Later on, I’d learn that this discursive heterogeneity around me was caused by larger historical forces, rather than the simple whim of passing emotions.
Over the course of the twentieth century, my family had undergone four geographic dislocations; each dislocation was caused by the vagaries of war & nationalism, and each dislocation caused a collective linguistic shift. The past four generations were caught in a tight dialectic of linguistic annihilation and emergence.
Ladino was overtaken by Turkish. Turkish was discarded for Hebrew. Hebrew was eclipsed by English.
My great grandmother was born in 1904 under Ottoman rule, in Salonika, the capital of Ladino-speaking Jews. Ladino itself is the vestige of a harsh, but distant, passage of dislocation. Borne over the threshold of the Spanish Inquisition, it’s a hybrid tongue that dwells between Old Spanish and Biblical Hebrew.
In pursuit of new work, she and her husband sailed to Istanbul in 1925, where she gave birth to my grandmother. For a time, they spoke Ladino at home and at work, but as post-Ottoman Turkish nationalism took hold, their children were forced to learn Turkish– with its newly fabricated Latin-based character system– in primary school. This comprehensive sociolinguistic project held all ethnic dialects under siege in the commons, including Greek, Ladino, Kurdish & Armenian. As fate would have it, this historical linguistic shift coincided with the annihilation of the entire community of Ladino-speaking Jews in Salonika in the Holocaust. The interval between my grandmother’s generation and the one prior, widened, infinitely, and broke.
While my grandmother continued to speak Ladino in private with her parents, her public self became part of new political movement, with its own sociolinguistic implications: political Zionism. In 1949, she sailed with her husband, my grandfather, out of the Bosphorus into the port of Jaffa, in Palestine.
My father was born in 1956 in Jerusalem, no longer Turkish, within an overwhelmingly Eastern-European culture, and under a new linguistic regime of another freshly-invented tongue: modern Hebrew.
I was born near an air force base in Tel-Aviv; my first words were in Hebrew, but my first language was English. My mother chose to leave Israel for reasons that she once cited as “spiritual,” but now cites as “political.”
A thought travels from the terrace to the tree; the body travels from Istanbul to Tel-Aviv; a word is translated from Hebrew to English. With each new passage, a mark is made on the ground: a token, a poem.
Like the wings of bats, arranging in odd and irregular formations, the fundamental content of each passage is the tone- the hum- of survival. This can mean bodily, cultural or spiritual survival- or the survival of a song, a word, a first impression. With each crossed threshold, each generation contorted itself in order to survive the brutalities of political history, their identity fracturing, and reintegrating, in the slow riot of re-invention.
A child watches the receding linguistic wave of the previous generation, projecting his worries and confusions on its surface that tapers out of sight. A child watches a tree, convulsing in black, soon to be lost. The child, him or herself, a tree- soon to be, or already, lost.
“Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.”
Jorge Luis Borges