Para Español, Oprima el Dos!

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Earlier this week, Levana Kirschenbaum blogged about domestic disputes and gourmet food and Spanish chocolate-chip cookies. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.



As a language enthusiast I have often deplored the fact that languages, against all wishes, are not contagious or transmissible by any means. In the absence of some reliable formal base, except for some language geniuses there is rarely ever a way to just “pick up” a language, in the streets as it were, and I have often noted with some dismay that Arabic and French, in which I conduct many conversations with my relatives in my husband and children’s presence, remain hopelessly impenetrable to them.

When I arrived in New York almost forty years ago, I settled in Washington Heights. To my mother’s question, “Are you at least learning a little English?” I remember replying, without any sarcasm, “Non, Maman. In New York no one speaks English. They only speak Spanish, and I am not learning that either!” Almost nothing has changed in the Heights!

In my long years as a restaurateur and caterer, there was no missing the fact that an overwhelming majority of kitchen employees speak Spanish, and Spanish only. We would step up the body language in creative and often comical ways to communicate our wishes to our crew. But sometimes even that proved not to be enough. Like the day Delfina, a shy new girl, started working with us, moving very slowly. I asked Flora, who worked with me both in my kitchen and at my house, and who was somewhat bilingual, to interpret for me. “Explain to Delfina,” I started, “the importance of working as a team, at a brisk pace, so no one is forced to pick up the slack, etc….”

The bewildering translation of my little speech was a brutal jab in poor Delfina’s ribs, and a single word delivered in a bark: “Avanza!”

That was the day I decided to register for a ten-hour basic Spanish course, just so I could give my own orders in my own kitchen in my own personal style, thank you very much! Oh I wasn’t terribly ambitious, and to this day I serve all my Spanish verbs totally un-declined: Nature, as we say in French. I remember our lovely and very pregnant Spanish