In English, my father, like many intellectual men, could be cynical and world-weary, but in Yiddish, he was his better self: generous, humorous, a little sentimental. My father loved us, his three children, in Yiddish. Even then, though, it was a tough love.
Straightforward phrases like “I’m proud of you” did not roll off his tongue. “Ziskeit!” he exclaimed when I came downstairs for breakfast. “Bas malkah-meins, shaina maidel, good morning.” From that, and from the fondness in his eyes, I extrapolated. Still, I was the lucky one. I got the “shaina maidel” treatment; my older and younger brothers, Adam and Judah, were “kunielemel” (mooncalf) and “teivel” (devil), respectively, and that was on a good day.
Neither of my brothers was a mooncalf or a devil, although they both had their moments. I’m not sure what bothered my father about them. Some days their very presence in the kitchen, where my father held court at the table, seemed to irritate him into hiding behind the New York Times, and he would emerge only to sigh and roll his eyes at their narishkeit (foolishness); other days, I sensed he felt affectionate toward all of us but could only show it to me. Maybe he felt obligated to toughen up his sons, not coddle them. Whatever the reason, Adam and Judah grew up knowing they could do little to make my father explicitly happy. Whereas all I had to do was walk into the room.
Even in Yiddish, my father’s emotional vocabulary was limited. Growing up with him growling at my brothers, I learned several colorful synonyms for a fool, starting with the easiest (“Tippish!” [idiot]), and several more for threatened violence (“I’m going to give you such a shmeis” [smack]), but nothing to approximate “I love you.”
My mother-in-law Trudy had a similar experience growing up with old-school Jewish parents. In her Spartan childhood, she and her older brother were raised without presents or vacations. On a visit to the sunny, spacious home she had built for herself in North Carolina, far from her past, I asked her whether her parents had been measured in expressing affection, too.
“What did they call you, Trudy?”
“Mama’s neshama-leh, nachas-ul,” she recited immediately.
“Did they ever say ‘I’m proud of you’? Or anything in English?” I asked.
“Never!” she said, her eyes widening over her mug of tea. “No, it was ‘mama’s neshama-leh, nachas-ul,’ or ‘mama-leh,’ those kinds of endearments.”
“That’s how you knew you were loved?”
“Right. Of course I had no idea what the words meant,” she said with a shrug.
Mama’s little soul, bringer of joyous pride. How does it form a person to have one’s value articulated only in a language one can’t understand?
Deciphering my father’s Old World language code was a skill my brothers and I learned. When my father called Adam “Kaddish” instead of “tippish,” we knew he was thinking of Adam fondly—though since “Kaddish” referred to Adam’s responsibility, as the first-born son, for saying ritual prayers after my father’s death, the fondness came striped with morbidity. When Judah was “Shmudel,” or some Yiddish-y variant on his name, instead of “teivel mazek” (trouble-making devil child) we concluded he was in my father’s good graces—for the moment.
Remarkably, my brothers weren’t resentful of the unequal treatment we received. I did do what I could to help: I tried not to exploit my position as the princess. Because I knew he would try to give me anything I asked for, I didn’t ask for things. That seemed only fair. My brothers ended up with much more than I did—TVs in their bedrooms, video games, stereos—because they were willing to ask, or because my father’s preference was so clear that my mother felt guilty. Anyway, all I wanted was what my father wanted to give me: books.
My father loved the classics, the Victorians, the Russians, the French, the Yiddish-ists, the Modernists, the British, the Romans, the Greeks, virtually all literature created until the Second World War, but that war was, for him, what the Russian front was to the Nazi army, an insurmountable obstacle. It was as though, in some indefinable way, Hitler had won—a post-Holocaust world could produce no fiction worth reading. When he did pick up a contemporary book, it was non-fiction: history, politics, biology. Rumor had it that he read some Updike, once, but I never saw it happen. Henry Roth, sure, but Phillip Roth? No way. The most abundantly curious and well-educated man I knew was completely uninterested in any Pulitzer Prize-winner published after 1946.
At the peak of his career, as General Counsel for the Department of Energy during the Carter administration, he helmed lawsuits that successfully forced oil companies to reimburse the American people for price-gouging them; but when Reagan came in, my dad went out, and from then on, he worked for himself, which left him lots of time to devote to us and, primarily, me. My education was a pet project for him, less strenuous than tennis and a good break from crossword puzzles. When I was three, he taught me to read, and shortly thereafter we sat together in the old family room rocking chair, me on his lap and the Yale Shakespeare on mine, and made our way through Macbeth. On long car rides, when we didn’t listen to tapes of “the Canterbury Tales” or the famous British actor John Gielgud reciting Robert Browning, he fed me Hamlet’s speeches line by line until I had them memorized.
I never asked him why any of this mattered; I didn’t need to. I absorbed his self-evident pleasure in the words themselves (the mouth-feel of gey gezundterheyt [go in good health], how it rolled around in your cheeks like marbles in your hand) and then his even deeper, more nuanced joy at the stories that words, when wisely arranged, could tell.
In fifth grade, my English teacher sent us home with an assignment to present a poem. Everyone else came ready with a stanza or two of Shel Silverstein. Thanks to my father’s coaching, when it was my turn, I stood in front of a sea of desks, looked levelly into the glazed eyes of my classmates, and launched into verse 33 of Sir Thomas Macaulay’s epic “Horatius at the Bridge:”
… But meanwhile axe and lever / Have manfully been plied;
And now the bridge hangs tottering / Above the boiling tide.
“Come back, come back, Horatius!” / Loud cried the Fathers all.
“Back, Lartius! back, Herminius! / Back, ere the ruin fall!” …
I pulled to a halt only after Horatius arrived safely back on Roman land.
Though I had adopted my father’s patron saints as my own, and could always make him smile by turning to him and proclaiming, with a nod to Lewis Carroll, “You are old, Father William,” it was only natural that I rebel. I refused to ignore post-WWII lit. Instead, I embraced it.
This drove him to distraction—because it was a rejection of him but more importantly because it took me to a place he couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, follow. Trollope? He offered. Chabon, I retorted. Dickens? Atwood. I tried to lure him into coming in after me, bought him contemporary classics I thought he would like. He pushed them aside, groaning like Tevye and asking the Lord where he had gone wrong.
We both knew that one day I would present him with a modern novel he wouldn’t ignore, one, in fact, that he had been anticipating since I was 3: the one I wrote myself. If anyone could redeem a literary world in the wake of the Holocaust, it would be him, as channeled through his daughter.
In high school, I took a Yiddish class and, on a whim, tried calling my father “Tateh,” which means “Dad.” Rarely have I ever done anything so right. From the happiness that flooded his face and brightened his eyes, it seemed as though he had been waiting his whole life to hear that word. “Stera-le, maidel-meins,” he said in response, my little Ester, my little girl. From then on, he was always “Tateh.” The umbilical Yiddish connection this created went only between the two of us. My brothers and my mother were shut out.
While at college, I called him once a week, sometimes more. All I had to say was “Tateh” and from 200 miles away I could hear him smile, even if we then went on to argue about why I didn’t want to read more Tolstoy.
Senior year, I began worrying he would die. In the space of a few months, I had lost my dog and then my grandfather to cancer, and I felt certain that the next calamity would fell my father, who ate like he was twenty and looked like he was seventy-five.
I had predicted the what; I had not, however, predicted the how.
The heart attack that shook him in New Mexico was a fake out, and the skin cancer barely registered. But the dodge ball game was just heating up. The next two shots hit him squarely where it counts: first, a diagnosis of colon cancer during the run up to my wedding, which he managed to fight off, barely; and then, after giving him a chance to catch his breath, cancer again. Pancreatic cancer.
I don’t know the Yiddish word for cancer, because my father referred to it simply as his “dybbuk,” an ancient literary Jewish demon that took possession of him. He went to Johns Hopkins for treatment to satisfy his family but he knew that what he needed, and lacked, was a more drastic remedy: an exorcism. In a technological fight against an evil spirit, he did not assume that he would survive.
For the next year, I traveled home as often as I could, coming for weekends so that I could watch his face change, squeeze his hand, talk to him about my writing, and read to him from his books. My presence seemed helpful, but as he got sicker it mattered less. My mother and my brothers stepped in to do things I couldn’t. As though they had never been bruised by his preference for his only daughter, Mom nursed, cleaned, and fed him, called the doctors and administered the pills, while Adam helped move my father around the apartment, and then, as he weakened, the bed, and Judah set up an iPod and speakers so that even in Hospice, floating in and out of consciousness, my father could listen to Chopin. The day he died, when we wheeled his bed outside into the autumn sunlight, each back was as good as the other in shielding his eyes from the glare, and later, hours before the end, one voice blended into the next as we took turns reading to him from Isaiah. “We love you,” we all told my father, in English. “Thank you.”
And if I murmured, “Goodbye, Tateh,” there was no extra significance to it. He was beyond knowing.
Now that he’s gone, we mourn my father bilingually. We laugh about how when we invaded his realm, the kitchen, to watch “the Simpsons,” he would chuckle over things we couldn’t understand but would still declare it, like all pop culture, “schlock” (junk) or even “dreck” (trash, excrement). We quote his favorite string of Yiddish curses for bad drivers: “Schotzim banditem gozlanem mamzerim!” (Idiot non-Jews, bandits, robbers, bastards!) Once, as a little girl, I asked him, “What does that mean, ‘bastards’?” and he answered me, “Someone who doesn’t know his father.”
Wow, I thought. Bastards must be really dumb.
I was lucky enough to know my father: his prickliness, his inconsistency, his vulnerability, his fear. His inability to communicate was his fatal flaw, not because of how it affected his family but because it prevented him from being a writer. He died before seeing me succeed in his place, but he must have known that he had set me on the path, and that I valued his investment in me too much to let him down.
At the unveiling of his tombstone a year after his death, my family stood by the grave sharing memories and thoughts, one by one. When it was my turn, I said, “I don’t have anyone to speak Yiddish to me anymore.” An understanding laugh went around the circle. “He taught me how to read,” I said next. I thought of saying more—that words were my sword and shield, and no one would ever understand that better than the man who taught me to use them, the man who was no longer there; that losing my father felt like being thrown out of the Garden of Eden without even a gey gezundterheyt—but all I could do was repeat myself and hope everyone understood. “He taught me how to read.”
Papa-loshen – n. “Father tongue.” A play on the common expression that Yiddish is the “mama-loshen,” or mother tongue.
Zieskiet – n. Beauty, lovely one
Bas malkah – n. Princess
Maidel-meins – n. My little girl
Shaina maidel – n. Pretty girl
Kunielemel – n. Mooncalf
Teivel – n. Devil
Narishkeit – n. Foolishness, nonsense
Tippish – n. Fool
Shmeis – n. Smack
Neshama-le – n. Little soul
Nachus – n. Joyous pride
Mama-le – n. Little mother
Gey gezundterheyt – n. Go in good health
Mazek – n. Troublemaker
Tateh – n. Dad (familiar)
Dybbuk – n. Evil spirit that possesses a human body until it can be cast out
Shlock – n. Junk
Dreck – n. Trash, excrement
Schotzim banditem gozlanem mamzerim – n. Non-Jews (impolite), bandits, thieves, bastards (i.e., people who don’t know their fathers)