I thought I had entered completely into the world of my novel: Boyle Heights in the 1920s and 30s, when the Los Angeles neighborhood was home to some 50,000 Jews and a center for Jewish life. Then I started getting questions from Tony.
Tony is Tony Hudz, the charming man who directed the audiobook of The Tin Horse. And he needed to know how to pronounce every word—for instance, should Danny Berlov’s last name be Bear-lov or Bear-lohf? My first response was, “Neither;” my mental voice had always said Ber-lov. But Danny is a new immigrant when he enters the story in 1926. And Tony’s query made me realize I was hearing Danny’s last name as it would have evolved a generation later, when its Yiddish inflections had been absorbed into English.
In my novel, Yiddish phrases often make their way into English conversation. But Tony ramped up my awareness of how the whole soup of language would contain the pronunciations, stresses, and rhythms of Yiddish. And that the English heard by Elaine Greenstein, my main character, would take multiple forms: the standard American of native speakers like her father or her teachers, and the Yiddish-flavored English of her immigrant mother, grandfather, and many of the adults in her world. Broken English.
I’m aware of love that immigrants feel for their native tongue and the emotional impact of leaving it behind. A friend who emigrated from Argentina says her son is gentler when he speaks Spanish. A psychologist who grew up in Cuba tells me that immigrant clients can access the deepest childhood memories only in their mother tongue. Eva Hoffman, who left Poland as a child, titles her beautiful memoir Lost in Translation.
Broken English, however, has no such fond associations. Rather, it’s a source of shame, the American-born child cringing as Mama or Papa massacres pronunciation and syntax. But as Tony led me to think more deeply about the English in Elaine’s world, I wondered if there was also a sweetness to hearing this broken tongue, this English cracked open to reveal a Yiddish soul.
Every Thanksgiving I think of the Thanksgiving scene in the 1990 film Avalon, one of Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical Baltimore films. Avalon tells a multi-generational tale of a Jewish family, ranging from the immigrant generation who arrived at the start of the twentieth century to the Americanized generation of mid-century.
At the large family Thanksgiving gathering a feud develops between the two brothers of the central, transitional generation because they start the meal before the arrival of the older brother. The family tries unsuccessfully to soothe him by explaining that they waited but couldn’t delay the meal any further because the young kids were getting hungry. The two brothers end up not speaking because the older brother remains so deeply offended that they carved the turkey without him.
As I watched the movie I realized that the scene makes no sense. In this Jewish immigrant family, how on earth did Thanksgiving, and the question of who carves the turkey, attain such monumental significance that it splits apart a family who have managed to stay together through so many difficulties? And why is the kids’ hunger such a problem? Thanksgiving dinner is usually earlier than standard dinner time, so why are they so hungry? And if they are hungry, just feed them. What’s the big problem?
Then it hit me. My family didn’t look like that at Thanksgiving. My family looked like that at Passover, right down to the kids table added at the foot of the long dinner table at which the adults sat.
Now I understood the scene. It wasn’t about a turkey. The offending insult was that they had started the seder without waiting for the head of the family. And the seder ritual was why you had to start on time so the kids wouldn’t be too hungry. They’d have to sit there, bored and with food right in front of them, but not being allowed to eat until interminably long prayers were over. They’d be miserable, and if the kids are miserable, then so too are the adults taking care of them. So they had to start the seder on time.
By de-Jewifying the scene, transplanting it from Passover to Thanksgiving to make it more “universal,” they’d rendered the story incoherent. It annoys me no less now than it did then.