Tova Ricardo was J.'s 2019 summer intern. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Tova Ricardo was J.'s 2019 summer intern. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Wandering in translation, learning to speak the language of my people

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

I am the descendant of Ashkenazi Jews who ordered deli meats in Yiddish, davened in Hebrew and assimilated into English. Due to diasporic persecution and the pressures of cultural conformity, I cannot speak a language murdered out of my bloodline.

In the early 20th century, my family immigrated to Brooklyn after escaping Russia’s vehement anti-Jewish violence. They resided in the historically Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park, passing down colorful matryoshka nesting dolls and maintaining Yiddishkeit in the new country.

I identify as Jewish because my family’s commitment to their traditions has been passed down to me. Yet I am still cognizant that not all of our Ashkenazi heritage has survived to this current generation.

In the early 20th century, Eliezer Ben Yehuda was reimagining ancient Hebrew into a modern spoken language. At the same time, Jewish immigrant families were being confronted with cultural assimilation as they became Americans, a still undefinable and convoluted identity marker. Yiddish, the language of the Ashkenazim, was spoken by a large majority percent of the 6 million Jews killed in the Shoah. Currently, it is a living language only among the ultra-Orthodox communities of Israel, North America and Europe.

Aging into young adulthood, I became increasingly aware of my inherited yet distant proximity to (modern and biblical) Hebrew, Yiddish and selective customs that managed to survive in America.

I did not grow up in traditional American Jewish culture. I never had a bat mitzvah, I never went to Jewish summer camp, and I only attended Hebrew school occasionally. I fluctuated among various local synagogues, never forming strong congregational bonds until my family joined a Chabad when I was in high school.

In addition, I navigated the world as a visibly black child whose identity was frequently questioned, so my young Jewish upbringing was largely shaped by what I was isolated from or what I never had.

I did not grow up in traditional American Jewish culture. I never had a bat mitzvah, I never went to Jewish summer camp, and I only attended Hebrew school occasionally.

When I was a child, I sat in front of a biblical Hebrew learning book several times a week and practiced writing out the various letters. I never thought deeply about the implications of my study, since no one spoke Hebrew fluently in my household. Hebrew and Yiddish phrases would come up here and there, ranging from our Shema routine to the graceful sound of Yemenite-Israeli singer Achinoam Nini serenading me into a dream of fluency.

As I got older, I started attending Shabbat services at my campus Hillel. Even though I was praying from an inclusive Reform siddur, I caught myself stumbling on the transliteration and a handful of prayers that I lacked familiarity with. I developed an uncomfortable and deflating awareness that I knew little of the prayers or how to sing them. I even tried to recite prayers in English, but that was not spiritually satisfying.

I have started listening to Yiddish music more often, particularly “Oyfn Pripetchik,” which teaches young kids about Jewish educational knowledge and pride. Sometimes I find myself singing over and over again “Vigil in di oysyses lign trern, un vifil geveyn,” which translates to “how many tears lie in these letters and how much crying.” I cannot help but resonate with the erasure, subjugation and disappearance of our cultures as Jews. I feel as if I am in a never-ending cycle of uncovering traditions decimated and assimilated out of my lineage.

I am both mourning and actively relearning traditions that were left behind in Europe or slowly faded away in America. It hurts to think that a religion or a language could stop with me. I am from people who have to relearn who they are. With the increasing rates of anti-Semitism, it is all the more terrifying to be Jewish, but that is nothing new. And I cannot run away from who I am because of fear or the urge to be like everyone else.

Some days, following a transliteration is the closest thing I have to getting the prayers right. I search for modern Hebrew greetings and slang on YouTube or Instagram. There is so much of an emphasis on proving one’s Judaism and properly integrating into the cultural norms. There is a deep and unspoken embarrassment about not fitting into the socially constructed mold of Jewish life. If you didn’t grow up in a stereotypical, nuclear Jewish family, you may be seen as an outcast. Yes, I can’t read Hebrew or Yiddish — but I am on a path to learn them.

As a black and Jewish woman born in the United States, I am consistently impacted by histories of land displacement, colonization and erasure. The Earth betrayed me many slave ships ago. My people have been scattered around the world simply because they are seen as inferior to others. So much of who my ancestors are is unattainable, but I am learning that my Judaism is beautiful because I am combining the old Yiddishkeit with new ways of being.

I need no shame or forgiveness. I am my people, regardless of the language I speak.

Tova Ricardo
Tova Ricardo

Tova Ricardo is an award-winning spoken word poet, writer, and Jewish advocate from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a digital producer with the Tel Aviv Institute, a nonprofit that uses social media to promote Jewish and Zionist perspectives. Follow her on Instagram @tovathepoet.