I’m a young father, raising my (currently 1-year-old) son in Yiddish. I speak, read, and sing to him exclusively in Yiddish, while my wife uses primarily English. It’s been a wonderful experience, but it’s also been strange and complicated, for many reasons, and not least of all because of my gender. As I explained in the introduction to my blog, Yiddish is often called “mama-loshn,” which literally means “mother tongue.” Fellow Yiddish-speakers sometimes ask me: “How did you learn mama-loshn?” “What drew you to mama-loshn?” “I’m so glad to meet someone else who speaks mama-loshn!” Think about it: mother tongue. That’s what a lot of languages are called, and it’s a nice, if strongly gendered, metaphor for the way many kids learn their native language. It’s especially appropriate for Yiddish, since, historically, most Yiddish speakers have been raised multilingually, with Yiddish being primarily associated with women and the home. But here’s the thing: I’m a man. Even if Yiddish is my son’s native tongue, it is not his “mother tongue” — in fact, his mother doesn’t even know much Yiddish at all (though she’s learning). No, Yiddish is my son’s “father tongue” — his “tate-loshn” – the language he learns from his father. That is very strange, from both cultural and historical perspectives, and it has deeply impacted my experiences raising my son in Yiddish.
As I wrote in a previous blog post, I have read and sung to my son almost every single day of his entire life. On one hand, this is my chance to ensure daily language exposure. Since I am the only person who regularly speaks Yiddish around my son, I have to find ways of filling his world with the sounds of Yiddish if I want him to have any chance of learning the language. So I don’t just read and sing to him at bedtime. I sing to him while changing his diaper. I recite poems while pushing him on a swing. I play Yiddish children’s songs on my computer while giving him dinner. Despite the concerns about screen-time for babies, we often watch Yiddish TV shows together. And despite my typically shy and quiet introvert nature, I make strong efforts to talk up a storm (in Yiddish, of course) while going out for walks with the stroller. This is how my son acquires his tate-loshn: his father tongue.
But songs and stories are not just tools for linguistic development. They are also important for personal growth. This is well-known in the English-speaking world, though not as much in the Yiddish-speaking world, where fiction is often degraded as a “feminine” waste of time. For this reason, Yiddish children’s book publishers have recently started printing moralistic introductions in picture books, explaining to parents why it is so very important to read fiction to their kids. For example, the introduction to a wonderful Yiddish picture book, Keynmol Nisht Aleyn (Never Alone) by Leyeles Mame and Rus Bafus, explains: “the power of telling stories to children is huge. Reading together enables children to compare themselves to the main characters in the stories. It’s a useful tool for discussing a child’s own nature, strengths, and weaknesses. It is an opportunity to develop a child’s understanding of themself, of their own character, and of their environment.” Similarly, the back of another Yiddish picture book, Hershi Lernt Zikh Shtarkn (Hershy Learns To Control Himself), by an anonymous author, notes the importance of “helping children to find stories about their own little worlds, through which they can learn to improve their own weaknesses and to live their lives with good values.”
I would add to this that it’s not only children who can find role models in stories: it’s also the parents themselves who are actually reading the books to their kids. Yiddish children’s literature, just like English children’s literature, abounds with parental characters. How do these parental figures interact with their children? How do they respond when their kids get into trouble? How do they explain difficult concepts? How do they deal with their children’s emotional struggles? What are their values? What are their weaknesses, and how do they strive to improve themselves? There’s a lot for parents to learn from the books that we read to our children.
Of course, the problem is that the “little worlds” portrayed in these songs and stories are not always the world that I want my son to live in. They are typically marked by strong, traditional gender roles, which leave no room for the egalitarian nature of my own family’s values and experiences. My wife is a rabbi, loves to study Talmud, and wears a kippah, but the only characters in our Yiddish books and songs who do any of those things are male. Meanwhile, I change my son’s diapers, cook his meals, pick him up from daycare, and get him dressed in the mornings; but the only characters who do any of those things in our books and songs are female. It’s as if, when reading these stories and singing these songs, my wife the rabbi doesn’t exist, and neither do I: the father who (gasp) changes his baby’s diapers!
I think the moment this really hit me the strongest was when I read the introduction to an otherwise wonderful collection of stories, tellingly titled Mami Dertseyl Mir Nokh! (Mommy, Tell Me More!) The publisher’s introduction begins with a delightfully non-gendered greeting: “to the parents and readers” (tsu di eltern / dertseylers), and it goes on to describe the glory of reading fiction to children. But then about halfway through, it becomes clear that the publisher only had mothers in mind: “Use the eye-popping pictures and your intuitive talents as a mommy to help your children discover the pictures beneath the pictures.” Apparently, you need a “mommy’s intuition” to read picture books with your children. But here I am, a young father, reading to my son day in and day out. What am I, chopped liver?
Lately, I’ve been reading a wonderful book of children’s poetry by the Yiddish poet, Ida Maze (1893-1962). It’s called Vaksn Mayne Kinderlekh: Muter un Kinder-Lider (My Children Grow: Mother and Children Poems). It’s fantastic. There’s this beautiful poem about a mother washing her children’s diapers in a river, but suddenly the waves speed up and carry away one of her diapers. “Oh, dear waves,” the mother begs, “please carry my diaper to the other shore, where a poor woman is washing her diapers. She’ll take my diaper, which swam away, and use it for her own little child!” I’ve memorized that poem; I recite it to my son, while I’m changing his diaper. Another poem describes a toddler’s very first steps: slow at first, and a little crooked, but eventually he’s able to walk all by himself: “and so he walks, all alone, from his mother’s kind arms to the wide open world.” It’s beautiful; it reminds me of all those times when I, a young father, helped my son learn how to walk. In another poem, a mother sings her daughter to sleep, not realizing that the girl’s doll is also listening to the lullaby; the doll falls asleep as well. I sing to my son every night.
I am really grateful that such poems about mothers and daughters exist – and I am really frustrated that they are so very far and few between. For every female character in a Yiddish song or story, there’s got to be at least 20 more who are male – and the male characters are almost always way more interesting, their plots better developed, and their adventures much more fun. That’s a huge problem. Women’s experiences, names, and faces are chronically erased from the public sphere in Yiddish-speaking communities around the world; in many Yiddish children’s books, you won’t even find a single female character in any of the illustrations. That’s a huge problem. It can be really hard to find Yiddish books about girls, and when I find them, I grab them: I want my son to have both male and female role models. I want my son to grow up hearing women’s stories, and experiences, and names, just as much as he hears those of men. And I want the literature and songs of his childhood to reflect the egalitarian ideals of his family and community.
I just wish that, in addition to the poems about mothers changing diapers, there were also some about fathers changing diapers. I wish that, in addition to the picture books about mothers cooking dinner, and teaching their kids how to organize their backpacks, and helping their kids pick out clothes for the day, there were also some about fathers doing those things. And I wish that when children’s book publishers praise the value of reading fiction to children, that they also had fathers in mind as potential readers, and not only mothers. In short: I wish that when it came to the domestic sphere, Yiddish could also be a tate-loshn (a father tongue) and not only a mame-loshn (a mother tongue), because that’s my lived experience, and I wish I could see it reflected in the books that I read to my son.
Of course, this problem isn’t limited to Yiddish. English-language children’s literature has exactly the same problem. But at least in English, there have been efforts to write and publish new children’s literature that is more egalitarian, that breaks its characters free from gender roles and expectations and stereotypes. In English, there are increasing efforts to make children’s literature not only less sexist, but also less racist, less ableist, less classist: in short, to normalize diversity, and to try and represent as many identities and experiences as possible so that everyone can find themselves reflected in books. Ken yirbu: let the efforts increase! But no such efforts exist in Yiddish, and it’s incredibly frustrating.
In a future blog post, I may write about various strategies I’ve adopted to make existing Yiddish children’s songs and stories more egalitarian, to better reflect the values of my own lived experience. Some of my strategies seem to work; others feel less successful. It’s an ongoing struggle, but I guess the struggle is part of the experience.