At the end of the show "Fiddler on the Roof," the residents are being evicted from the little Russian town of Anatevka. One comments to another: Nowhere else is their language spoken quite the same way as it is in Anatevka.
While even as a child I could tell a Boston accent from a Baltimore accent, I can't describe or reliably reproduce either. My love of trying to get along in foreign languages is not helped by my tin ear for accents. But at least twice I've listened closely enough to someone to hear not just what the person was saying, but how he or she said it. They were memorable conversations.
In 1971, I was visiting Jerusalem. My fiancée was in Louisville and of course I'd promised to telephone her. It was the days before international direct dialing, telephone credit cards, or even an easy way to reach an American operator from overseas. I found a post office in Jerusalem with a telephone booth, where you could pay at the counter instead of having to put a large number of coins in a slot. In my broken Hebrew I asked for an operator who could speak English. I finally got to an international operator.
I said: "I want to call the United States, Louisville, Kentucky."
Operator: "Yes, what city would you like to call?"
Operator: "Lou-ee-will is not in my list. Is Loo-ee-will a small place?"
Me: "It is a big place. The area code is 502."
Operator: "No, I can not make calls by area code, only by the name of the city."
I tried spelling Kentucky, but no such state was on her list. I tried spelling Louisville, but we didn't seem to have enough names of letters in common. As she finally told me there was no such place as "Loo-ee-will," I noticed how she was pronouncing the name of the city. Not only was English not her native language, but she didn't have the standard American set of phonemes (sounds) available.
I took one last try: "Do you have a city named - " and here I changed my pronunciation - "Loo-iss-will?"
She replied, "Oh, yes, Loo-iss-will. That city is on my list. Of course you can call Loo-iss-will. What is the number in Loo-iss-will?"
Twenty years later, I was in Odessa, Ukraine. Our group of American tourists was in the Museum of Western Art, and the guide was showing us Italian Renaissance paintings. Coming to a large painting of Samson and Delilah, he remarked on the presence of some very important pieces by the same artist in the Speed Museum in Louisville. (I'm happy to report he pronounced the name of Louisville the same way I do.)
The guide then quoted a few sentences of the story of Samson and Delilah from the Bible, in Hebrew. While his English was heavily accented, his Hebrew was crystal clear to me. My vocabulary isn't large, and I didn't understand much of it, but I could have taken it down as dictation.
And then it occurred to me that my Hebrew pronunciation is not crystal clear, it is awful. I have a dreadful time making myself understood when I speak it. This man wasn't speaking crystal-clear Hebrew, either - he was speaking Hebrew with the exact same dreadful accent that I have. At the first opportunity, I asked him where he'd learned Hebrew.
He'd learned it from his father. I'd learned it from mine. They had each learned Hebrew from their fathers. And where had our grandfathers come from? Vilnagebirne, his father had told him; the same thing my father had told me. This was near Vilna, then in Russia, now in Lithuania.
My grandparents had fled West when World War I was on the horizon. My father was born in Somersworth, N.H., and I was born in Norfolk, Va. The guide's parents had fled East, from the impending World War II, and he had been born near Novosibirsk, in Siberia.
We had a memorable talk, one that wouldn't have happened without that strange pronunciation, the one our families had carried with them from so far away.
Somehow we had been brought together in Odessa, 600 miles south of Vilnagebirne, 2,400 miles from his birthplace, and 6,000 miles from mine. But the two of us met, and we can testify that the storyteller of Anatevka told the truth.
Nowhere else, not even in Louisville, is Hebrew spoken quite the same way as it was in Vilnagebirne.