A fishy lockdown

Last night and the night before I wanted to take some time to write, but I ended up falling asleep while putting my daughter to bed each time.

For me, perhaps the most frustrating thing about Israel’s current (2nd) pandemic-related lockdown is the diminished amount of time and space that I am left with for myself, which I primarily use for writing, reading the news, and watching the occasional movie. Even under regular circumstances, most of my free time is at night when I am not working and not parenting.

My wife and I are lucky to still have our jobs during these lockdowns, rather than being furloughed, as so many Israelis have been. In fact, my wife has a very dear friend who works as a chef for a major Jerusalem hotel who is also a single mother; and her financial situation is challenging even under normal conditions. In this regard, we have humility enough to appreciate our blessings.

Still, these lockdowns are challenging for us emotionally, and, dare I say, more so for me because my more flexible work hours mean that I end up assuming the majority of parenting responsibilities for our child during such periods (one of the reasons that her English reading and writing abilities have improved over her Russian language skills).

Perhaps I would be less frustrated with this government directive, were it not for the politics of COVID-19 in Israel. Putting aside the “why” of the matter, it is simply a fact that rates of infection in our state are significantly higher in ultra-Orthodox and Arab neighborhoods. However, despite health professionals recommending that local measures be applied to those areas, the ultra-Orthodox political parties have strong-armed the government into shutting down all of society.

Still, I am trying to remain positive.

* * *

Yesterday, our daughter had a playground playdate with a friend who showed up in a cranky mood. The little boy was mourning over his inability to attend preschool during the lockdown. I tried explaining this to my daughter, and she was clearly befuddled. “Really? I like being with you and Mama’chka more than preschool!” From her perspective, you see, lockdowns are like extended vacations.

I must admit that it’s very affirming for me to hear that our child likes being at home with us. It would seem that we’re doing something right.

[In that vein, we’ve also noticed a shift in her daily discourse over the past half year. Whereas she used to constantly ask, “Do you love me?” (and she still does occasionally). She now much more often prefers to say, “I love you” and kiss us; and since we parents are also human beings, I am not too shy to admit that we like hearing this.]

* * *

One other party in our household has benefitted from the lockdown, and that is Goldie the goldfish.

In truth, we’re learning how to take care of Goldie as we go – taking fish seriously as pets is not so simple, it seems.

Several weeks ago, we decided to get an airstone and pump for Goldie, which provides better circulation and aerates the tank water. This is not an absolute necessity, but it is generally considered healthy for the fish, and increases the efficiency of the filter. All of this was new to us.

Then, at a later date, we decided to upgrade to a bigger aquarium because the smaller tank was leaking from the top. In doing so, we learned that the water level in the smaller tank had been too high – that it should have been a bit lower than the bottom of the filter. (We also received 3 free Buenos Aires tetra fish with our purchase)

During that pet shop visit, we picked up a large, plastic “rock” with “plants” on it. However, what we came to realize is that the hollow “rock” was accumulating dirty water beneath it (leaving us to wonder why hollow aquarium decorations are sold in the first place). The “rock” has since been replaced with a sunken ship of the British Empire with a solid bottom, and our daughter is has taken to using the “rock” for her Playmobil figures’ adventures (don’t worry – we washed it).

Now our current and continuing challenge has become determining just how much to feed the four fish, as tetra fish should be fed more often than goldfish. In our research, we’ve also learned that tetra fish and goldfish are not necessarily the best tank mates, and the tetras, which are tropical, are not likely do well in colder temperatures… so they may not survive the coming Jerusalem winter.

In any case, the important thing is that our daughter is very happy to have pet fish. She takes feeding them very seriously and is still trying to decide upon names for the three tetras. We’ve warned her, of course, that they may not be long for this world… but we’ll get some replacements for her if they don’t make it.

Being home every day during this lockdown is providing us with an opportunity to monitor the aquarium… so I suppose there have been some hidden benefits to the ongoing insanity…

An Arab friend?

I entered college in the Fall of ’98. Back then, I was a secular Jew and very proud of my Jewish identity. Keeping Shabbat, kashrut, praying three times daily, etc. meant very little to me; I understood those Jewish traditions only vaguely.

It so happened that my university had a very small Jewish population; and I was moved, therefore, to represent my people. While I knew next to nothing (compared to now) about Judaism, I had a positive association with wearing a kippah because I had worn one at Hebrew school in the afternoons at my synagogue. To me, the kippah was a symbol of my Jewish identity; for me, at that time, it had nothing to do with religion. That first semester, I committed myself to wearing my kippah all day, every day – I wanted everyone on campus to know that there was a Jew among them.

Wearing a kippah came to change the course of my life dramatically, but that’s a story for another time. Right now, I want to focus upon an unexpected friendship that came about because of that decision.

* * *

Freshman year, I took a chemistry course that was required for engineering students, and I saw a young man sitting in the middle of the huge auditorium, wearing a black velvet kippah. Excitedly, I plopped myself down in the seat next to him. Hi, my name is David, and I just started wearing a kippah every day!

The young man gave me an odd look, and that moment led to a truly wonderful college friendship.

* * *

2½ years ago, I published a blog post on The Times of Israel: ‘Speak to me in Arabic’

At that point, I was entering my fourth semester of spoken Arabic at the Polis Institute here in Jerusalem. Most of my classmates were Europeans and Americans who had come to Israel to work at embassies, consulates, the UN, and various NGO’s, and they all had Arab coworkers and/or Arab clients. They had people to practice with at work.

For those few of us students who were Jewish Israelis, we all agreed that outside of our Polis classroom, we had very few opportunities to speak Arabic in our daily lives. I knew that once I left my Arabic studies, my language would begin to deteriorate for lack of use. My 5th semester of spoken Arabic was my last – I had signed up for it before Papa died, but I really should have dropped it because I could barely focus in the wake of his death.

And so it was. I left my spoken Arabic studies, and my language skills began to deteriorate. I continued attempting to speak in simple Arabic to taxi drivers, pharmacists, etc., but obviously that’s not nearly enough to maintain one’s language skills.

* * *

Yesterday evening, our daughter and I went out with friends to a park and then to a pizzeria; and it so happened that our waiter was an Arab. As I always do, I haltingly told him that I speak a bit of Arabic – that I had studied at the Polis Institute. The conversation grew from there (in three different languages), and the waiter suggested that we exchange phone numbers. His name is Nasser (he writes ‘Nsser’).

Nasser and I now have plans to get together for coffee, and once my daughter returns to preschool in September and my schedule opens up, we’ll get together again to help one another with our language skills. English in exchange for Arabic 🎉🎊

As I told Nasser, this is the first time that an Arab has offered me his friendship.

To be fair, I did befriend an American from the Polis Institute whose husband is an Arab from Jerusalem, and we’ve had them over for Shabbat meals several times in the past couple of years. They’re a sweet, kindly couple, and our daughter has grown to love them in particular… but our interactions have all been in English because that is the most natural language for the five of us when we’re together.

For the first time in my 10+ years in Israel, I now have a friend to speak with in Arabic; and I am hoping that this new relationship will be a lasting one.

Speak to me in Arabic

I published this approximately 2½ years ago on the Times of Israel

* * *

February 20, 2018

This week, I am beginning my fourth semester of spoken Arabic at the Polis Institute.

In truth, I should be working to improve my Hebrew. I can get by on the street, and I’m always able to compensate with some combination of English and Russian when necessary, but my written Hebrew is not what I want it to be, as a resident of Israel. My career potential here would certainly be higher if I invested my time in studying Hebrew, but I’ve been studying Arabic.


Before moving back to Israel, the thought of studying Arabic never crossed my mind, but as a Jerusalem resident, I feel compelled to learn it.

On a basic level, life in Israel is simply richer for people who can speak Arabic. Twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs (not to mention the non-citizens who also work, study, pray, shop, etc. in Israel). I hear Arabic on the streets of Jerusalem, and I hear it spoken by many of the salespeople at my local supermarkets, banks, pharmacies, and shwarma stands. I see Arabs at the mall, but I never see Jews and Arabs shopping together or drinking coffee together. I’m not saying it never happens, but the rare instances of Jews and Arabs socializing together are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Regarding local and regional politics, I’ve spoken with many people across the spectrum about their views on the Israeli-Arab conflict. I’ve had engaging political conversations with left-leaning and right-leaning Jews regarding the peace process, the territories, the settlements, etc., but it’s come to bother me that I’ve never spoken to an Arab about these same issues. I’ve heard countless Jews (both Israelis and non-Israelis) talk about their perceptions of Arabs. I’d like to hear from some Arabs about their perceptions of Jews.

Granted, many Arabs do speak either English or Hebrew (and I once met one who spoke Russian), but not all do. Also, I feel that it’s a sign of respect to learn another people’s language. Whenever I’ve made an attempt to speak with an Arab in his/her native tongue, the response has always been positive, appreciative, and often curious. Whenever I’ve asked them to translate something for me, or to help me phrase something correctly in Arabic, they’ve been all the more appreciative and glad to help me. I feel that my efforts bring down an unspoken barrier between me, the Israeli Jew sporting a beard and a kippa, and the Arabs I interact with.

This experience has also led me to realize something about myself. On the one hand, I’m very skeptical (even cynical) about the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I don’t foresee a peace agreement in my lifetime. However, I’ve realized that I do retain hope for peace, and I believe that it can only be achieved by thawing out relations between the people who actually live in Israel and the territories. No document signed by the Israeli Prime Minister, the President of the PA, and other international leaders will bring peace here. This situation is inherently different than the “cold peace” that we maintain with Jordan and Egypt because the lives of Israelis and Palestinians are so intertwined. Again, twenty percent of Israel’s citizens are Arabs with relatives in the territories and most consider themselves Palestinians.

This brings me to another very obvious point, which I’ve alluded to. Beyond transactional interactions, I have nobody to speak Arabic with outside of Polis. Four months went by between my second and third semesters, and without the regular opportunity to speak Arabic, my fluency greatly deteriorated during that summer. The most valuable aspect of the Polis teaching method for me is that the language classes are taught immersively in the target language (like a Hebrew ulpan). This is how I best acquire languages – by using them. My Hebrew, for example, has improved tremendously in recent years because I work in a Hebrew speaking environment. Unfortunately, unlike my American and European Polis classmates, I have no substantive interactions with Arabs outside of the classroom.

In short, I need to make friends with Arabs who are willing to speak with me in Arabic. There are coexistence programs available for Jews and Arabs to meet one another, but these are not run in Arabic. I know of language exchange initiatives (I could help somebody with their English in exchange for help with my Arabic), but these meet infrequently. Something that I have not yet explored are opportunities to volunteer in the Arab community, which might allow me to interact with Arabs in their native tongue. I’m very open to ideas – I’m no political activist in the field of Jewish-Arab relations, but I wish to move beyond simply existing side by side with the Arabs around me. I want to gain more insights into their culture and worldviews. I want to engage with them in a substantive way. Most importantly, I want to practice my Arabic with native Arabic speakers, but I don’t know where to turn.

Any thoughts?

Comma or Colon

I don't mince words but 
I want to crble them up and spla tte  
       S            um                                                 r
            pl                          S                  pl
    tt        er                            atte
a                        Splat                          r
          s                          te    r                        spl
                pla                                      a  t
           tte    r                                              t   
Them across [CANVAS]                e
With    a    b--r--o--a--d                                   r
    br u sh
   b r u s h
  b r uu s h
 bb r u s hh

I would sssmmmeeeaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
                             them together -
           Are brleude really purple?
           Are yerleldow together the same as orange?
           Do ybellluoew actually make green?

I really doubt it                    

         <e (Y) e>          <e (Y) e>
                             n ' t
                    q  u  i  t  e
s e e               
     t h e 
              t r u t h

Books and activities for multilingual children

There are several reasons why my 5½-year-old, despite living in Israel and despite only having one parent whose speaks English at a mother tongue level, speaks, reads, and writes English as fluently as she does.

I suggest that parents should assume that all children are capable of absorbing languages like little sponges. Nevertheless, let’s assume for a moment that your child never learns to speak, read, or write in your native language. In such a case, your child must still -at minimum- be able to understand your speech if you remain stubbornly consistent about speaking to them in exclusively one language. That is a gift.

* * *

While I’ve touched upon our approach to communicating with our daughter in our respective native tongues (mine: English, my wife’s: Russian), speaking has been only one of several critical components to our strategy.

First of all, multilingual children must have age-appropriate books on their shelves of all the languages of their homes. Reading is crucial to linguistic development. With almost no exaggeration, I would say that not a day goes without at least one of us reading a book to our daughter. (I literally just took a break from writing this post to read ‘Walter the Baker’ to her.)

* * *

I must give my mother her much due credit.

The reason my mama deserves credit is that she is very thoughtful about pedagogy, and she has gifted our baby all sorts of puzzles and children’s games that have made learning English fun. From her earliest days, our 5½-year-old was surrounded by alphabet jigsaw puzzles, word-spelling memory games, alphabet dice, etc., etc.

Now, I don’t personally have any experience with children’s games in languages other than those of our home, but my wife found Russian alphabet jigsaw puzzles and other Russian spelling games, as well as a terrific website for Russian children’s books. I would imagine that such things are available in most countries – you just have to seek them out, and the Internet makes that so much easier than it once was.

The proof is in the pudding – our daughter knew both the Russian and English alphabets by heart (both the names of the letters, their sounds, and their shapes) before she was 2½ years-old, and she learned the Hebrew alphabet by the time she was three (Hebrew has never been our priority in the home).

* * *

By the time she was four, she was asking to use our computers and telephones to send messages to her grandmothers. At first I was worried that this would make drafting letters by hand unappealing to her, but that was not the case.

My wife taught her to form Russian letters at around the same as when she began learning to write in Hebrew at preschool. Seeing this, I encouraged her to try her hand at English, and soon she was copying sentences from her Russian and English children’s books at home.

Then, during the initial COVID-19 lockdown, she and I played a game (at the encouragement of my Mama, I think) in which we would take turns writing snippets of stories that we would make up, folding over the papers strip by strip, such that only the most recently written lines could be seen. Finally, we would unfold the papers and read the silly stories aloud to one another, giggling.

Today she and I are going to her friend’s 4th birthday party, and our little girl is now comfortably writing out the words of the birthday card with minimal assistance in English. If we were to be attending a Russian language birthday party, she could do the same.

* * *

I’ve mentioned our strategy of watching Disney movies with our daughter, but now I want to touch upon something else: YouTube.

The Internet is such a resource. Looking back at my own childhood, I am certain that if I’d had access to Russian videos on the Internet, my Russian would be better than it is today. I do speak the language comfortably, but I make grammatical mistakes, and my vocabulary could use quite a bit of buffing. My daughter, on the other hand, has easy access to videos in all of her spoken languages, and when she comes across unfamiliar words and concepts she knows that her parents will be more than happy to explain them to her.

Of course, it’s important to vet the videos that our children watch, but there are so many wonderful children’s educational channels, videos, and songs on YouTube – they’re not hard to find. Even cartoons like Peppa Pig, Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom, Masha and the Bear (originally in Russian), Pororo the Little Penguin, Maya the Bee, etc., etc. are educational in terms of developing a child’s vocabulary. These feed children’s imaginations, and I have found that our daughter is particularly curious to learn new words if they play into her fantasies.

Also, storybooks and videos reinforce each other. Our child is always more excited to read stories that are based upon videos that she’s seen, and vice-versa. Also, she likes comparing her books to corresponding videos – what are the differences in the storylines, for example? What do different versions of the same story emphasize?

Of course, parents shouldn’t aim to zombify their children in front of computer screens, but there do come moments when children reach a point of exhaustion and are unable to focus on more demanding activities such as drawing, reading, puzzle solving, etc. We have found that with careful supervision, watching videos has made a very positive contribution to our child’s development.

* * *

In short, resources are available to us in a way that they never were when I was a child. If your children’s development is a priority, it shouldn’t be difficult to fill their lives with all sorts of educational games, books, videos, etc. Children’s activities lend themselves readily to learning and development if they are introduced and conducted thoughtfully and with intentionality.

On raising a multilingual child

A friend’s wife is due to give birth this month, and we’ve had some conversations about raising a trilingual child. His family speaks English at home, his wife grew up in Italy, and together they live here in Israel. Their languages are English, Italian, and Hebrew. This is not quite the same as but bears similarities to my own family’s reality. My wife was raised in Russia, I was raised in the USA, and we and our daughter live in Israel. Our languages are English, Russian, and Hebrew.

This sort of thing is common in Israel because ~30% of Israeli Jews are olim, meaning that they come from other countries of origin. Among the sabras (Jews born in Israel), most are 2nd– or 3rd-generation Israelis. Due to its immigrant nature, Israel is one of the most multicultural and multilingual societies in the world. It is not unusual for Jewish Israeli families to speak some language other than Hebrew at home.

The differences in our family’s respective situations favor mine when it comes to raising a multilingual child. Firstly, I was raised in a Russian-speaking home and am conversant in the language, and my wife can get along well enough in English. Secondly, Israel has a sizable Russian-speaking population, making Russian one of the easiest languages to impart to an Israeli child (unlike Italian).

Still, I’ve been giving this matter some thought, and I think that there are some universal strategies that parents should employ if they aim to raise multilingual children. Following are my preliminary thoughts.

* * *

The first and perhaps most important piece of advice is for each parent to consistently speak to the child exclusively in one language. We received this sound advice from my mother years ago, before our daughter was born. (Although, I dare say that the Russian my parents and I spoke while I was growing up in the USA gradually morphed into a unique, Bogomolny-style Runglish over the years.)

Your self-designated language should not be the same language your child hears at school. I was raised in the USA, and I attended public school. My education was in English, but my parents spoke with me in Russian. Most children will have no difficulties functioning and even potentially excelling in the language of their classrooms, which will become dominant for them, particularly in reading and writing.

It’s fine to speak to your child in your self-designated language while speaking to others in another language. For example, I always speak to my daughter in English, but I speak to my wife and other family members in Russian, even in my daughter’s presence. (You must be able to pivot between languages quickly because you must focus on addressing your child exclusively in your one designated language.)

When speaking with your child, if you need to use a word from another language, you may, but only if you explain why you are doing so. For example, you might say, “I don’t know how to say such-and-such in English, but in Russian I would use the following word…” or: “in English there’s no word that means such-and-such exactly, but in Russian one could say…”

In the above situation, you must communicate to your child that you this is not ideal. Explain that you prefer to express yourself properly in your designated language, and then: you must actively look for a way to do so. For example, you may pause the conversation to search through a dictionary or ask another English speaker how they would articulate your idea in English. By striving to express yourself correctly in your designated language, you are showing your child that this is important to you.

Also, to the extent possible, discuss differences in grammar and vocabulary between languages with your child. Often, multilingual children (and adults) will accidentally apply grammar from a more dominant language to a less dominant one. The words we choose may also work in one language, but not another. Certain terms in different languages may share some meanings but be used differently. Every time such examples arise, these are opportunities to highlight the differences that exist between languages. Parents should share these insights as the hidden treasures of expression that they are.

It’s important for parents to correct one another’s language errors. It’s also important for parents to ask one another (and eventually the child) how to articulate ideas correctly in their respective, designated languages. Make it clear that not only the child is learning how to speak correctly. The parents’ acknowledgement of their own fallibility and their openness to being corrected is important. For example, when I speak Russian or Hebrew, I always ask my wife if I’m unsure of how to structure a sentence. For us, language is a family project; we each try to help one another speak correctly and don’t take offense when somebody corrects our mistakes. I’ve told my daughter, in seriousness, that as she gets older she will eventually be able to assist me with my Hebrew.

I hate being cliché, but you should find enjoyment in this endeavor. You should, of course, enjoy watching your child develop into an empowered, articulate person; and you should enjoy your own learning and development, which will occur in parallel.

* * *

In this stream of consciousness, my focus has been upon speaking with one’s child. Of course, there’s so much more than that. Books, games, videos… I will have to write more later.

Still, there’s one more thing that I must add. It is so obvious that it may not even occur to you, but I have seen its truth firsthand. You must invest as much as possible of your time in your child if you wish to impart your language to them. I cannot overemphasize this point. It’s not only about the educational value of interacting with you – it’s more. If spending time with you becomes a major, central part of your child’s life, then they will want to speak the language has been designated as yours… because that will be their key to you.

Thought, or: Language

Thoughts are rolling 'round
My mind on language wheels and carousels
Building momentum
From the spin and leaping off
Into the air
Grabbing ahold of trapeze words
Hanging from lines of lexicon

On and on they spring and swing
Tumbling free 
Through whispering breeze
Then catching bows of gossiping trees 
Who mock as they are wont to do 
The argot of the rhyming bees
Who buzz so, flitting busily

Perchance parlance 
Sticks well enough, but
Comes a thought that finds no words 
In spin no words 
In flight no words 
In wind no words 
Within no words

And so such thought is never heard 
Nor ever seen 
Hopelessly dropping endlessly 
Clutching grabbing desperately 
For term unknown forever 
Cursing wordlessly
My untold limitations