My husband Tzvi and I were the kind of people who left notes to each other, they were short, very often functional, but full with attention and love. By the time our first daughter was born, we had been writing notes for almost 8 years.
At that time we lived in the US but, of course, we always corresponded in Hebrew. I never thought about the complex meaning of English versus Hebrew until it was time to read to my daughter. I knew that she would learn English in pre-school, so we decided to read to her mostly in Hebrew.
But then I started to think about the language of her future notes. As personal notes are such an intimate form of communication, I felt that it was crucial for my daughters (first the one and soon after the two) to be able to write them in Hebrew.
Thus I decided to teach my daughters to read and write in Hebrew. I explained to them my rationale, and they agreed to make an effort. We created our own Hebrew school and every Sunday wrote letters to their grandparents, and invented stories that the girls wrote in their note books.
Although Tzvi and I spoke Hebrew at home, there was a period when my daughters spoke English to one another. I used to hear them play school with their stuffed animals giving them instructions in English. I didn’t say anything, but was worried about the future of those personal notes. Then we had spent a Sabbatical year in Israel and once we moved back to the US I noticed that the girls naturally shifted back into Hebrew.
Around us there were many Israeli friends who spoke English with their children. The strong Hebrew accent in English of the parents in contrast to the perfect accent of the children seemed to reflect something about the relationship within the family. I felt that it weakened the position of the parent in the new country.
I had some frame of reference, since Israel has always been an immigrant society. Often when new immigrants arrived to Israel they knew very little Hebrew and their children normally became fluent in the language much faster than their parents and grandparents. A friend of mine told me that when she was 11 in the late 1960s she used to accompany her grandmother everywhere, especially to places like the local hospital and different government offices. She was the interpreter for her grandmother who knew no Hebrew. This is a typical story, those children who became the mouthpiece for the whole family were put in an awkward position. On the one hand, they gained a special status in the family because of their responsible role. On the other hand, this reversal of roles, in which the child is the ambassador to the outside world, was also a source of confusion for everybody within that family.
Our Israeli friends in the US were young professionals whose English was good enough and they didn’t need an interpreter, but still they lived in a foreign country where their children had a better mastery of the English language. I felt that speaking to my daughters in my native tongue was a better way to preserve the traditional roles in our family.
And as for the personal notes, my daughters, who spent most of their life in the US, prefer to read and write in English. But whenever I come home to find a note from one of my daughters, it is always written in Hebrew. This makes me especially happy.