What's a Father to Do When His Immigrant Kids Forget Their Native Tongue

My English is poor, my kids' Hebrew and Arabic are fading, but my wife and her PhD are thriving.

An illustration showing Sayed Kashua carrying Arabic, English and Hebrew letters on his back.
Amos Biderman

I’m the only person in the house, and maybe in the whole town, who’s occupied with the Hebrew language. By “occupied,” I mean that I spend many long hours – or at least that’s how it feels – reading and writing the language as part of my daily routine. Actually, Hebrew has become a reading-and-writing language, and less of a speaking language.

I have a few Israeli friends here with whom I converse in Hebrew when we meet, and occasionally I speak with friends in Israel by phone, but that’s not enough to make Hebrew a spoken language for me like it used to be. And maybe it’s better that way, too. First of all, because everyone who knows me would rather I spoke less, no matter in what language; and second, because in reading and writing I don’t have to worry about my accent, even though I sometimes add or drop a yod or a vav when I type, too, and then I thank God for the computer program’s automatic accent-fixer.

In addition to books, screenplays and articles, I also read lots of news – too much news – in Hebrew. At first it was out of interest and a feeling of national masochism that I required in order to feel that I was still among the living. After a time I began to read the Israeli newspapers out of habit, and of late I read them only because of my writing commitment and the need to know what exactly is going on over there.

I can tell you that from here it doesn’t look as though anything has changed. The same public dialogue keeps replaying itself over and over, time after time, in an opaque cycle of preoccupation with internal disputes. It’s a vicious culture, wrapped in despicable nationalism and disguised as a progressive bubble in contrast to the savage neighborhood within which the country must survive. There are times when I’m no longer capable of reading about it.

Excuse me for sounding patronizing, as is the tendency with people who have abandoned the country but still try to preach to those still living there, but I truly feel your pain, and also pity you a little. What I don’t understand is how you can live in a country where events happen so intensively, so shatteringly – where the rift just grows from day to day, from hour to hour. I don’t know whether, when you’re there and living amid the real battle, things maybe become part of routine; you learn not to see them, instinct dulls the senses. I hope that’s how it is with you, because I’m telling you from here that it looks like a madhouse, like true insanity, this whole confrontation between Tahounia and Adi Shilon and the other celebs.

Lucky for me that I’m raising my children far away. (Incidentally, we live in a really boring place, depressing as dust, where there’s nothing to do and all day long people steal and rob and shoot one another. I’m also not sure how much they like Israelis here, I think they hate them a lot. So in case Roni Daniel’s kids decide to leave the country, as the gung-ho Channel 2 military correspondent intimated – this is absolutely and definitely not the place for them. But people say Australia is a paradise.)

In less than two years, I’ve become the most pathetic speaker of English in the house, even though I spoke it quite well when we got here. Children are children, the language isn’t afraid of them nor they of it, and my wife, who fought with the language to a point where she was anxious, ashamed and panicky whenever she had to say a word, now feels more comfortable reading and writing in English after two years of demanding doctoral studies.

I’ve always wanted to be married to a PhD. I always had inferiority feelings about academics. I like PhDs, even though they strut around, speak in codes that only they understand, and act like a closed group that’s better than everyone else. In fact, I feel so threatened by the wisdom of PhDs that I sometimes force myself to read Gadi Taub in order to get back a little of my self-confidence.

These days, when I speak with my children at home, I don’t intersperse the Arabic with Hebrew words anymore – no, not out of any sense of national commitment, but because the kids, and especially the boys, now barely understand Hebrew at all. Their Hebrew, in which they were once fluent and which they used even more than Arabic, certainly more than literary Arabic, has totally vanished. I am very sorry that they no longer understand the language; I hope that, somehow, it’s been stored somewhere in the lobes of their brains and will come back naturally to them in the event that we return to Israel. In the meantime, Arabic is more important, and I’m glad they understand it, or so I thought until last week.

On Saturday, we went out to eat in a downtown restaurant. (Again, it’s a crappy downtown that hardly merits the title. There are two restaurants in all, on top of which people get stabbed here all the time, and with my own eyes I saw policemen beating up a Jewish supermarket employee. All the Jews here work either in the supermarket or at the mall. Only Australia, I’m telling you.)

Anyway, the first restaurant (of the two) was closed, and my younger son threw a fit on the street, screaming that he wanted to go home, pummeling me and cursing me out in perfect English. Whereupon I, in an educational act, sat him down on a public bench and told him that he wasn’t going anywhere until he apologized, and that he was in for punishment as soon as I figured out how to explain that in English. In the meantime, I asked my wife and the other two children to look for a suitable restaurant where seating was available, until I calmed the younger one down. A few minutes passed, he regained his composure and apologized, and then his older brother arrived and said Mom told him to tell me that she found an excellent place – she heard that they have terrific sushi – but that there was no room for me there because there was only a small table, so I should wait in the car.

My middle child then turned on his heel and ran back to the restaurant. I boiled with anger. How could she do that to me? Was she serious? She finds a table for three and leaves me outside with her little boy? Let me tell you that since that doctorate, I don’t know her anymore. Is she ashamed of me? Offended to the depths of my soul, I told my youngest that everything would be fine, that I would make it up to him, I’d buy him a cake, but that we needed to wait until Mommy finished eating her sushi. Yummy for her.

A few minutes went by, during which I sang Zohar Argov’s “Alone” to myself quietly, and my wife emerged from the restaurant. “What – you don’t feel like sushi? Why aren’t you coming in?”

“Why?” I replied. “Because you asked me to wait in the car and said there’s no table for five, that’s why.”

“I knew it,” she said, and then explained that she’d sent out our older son because she’d forgotten her phone in the car, and that she’d been afraid of this for some time, but now she knew for sure, “that our son doesn’t understand Arabic anymore.”