My love affair with formal language acquisition began with my cousin who spoke Japanese as a result of having worked in Japan in the aftermath of the US occupation. He was an entertainer who sang in Japanese, a man of color in occupied Japan. Ever after, I’ve learned to speak, read, and write Japanese, though speaking leaves me when I have no one with whom to converse. I tried going to a Japanese-owned knitting shop and fitting in, practice the language related to another passion, but it was quickly obvious my presence was not wanted at all. That saddened me when I recalled the history of internment endured by Japanese Americans in this country. My honey brown was not welcome among the olives. Still, I love nihongo, the culture, the history of the Japanese people.
I always heard different languages because my mom worked in the garment industry in Downtown Los Angeles. People came from everywhere: Russia, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (then), Argentina, UK (then). Many eastern European Jews worked in the industry alongside Mexicans, Guatemalans, Japanese. I grew up among the singing of the machines, the steam rising from the presses, the hum of all that industry, but most of all among the songs of many tongues.
Back in the day, it was nothing to hear French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian in a film, song, radio production. I heard clear pronunciations of languages, learned how to read other languages through cartoons! What a richness were Looney Tunes for spreading cultures. De Ring des Nibelungen by Wagner for cripes’ sake! I digress.
I studied Spanish in junior high! Yeah, I said it. Profesor Castillo taught us to read and write Spanish, but he also conveyed his orgullo in the cultures of many Latinx peoples. I won an award for my facility and was feted at a local Mexican restaurant. Heady times!
Next, German in my first year of high school. I learned to sing in German with Lotte Lenya and the Little Sparrow, Edith Piaf, even though she was French. German is a very emotional language and drew some of the best to demonstrate this strength.
In undergraduate days, I learned Japanese for real. That was so much fun. I was so proud of myself for mastering, at the beginning level, the intricacies of hiragana and katakana. Little works of art to a person who thought she couldn’t draw until an artist taught me how to see.
In my dotage, I have come back to Yiddish. I missed hearing it, missed the rituals associated with it, missed the cultural observations and habits of the people. You know, I know my way around a kosher kitchen. I love the mama loche.