[...] 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? [...]
Last week, I was invited to read a Yiddish poem at the first of our library's "Favorite Poem Community Readings." The event, which happened last night, is part of a national, decades-long peace initiative called the Favorite Poem Project, in which Americans are asked to transcend divisive cultural boundaries by reading each other their favorite poems. The only hard-and-fast rules for our local event were that (1) you're not allowed to read a poem that you, a friend, or a relative has written, and (2) you have to explain why you like the poem so much. Our local organizer wanted to have poems in multiple languages, in order to emphasize the international diversity of our community. I was excited that she asked me to read in Yiddish.
Of course, I wanted to share a Yiddish children's poem, since everything I do these days seems to focus on childhood. So I went to my bookshelf (both print and digital) and started flipping through Yiddish children's poems, looking for something short, fun, and interesting that would somehow speak to my experiences raising my son in Yiddish.
Before our son was born, I made a huge promise to him and myself: every single day of his childhood, I will read him at least one Yiddish story and sing him at least one Yiddish song. I got the idea from Adam Beck's Bilingual Monkeys blog, and it's had so many benefits. For one thing, it guarantees a certain amount of daily Yiddish exposure for my son, day in and day out, regardless of anything else I do, which is so important when I'm the only person who regularly speaks Yiddish around him. It also normalizes books and music, which I hope he'll nurture a love for throughout his life. And not least of all, it ensures that I spend at least this much time with my son every day. Between school and work and hobbies and doctor's appointments and raising two cats and a boisterous little baby, it can be hard to fit everything in, especially now that he's started full-time daycare. But it's gratifying to know that no matter how busy I am, no matter how much work there is to get done, I will always have time, every day, to read my son a story and sing him a song.
I made good on my promise from the day he was born. Literally minutes after he was born and the doctors had finished weighing/measuring him, they plopped him in my arms. There I was, a brand new father, with a minutes-old baby – my baby, my child – cradled in my arms. What an awesome moment - and I had no idea what to do with it! So I sang a lullaby that I'd recently heard on YouTube, ״Zet Nor Zet" by Eli Boroderl; I didn't even know all the words, so I had to make up the last two lines. But it's the first song my son ever heard. A few hours later, we were sitting in the recovery room, getting ready to say good night to our son for the very first time. Time to read him a story! But then I suddenly realized, with panic, that I had forgotten to bring any books with me to the hospital. Got in himl! (My G-d!) My son had only been alive for a handful of hours, and I'd already failed to read him a Yiddish story! So what was I to do? I made one up on the spot, about a little baby who had just been born. And after I finished telling the story, instead of saying "the end", I said "the beginning," because that was just the beginning.
Over the next few weeks, I spent a lot of time singing to my son; after all, babies do a lot of crying, so they need a lot of soothing! I didn't know so many songs, but one that I loved was "Bletelekh in Vint" (Leaves in the Wind) by Beyle Schechter-Gottesman. It was perfect, because it's simple, catchy, but not least of all: it's long! It has five whole verses! I could sing it twice, three times through, and maybe by then my son would stay calm. It's also very easy to remember, because every verse is identical except for the verb:
The only problem is that it gets boring after a while. I sang this song all the time, and it is so repetitive! I thought about making up new verses, but what new verbs could I use? What can leaves do? I mean, they can photosynthesize... they can decompose... but leaves are pretty limited creatures. They can't really do all that much.
And then it hit me: "leaves in the wind" are pretty limited, but "elves in the woods" can do anything they want! They're literally magic! So then I started singing again, and the song became so absurdly long, because I could literally just keep on going with every new verse, just picking a new verb to throw in. It didn't matter which verbs; elves can do anything!
It made the song a lot less tedious, and even rather fun, because I could use new verbs every time I sang it: no need to do the same thing every time. It was also educational for me; since I didn't grow up with Yiddish, it was a chance to practice my verbs, especially verbs like "burp" and "fart" and "pick your nose" that I didn't have cause to learn until my son was born. It was also an opportunity for my wife, who knew very little Yiddish at the time, to learn new verbs herself. And above all, it didn't have to stop...
But of course, that got tedious, too, after a while. I learned new songs and added them to my arsenal and eventually stopped singing "Elves in the Woods."
Fast-forward half a year or so, and all the new songs I'd learned had also gotten boring. I needed something new for nap-time, and since "Elves in the Woods" is infinitely customizable, I decided that elves would set a good example for my son and teach him how to sleep. So I sang:
The choice and order of verbs felt right to me, and it became a fixed song in and of itself, and I continued to sing it regularly at nap-time. Lately I've stopped singing it again, as my son seems to have developed a strong preference for other songs like "Flaterl" (Butterfly) and "Shteyt in Feld a Beymele" (A Little Tree Stands in the Field), both of which have much more interesting words and melodies. But every now and then I'll sing it again.
So there you have it: the gradual transformation of an allegoric children's song about leaves in the wind, to a wild, free-wheeling play-song about elves in the woods, to a calming lullaby about sleeping and snoring. Maybe a new version looms on the horizon. Who knows?
Did you know that Yiddish is an official minority language of Sweden? (The others are Finnish, Meänkieli, Romani, and various Sami languages.) According to Wikipedia, these languages were chosen in 1999 in order to "protect the cultural and historical heritage of their respective speech communities." This is very good for my son, because it means that the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company has recently begun producing Yiddish-language TV series for children, which are available for free online.
One of his favorite shows to watch is the series "Alter Karton" (Old Cardboard, released in 2012 under its Swedish name, "Allti Kartong"). It's about the adventures of two robots, Alter Karton and Roytinker, who are clearly modeled after C3PO and R2D2 from Star Wars. Like C3PO, Alter Karton is a tall, lanky robot who likes to think himself the leader, but is actually full of doubt, somewhat clumsy, and easily fooled. By contrast, his squat little friend Roytinker, like R2D2, is very clever, daring, and mischievous. While Alter Karton speaks with a human voice, Roytinker communicates only through radio beeps and flashing lights. In the images below, you can see (1) C3PO chasing after R2D2 and (2) Alter Karton chasing after Roytinker:
The basic premise is that Alter Karton and Roytinker own a little store, but they're easily bored, so they go on adventures. In one episode, they fly to the moon to escape all the rain; in another, they build a rocket-powered bicycle to win a local race; in another, Roytinker swallows Alter Karton's cell-phone and needs to poop it out, so they go and buy a toilet from a toilet factory. When their landlord comes by and demands a full year's rent – which the two poor robots do not have – they plant a magic flower garden, and then sell the flowers to pay their rent. When Roytinker gets hungry but decides he'll only eat potatoes, they go out to a potato farm and pick their lunch from the ground. When they get invited to a Halloween party, but all the costume stores are closed for the day, they go around town making home-made costumes from random objects. When their plumbing gets shut off, they go out in search of water to use for watering their flowers. My son's favorite episode seems to be the one about building a mysterious machine, which comes in the mail with IKEA-like instructions: Alter Karton is afraid it will turn them into shrunken peanuts or breathe fire at them, but brave little Roytinker knows it will do something much more fun and exciting.
Since this is educational programming, each episode is centered around a particular theme (space, bicycles, poop, rain, costumes, agriculture, machines, and flowers), which not only shapes the robots' adventures but is also explored in various pedagogic sections that are meant to expand children's vocabulary and imagination.
For example, every episode includes a "Can You Guess What This Is?" section, which shows us an extremely close-up shot of some image, and then we have to guess what it is. In the episode about agriculture, we are shown what looks like an enormous black dot; as the screen pans out, we realize it's one of the seeds on a strawberry. In the episode about poop, the image turns out to be a fly-covered splat of bird poop -- "ew, gross!" This encourages kids to use their imaginations while thinking about every-day objects from alternative perspectives.
Every episode also includes a brief vocabulary section. In the episode about space, for example, we are shown a cardboard sun and moon hanging from the ceiling, in front of a starry backdrop. A young boy comes forward with a pair of scissors and points to the full-moon as we hear the words "fuler levone" (full moon). Then he cuts the cardboard moon in half, smiles, and the narrator announces: "halber levone!" (half moon!) Finally, he cuts the cardboard moon into a sliver, and the narrator tells us what this is called: "moyled" (crescent / new moon). In the episode about rain, the same young boy is sprayed with increasingly heavy streams of water from above: it starts with "shpray regn" (drizzling), makes its way through "shlaks regn" (downpour), and eventually ends with the kid giggling and giggling as meatballs come pouring down on top of him: this, we are told, is "klopsn regn!" (meatball rain!)
Finally, each episode includes a "Just Imagine!" section. In the episode about space, we are asked to imagine that the moon is actually a blintz that you can just peel off your window and eat with a fork: "this is good," the narrator tells us, "in case you get hungry at night!" In the episode about rain, we are asked to imagine that you could blow the rainclouds backwards: an enormous fan is then rolled onto the street and proceeds to literally blow the rainclouds backwards. In the episode about costumes, an innocent little bunny rabbit is step-by-step transformed into a monster: some ketchup is squeezed on its cheek, an eye-patch is added, the back-drop is changed to a scary scene and then we start to hear thunder claps. "But this is just an ordinary stuffed animal!" the narrator reminds us, as, one-by-one, all of the pieces of the costume are removed.
Of course, this is all designed for older kids, and my son is only 1. But he enjoys watching it – he often squeals with delight when he hears the opening theme song, and he's recently started screaming about a minute before each episode ends to alert me that I need to play the next one. But no less importantly, this screen time also gives him important language exposure. Since I'm the only person who regularly speaks Yiddish around him, it's really important for him not just to hear more Yiddish, but to hear other voices. And I'll be the first to admit that I actually really like children's shows, too -- and Alter Karton is pretty good!
You can watch the whole series here, in Yiddish, with either Yiddish or Swedish subtitles. It's available for streaming through December 2016.