Don’t learn Yiddish, said my great-grandmother to my grandmother, her Vienna-born son’s Calcutta-born bride –
Four languages between them: Yiddish and German, English and Hindi,
Four languages between them like a wall –
Don’t learn Yiddish, it’s a mamzerloshen, a bastard language, a mongrel tongue,
Learn German, speak to me in German instead.
And so she did.
But the language of my soul is a mamzerloshen…
It’s Yiddish: the mamaloshen, language of the shtetl, Peretz and Bashevis Singer, the stage at the Grand Palais and cafes on the Finchley Road,
The Baal Shem Tov and the Wise Men of Chelm,
Galitzianers and Litvaks,
Sad songs, shlemiels and shlimazels, jokes and insults –
“I’m educating my grandchildren! It’s a dying language!” cried my grandfather amidst gales of laughter as he carefully explained to us the difference between a young pisher and an alter kaker –
Plastered on posters on East End walls, mumbled into mobiles in Manchester,
I speak English, Yiddish and rubbish…
It’s German: language of reluctant joy,
My grandfather’s songs : In dem Lande der Chinesen, bin ich noch nie gewesen…
Ein Hund kamm in die Kuche, und stahl den Koch ein Ei –
I’ve still never been to China, and things didn’t end well for the dog, either –
The German I loved to learn at school, the German of a frozen forest on a snowy mountain in February,
Of the evil ones carved into a shared gravestone in a Vienna cemetery and the old lady lying alone beneath it who wouldn’t let them win.
It’s Hindi: the language that was never quite ours,
Ayahs and tamarind trees and a parrot shouting, “Memsaab!”
Nursery rhymes: Muffeti Mai and the spider that, not content with sitting down beside her, grabbed hold of her silken sari,
Fingers and a thumb,
A red bed covered in diamonds.
It’s Arabic: my great-grandparents’ secret language that followed them across the sea from Baghdad,
Untranslatable and evocative,
Sterilized and landless in a university classroom,
Open the door! Open the door!
A child stands carrying the bread of affliction.
“Where are you going?” “To Jerusalem.”
It’s Hebrew: the songs on my childhood tapes, the hand-formed letters black against the parchment of a Torah scroll,
The picture books my cousins brought from Israel,
Textbooks for a university degree,
Prayers and psalms and the shouts of a taxi driver in a heatwave,
Shema Yisrael! I’ve spent my life listening,
You were always mine, you were never mine, one day you will be mine…
It’s English: my mother tongue,
Shaped by invaders, a mongrel like the rest,
The language of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens,
East End housewives, carpenters and hairdressers,
The halting words of a refugee,
London-Manchester debates (no, I do not pronounce the word salt funny),
The Tube announcement lady.
My mamaloshen is a mamzerloshen, a glorious mishmash,
Written on my soul in black ink and kosher wine and date syrup,
The swirling letters running together and calling out to the past.
Speak to me.