popped an Arik Einstein CD into the dash and I sang.

>> Arik Einstein's 10 Most Beautiful Songs

I sang all the way to work, lingering in the parking lot with the car running as I finished my coffee and listened to one last song. When I finished teaching, I got back into the car and sang my way back to West Palm Beach, taking care to trade Arik Einstein out for toddler music as I arrived home.

I did this all semester, until one day I didn’t.

One afternoon, as we headed to the grocery store, I turned on the car and there he was, waiting for me like an old friend, singing Ani Ve’atah [You and I Will Change the World]. It was just too beautiful to turn off. I couldn’t help it when my throat opened and the words came pouring out of me. So I rolled down the windows and sang into the wind.  

Credit: YouTube

Just this one, I thought. What’s the harm? And then one became another and, next thing I knew, we’d arrived at the grocery store.

I felt guilty. I was breaking our family rule and violating my husband’s trust. But I also felt indignant. Why wasn’t there space for me in our home?

No, I didn’t grow up in Hebrew but it’s the language I spent the most formative years of my adult life in; it’s the language I became a grown up in. Why do I have to silence part of myself and my identity, even here, in America? Isn’t that why we left Israel, Palestine, whatever you call the place? So we could be free to be together?

As I helped my daughter into the shopping cart and put my son into the sling, nestling him against my chest, I made a decision. I would keep Hebrew out of the house. But my car was my space and I would enjoy whatever music in whatever language I wanted there.

And so when we finished our grocery shopping and got back into the car, I turned off Arik Einstein. Instead, I put on Tamid Nishar Ani [I'll Always Stay Myself]—that old Uzi Hitman song from Parpar Nechmad. I sang along. My daughter listened, smiling and clapping her hands in delight.

Credit: YouTube

One morning I picked her up from preschool and, as she climbed into the car, she recognized the guitar’s thrum.   

"I no like Arik Einstein!" she exclaimed. "Can you put on Tamid Nishar Ani?"

She’s picking up the words, I thought, feeling that strange, uncomfortable mix of guilt and indignation again. I justified everything by promising myself that we would keep Hebrew in the car and only the car.

So I put on Tamid Nishar Ani. The Alef Bet song followed. Turns out she’d already had some exposure to that at school. "Alef beis veis," she sang along. "Alef bet vet," I gently corrected her.

Credit: YouTube

And then I was humming Tamid Nishar Ani one afternoon as I pushed the kids’ stroller to the park. Recognizing the tune, my daughter shouted, “I want to hear it! Will you put it on your phone?”

We’re not in the car, I thought. But, we’re not in the house. The stroller, I decided, was okay. The park was, too. Every place that wasn’t the house was okay.

Until, davka, it was in the house.

There we were, all four of us, finishing dinner when my daughter - our daughter - began belting out: Alef bet vet!

I laughed. But when I saw the look on my husband’s face - like he was being pinned down in the mud - I immediately regretted it all. I’d been insensitive. Arrogant.

I hadn’t known how else to hold on to myself, to keep my link to the place and time that had been so important to me, so central to my life. But I realized then that in trying to hold on, I’d made it impossible for us to go back.

Because what if we visited the village my husband’s family hails from, where most, if not all, of the uncles and aunts and cousins remain today, and our daughter busted out her Alef Bet there, where no one knows my true identity? Where everyone thinks I’m just some American Christian lady? Or what if she starts singing Tamid Nishar Ani?

And so it is with great joy, and sorrow, that I record that my daughter is learning Hebrew.

Mya Guarnieri Jaradat is a journalist, writer, and the author of The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others. She is currently working on a memoir about her time in Bethlehem. Twitter: @myaguarnieri