Generation gap? Sometimes it's just words

One of the most important lessons I've learned from raising a family in a foreign country is that the generation gap is sometimes just a matter of linguistics.

Take my situation, for example. I am an American living with five of our six children in Israel. Our children speak Hebrew, Arabic, and English. I speak English very well, thank you. I can speak a tad of Hebrew and a tidbit of Arabic. The gap between us, therefore, is not a matter of age, sports heroes, or musical tastes. It is simply my inability to master languages that they picked up in no time. To our kids, I will forever be the foreigner, the greenhorn, the mom that all their friends love to mimic.

I remember one of my most amusing (to them) oral gaffes that I committed one bright and early school-day morning. A school friend had slept over, and everyone was eating breakfast. I cheerfully asked the boy what I could give him for his lunch. (What a good mom I am, thought I.)

"What about some fruit?" I asked. "How about some rocks with your lunch?"

"Mommy!" The kids all shouted in horror. "Mommmmmmmy!"

I had wanted to say anavim, which are grapes in Hebrew. Instead I said avanim - plain, ordinary rocks. They might be perfect for roads or railroad tracks, but they are quite inappropriate for snacking.

To this day, my children remind me again and again of the innumerable mistakes I have subjected them to. At the bank, they cringed when I asked about the jelly (ribah) instead of the interest (ribit). At a school meeting, I told the father of one of their friends that I'd sat on top of his wife the day before, when I meant to say that I'd sat next to her. And at the stationery store, I planned to ask for a shekuf, or clear folder, and instead, I blurted out that I needed a shezuf, or suntanned folder. The store owner - never one to pass up an opportunity for a good laugh - asked me, "Do you want the suntan lotion to go with it?"

Languages always provide opportunities for foreign speakers to amuse natives.

An Israeli friend who just moved to London called me the other day, panic-stricken. She said she had to find a new butcher. "What was wrong with the old butcher?" I asked.

Tamara told me that after she had ordered chicken cutlets that morning, she'd asked the butcher to "pound" the cutlets. Only she had translated the word "pound" from Hebrew into English, and ended up with a vulgar word that had sexual connotations. Tamara said she was thinking about becoming a vegetarian.

The French may object to the process, but I find it helpful that English words have insinuated themselves into other languages. At times I only have to add an "oh" or an "ah" to an English word to get the foreign-language equivalent. But sometimes those very same words trip me up.

For instance, I was interviewing an Israeli sailor who kept talking to me about the "breezah." I assumed he was using a nautical term for some esoteric part of his boat, and I asked him what he was referring to.

"A breezah!" he shouted, as if I were deaf and not just an alien. "A small wind!"

Ah, I said. A breeze-ah!

I find my linguistic faux-pas (to incorporate a French word here) entertaining at times, and they've never stopped me from trying to make conversation. On a family outing the other day, for example, we stopped to buy fresh pita from an Arab woman. She was baking the pita on a taboun, which looks like a large wok turned upside down. I spoke to the woman in a mixture of Arabic and Hebrew and then we stood with her, eating the warm freshly baked pita with zaatar (hyssop - a spice that is often mentioned in the Bible). After we finished, I called out, "Shookran" - "thank you," in Arabic - and we drove away.

"That was fun," said my 16-year-old son, Ari.

"And she gave me extra pita for free!" my 14-year-old daughter, Amalia, said. "Why do you think she did that?"

"Because we were friendly and made an effort to talk to her," I said.

For once, my kids did not even giggle about any of the errors I had made as I spoke to the woman. That made me realize that although I might not be able to show them how to speak a foreign language fluently, I had still shown them how to drum up the courage to move to a place that is foreign and unfamiliar.

More important, I can show them that the gap between parents and children in our family is sometimes just a matter of linguistics. It is nothing compared with the rifts among people around the globe.

Not only that, but with a few kind words and smiles, we can try - and succeed at - communicating across the far more challenging cultural, national, and religious divides.

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