I spent every holiday — American, Jewish and otherwise — with my mother’s Cuban family. At Rosh Hashanah and Passover we crammed into my Aunt Rachel’s five-room flat, which was decorated with ashtrays from various restaurants and hotels to which she had never been.
Seated at the holiday table we were in a collapsed Tower of Babel — English buried under the rubble of Spanish and Ladino. It took a special kind of discernment — maybe that discernment was genetic — to realize that we were not fighting but speaking at and over one another. Maria, the upstairs neighbor, banged on her floor, heralding a few moments of silence — a foreign language we rarely heard.
Silence was so foreign to us that it had no equivalent emotional state. Grief, tragedy and illness each had a vocabulary of gestures to accompany words in Spanish, Ladino or Hebrew. Each was the language of prayer in our house. English set the scene. Spanish delivered my mother from the cold, the snow, and her Ashkenazic in-laws. But it was in that Ladino my mother asked for God’s piedad — his mercy — on the Jewish New Year. And at Passover she and my aunt sang a duet in Ladino inviting anyone who was hungry to come in from the cold and join our Seder.
Hebrew was a language of mumbling, of buzzing supplication in the synagogue. It was written in thick black letters that looked like abandoned buildings. In Hebrew I could put the letters and vowels together, but I had no idea what I was reading. I was sure all of it was important and that I was being unfairly excluded from the true meaning of life.
My mother loved to parse Ladino to find words from Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese and Italian. She accumulated languages like other people collected pocket change for bus fare. Throughout my childhood we rode the 3:20 bus downtown three afternoons a week at the height of winter, for allergy shots that only Dad was convinced we three children needed to keep our asthma under control. The bus stopped at almost every corner along the West Hartford, Conn., stretch to pick up the Portuguese ladies after a day of cleaning suburban houses. They boarded the bus in groups of two or three, hugging gigantic vinyl purses, flashing wider-than-wide gold-toothed smiles. I knew these women. They had stepped out of Mom’s sepia photographs of her Turkish and Greek abuelas (grandmothers) and tias (aunts). Here they were on the 3:20, delighting my mother as she unearthed fragments of Ladino embedded in their Portuguese.
I knew Ladino as the language of the kitchen, the language of fury, the language of conversos — Jews who practiced their Judaism covertly. Maybe these ladies were the secret Jews with whom my mother was obsessed. If they were secret Jews, then we were strange Jews.
“Whaddya mean ya don’t speak Yiddish? What kind of Jew are you?”
“Your relatives peeled rotting potatoes in Poland. My people composed poetry in the courts of Spain.”
Mom’s full fury was unleashed if someone called her a Marrana. Marranos were Jews who had outwardly converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition. Marranos were considered traitors by Jews and Spaniards alike. Marranos had no one. And neither did Mom in West Hartford, Conn. My mother spat at the feet of the person who questioned her Jewishness. She was the most infamous Marranain central Connecticut.
My mother ran a summer school in our cool, dark, dank basement. She furnished the rec room with wobbly, warped desks that were too small for the students. Mom advertised herself as a native speaker, the only person in the 48 contiguous states who taught Spanish with a proper accent. Some of my friends, and many of my enemies, attended the underground summer school. The first session was always a monologue about Mom’s royal pedigree as a descendant of the duke of Albuquerque. She offered extra points to anyone who could locate the duke’s castle near Toledo on a faded map of Spain that she taped on the wall. The mean kids called me Spic ’n’ Span under their breath.
At night Mom was a class of one, drilling herself with a book called “501 Portuguese Verbs.” “So much like Ladino.” She was joyous. The Portuguese ladies were patient, encouraging. Mom’s accent was good. This much I understood. Portuguese was disorienting to me because it was almost familiar. It was Spanish spoken in a minor key. The syllables were wide enough for me to fall through and miss entire phrases. The “ue’s” of Spanish, as in bueno, were flattened to “o’s” in Portuguese, as in bom.
The 3:20 was my mother’s living language laboratory, a mobile Tower of Babel. The stretch of Asylum Avenue that we rode on the bus was the length that I traveled between English and Spanish — the length that I traveled between the Yiddish my Ashkenazic father tried to forget and the Ladino my Sephardic mother would not forget.
Judy Bolton-Fasman is at work on a memoir about her family and the year she said the Kaddish, from which this essay is adapted. She is a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.