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Nonbinary Hebrew

 

I’ve been told, for years, that things are never all black or all white, but shades of gray in between. And I believe that. But I didn’t consider that these shades of grey could be applied to gender as well. The subject came up recently at my synagogue, when the clergy added their preferred pronouns onto their email signatures. None of the clergy members identify as nonbinary, but there are young people in the congregation who do, and this addition was meant as a sign of respect for them.

This is all new to me, and I’m still not sure I understand why someone would identify as nonbinary, rather than seeing themselves as a woman with some traditionally masculine qualities, or a man with some traditionally feminine qualities. But I realized quickly that I would need to think about this in more depth now that I’m teaching in the synagogue school, because Hebrew is a gendered language, like Spanish and French, and there are no clear ways to refer to a person who is nonbinary. Even if none of my students identifies as nonbinary yet, they may have family members who do.

English, surprisingly, is a much more egalitarian language than most, and nonbinary individuals have taken to using the pronoun “they” to describe themselves. The flexibility of the language, and the constant additions that have made English so hard to learn have also made it more capable of meeting our needs as society evolves. Hebrew, on the other hand, is an old language based in a male-dominated culture. If there is one man in a group and the rest are women, we have to use the Hebrew word for “men,” period. If a group of children is equally mixed between boys and girls, we have to use the Hebrew word for “boys” to describe the whole group, because there is no non-gendered word for “children.” This gender preference shows up in all of the Hebrew prayers, which led me to the obvious conclusion, growing up, that God must be a Man.

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“That’s ridiculous.”

When I first read some Hebrew blessings written in female language, a few years back, I felt wildly uncomfortable. It just sounded so strange! And I’m not the only one who found the change uncomfortable, and unsustainable. Women have been trying to push the Hebrew language into more gender equality for decades, without much success.

This whole topic feels prickly and uncomfortable for me, because I default to male gender words in Hebrew without thinking twice. I automatically say boys or men, or refer to male doctors or teachers. And even when I say or write “I” sentences, as part of my refresher Hebrew lessons, I default to male verbs automatically, because it doesn’t occur to me that I might be talking about myself.

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“What about dog words? Is Hebrew all people-centric too?”

I decided to search online to see how other people have been addressing this issue and I found a few articles about a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder who worked with their Hebrew professor to come up with a possible non-gendered addition to the Hebrew language. The two of them were inspired by the introduction of gender neutral terms in Spanish (though I haven’t come across these in my Spanish lessons so far, and only recently heard the term “Latinx” to refer to people of Latin American descent without referring to gender). The system the teacher and student came up with adds a neutral gender pronoun to Hebrew, and a way to construct gender neutral conjugations, at least in the present tense.

This new system has been controversial, and people have found it hard to learn. It’s also not the only attempt to address this problem. A Jewish summer camp in the States (not the one I went to) came up with another gender neutral term, specifically for “Camper,” in Hebrew, though they don’t seem to have gone further than that into adding new conjugations. It’s hard to know if either of these ideas will generalize to society at large, or if a new system will be inspired by them, or if none will take off at all.

And the fact is, it’s been hard for me to get used to using the word “They” to refer to an individual, in English, so I can’t imagine the discomfort Hebrew speakers must feel at being told to learn a whole new system in order to speak their own language correctly. But if we leave things as they are, with no gender neutral terms, where does that leave the people who feel like neither gender describes them? How can they ever feel accepted if they can’t be referred to correctly by their communities?

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“Now you know how I feel. You keep calling me a dog. It’s rude.”

As a society, we make so many assumptions and have so many expectations about ourselves that are attached to gender. Would that change if we all used gender neutral language? Would we lose something that makes our lives meaningful by referring less often to gender? I don’t know. I’ve always considered myself female, and despite whatever discomfort I have with societal expectations of women it still seems like an accurate description of how I experience my gender. But it intrigues me to think about this question, of how much might be roiling under the surface of this dilemma of language. How much of our lives have actually been determined by the language we use to describe ourselves? And what kinds of surprises might we find if we take some small steps towards change?

YG with Cricket

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

Language Junky

I am a multiple language learning addict, not to be confused with a multiple language speaker, which I’m really not. At least not yet. I keep wanting to add more languages to my Duolingo account, like: Russian, Italian, Korean, Japanese, etc. But I’ve tried to keep a lid on it and stick to the four I’m already working on (French, Hebrew, Spanish, and German), so that I can, maybe, get somewhere.

E pre groom

Ellie is skeptical

My anxiety about speaking out loud is a big part of my problem. I get too self-conscious, and worry about making mistakes. It’s also possible, maybe, that studying four languages at a time is a problem, but I can’t help it! I have no self-control!

When I heard that Pete Buttigieg, “Mayor Pete,” speaks seven languages, and then also did a short video in American Sign Language, I felt like a horrible underachiever. I have no interest in joining the military, or being a mayor, or running for President, but being a polyglot would fill me with joy! I could read Harry Potter in every language!!!!!

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“No more Harry Potter!”

I’ve been excusing my endless hours on Duolingo as possibly for the benefit of my future career, because, you now, social workers should understand a lot of different people. That’s why I started to learn Spanish in the first place, because I had to communicate with a client who only spoke Spanish and hand gestures were not getting me very far. And, you never know, maybe I’ll come across someone who speaks French or German or Hebrew and get a chance to use my limited skills in those languages professionally as well, some day.

But, to be honest, I’m not really doing it for my job. If I were really taking it seriously as something to add to my resume, I would force myself to take in-person classes, and practice conversation, and even go to an immersion program. But that would be scary and full of pressure. And Duolingo is fun, and relaxing.

My synagogue is planning a trip to Israel next year, with a side trip to Berlin at the beginning, and an after trip to Jordan. Of course I can’t afford to go, and I’ll probably have a job by then and won’t have time to go, but it has captured my imagination.

I’ve heard a lot about the beauty of Petra, in Jordan, but that’s not really my focus. I need to go to Israel. I’ve never been there and it feels important to breathe the air and see the streets for myself. But, I want to go to Berlin. I’ve been studying German for a little while now. The original idea was to learn enough German to be able to learn Yiddish, but along the way the harsh sounds of German have been prickling my brain and trying to tell me secrets I can’t quite hear yet; about the Holocaust, definitely, but also about the German Jews who were so thoroughly German that they couldn’t imagine what was coming, couldn’t imagine being demonized and tortured and killed by their fellow countrymen. I recognize the long, slow, period of disbelief that we spend most of our lives marinating in, not quite seeing what’s really going on around us, because we just don’t want to believe that awful things can happen.

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“I always believe awful things can happen.”

Israel is a harder trip for me, because it’s so loaded with mixed feelings: the heat; the daily potential for violence; the existential crisis; the conflict between the Ultra-Orthodox and the Secular Jews; the chockablock spiritual places stuffed into one small country; the language, and the guilt I feel at still not being fluent after so many years of trying; the fear that I will feel alien even there, where I am supposed to feel, finally, at home.

I want to go with my congregation and hear what they are thinking, and feel known and visible. I want to see my best friend from high school in her natural habitat. She and her daughter have started learning Italian (not one of my languages) so I may have to add just that one more language to my Duolingo account.

I know I’m not going on this trip, and yet I think of it every day while I do my language practice, and I imagine being in Berlin and hearing German all around me, and being in Israel and trying to force myself to speak Hebrew. Both places seem full of memories for me and yet I’ve never been to either. But I couldn’t leave Mom and the girls behind for ten days, spending money we don’t have, and looking for some way to stop in Mexico or Spain to practice my Spanish, with a stopover in Paris to work on my French. It’s not going to happen, and yet, in my mind, it happens every day.

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“That sounds exhausting.”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

Talking To Dogs

 

My father used to yell at our Doberman Pinscher in German. It’s possible that he added in some Yiddish, but he made a point of saying that you should speak to a German dog in German. The rest of us spoke to her in English, though, and she seemed to be fine with that.

"Huh?"

“Huh?”

I have a habit of dropping into Hebrew or French for a word or two, rarely for a whole sentence, because I’m not fluent in either language. I don’t know why I do it. Maybe I’m just pretentious and annoying, but I like the way the different languages sound, with the hard square letters of Hebrew, and the rolling curlicues of French. Cricket can understand up to the number three in French, because that’s how I taught her to jump up onto the bed, Un, deux, trois, Jump! (See, I can’t even stay in French for four words!) With Hebrew I tend to stick to short phrases, like “Where is…?” or “Thank you” Or “Why?” And Cricket tilts her head and nods. She’s a savant.

"I understand everything you say. I just disagree."

“I understand everything you say. I just disagree.”

Butterfly has a whole different vocabulary. It’s as if the girls speak, or at least comprehend, two different languages. I can’t use the same words to communicate with both of them at the same time. I’ve noticed that they choose the words or signals they will respond to more than I do. It’s like they are flipping through a book of fabric swatches until they find one that speaks to them. Just because I repeat something a hundred times doesn’t mean they will pick it up, but I can do something just once, and it clicks forever.

"Mommy?"

“Mommy?”

I wonder if, given a chance, this is how people would be too, if forcing everyone to use the same language, while very convenient, is cutting off huge swaths of natural language.       What if I was born to speak Hindi and my whole life I will be missing pieces of my soul because I can’t capture them in English. Is that possible?

Butterfly responds best to touch. She calms when I pet her, she stills when I hold her in place for her insulin shot, she turns to look at me when I tug on her leash. She believes in eye contact and body language and leaves most of the English stuff to Cricket.

"I have Mommy's sock and that means I have Mommy."

“I have Mommy’s sock and that means I have Mommy.”

I tend to speak to Butterfly in a higher tone of voice, and fewer words overall. She responds best to facial expressions and body language. If I reach a hand out to her, she comes over to get scratches. She watches me very carefully. Sometimes I wonder if she’s partially deaf, but I think it’s more the deafness that comes from not understanding the words I am saying to her.

I tried to teach her “Down,” but she responds better to “Stop.” And I have to be right there, not across the room, for it to make sense to her. She understands when I pick up her blood testing kit, and she understands when leashes are taken off the hook at the door, but she doesn’t understand “sit,” maybe because it took her almost a year to build the muscle strength to sit on her back legs the way Cricket does, so when I was trying to build her vocabulary, she didn’t have any physical corollary for “sit.”

Cricket responds to tone of voice more than anything else. If she hears someone yelling outside, she barks. If I whisper, she wakes up from a dead sleep and assumes I was taking about her and planning an outing for her. If I, god forbid, say the word chicken, all hell breaks loose.

"Chicken!"

“Chicken!”

She learned her commands as a puppy. She knows sit and stay and down and turn, but she also knows walk, go, outside, shoes, leash, food, toy, platypus, chewy, poop, bath.

Cricket and her platypus.

Cricket and her platypus.

Those are the obvious things, but I’ve also noticed that she can understand context, even when her usual words aren’t in use. Even without the words “poopie butt” or “bath,” she can figure out that I’m planning to wash her in the sink, and she runs under her couch to safety.

"You can't catch me!"

“You can’t clean my poopie butt!”

My therapist’s Golden Retriever is six years old and just now studying to be a service dog. She needs her license so that she can help her dad, but this means that she has to learn a whole new set of signals, different from what she learned in her obedience classes way back when. This has become a problem. She is a very bright girl, but she is getting confused. Her poor forehead crinkles and she can’t decide if she’s supposed to sit, stay, turn around, or leave the room.

"Help me, please."

“Help me, please.”

No wonder dogs use smell and yips and nips to communicate with each other; they must think that the human world is a tower of babel, with all of our different languages creating utter confusion. For dogs, the smell of “female, spayed, eats a lot of chicken,” is the same around the world.

The Language of Tails

 

Cricket’s tail was docked in puppyhood and the bit that’s left is about two inches long, maybe less, but she uses what she has to her fullest ability. If she has a poopy issue left over after a walk and I manage to catch her and carry her into the bathroom, she uses her stub of a tail to protect that poop from being removed. Slam! Tail down. If she’s angry and barking at intruders, she lifts her tail and shakes it like a fist. If she’s excited, her tail spins around in a tiny circle, like a propeller lifting her off the floor.

Cricket's little nub

Cricket’s little nub

Cricket’s groomer, the one we like, decided to give Cricket a puffy poodle tail one time, like a cotton ball attached to her butt. It made it very difficult to understand Cricket for a few days, until I took out the scissors and trimmed it down so she could speak clearly again.

Cricket is very bright and she can think and express opposing ideas at the same time. She can be waving her tail in great excitement, and barking as if the world is about to end. She can wag her tail, but rest her head on her paws like she’s bored. She wants to make sure that she has expressed every dimension of how she’s feeling instead of just a simple, Hello, or I hate you.

Cricket's tails says, "I've got my eye on you," and, "I'm seconds away from giving you a thousand kisses."

Cricket’s tail says, “I’ve got my eye on you,” or, “I’m seconds away from giving you a thousand kisses.”

The only time Cricket’s tail and head and whole body are in full agreement is when Grandma comes back after being a way – for one minute, ten minutes, ten hours. Cricket’s little stub is wagging in circles and she’s crying and jumping and licking. She tries to jump into Grandma’s arms and fly herself across the room. I’m sure she’s had minor tail strains from these greetings, because the whirling little stub gets an amazing work out.

I read an article that said a docked tail can limit a dog’s ability to communicate; that dogs who approach a dog with a docked tail will be more circumspect, because they have a harder time reading the docked tail for signs of aggression or submission. I wonder if this has been an issue for Cricket. Maybe she senses the other dog’s apprehension and interprets that as aggression, and so she’s aggressive right back. Would her life have been completely different, and better, if they’d never docked her tail?

I wonder if, having a full tail to swing around, Cricket wouldn’t have to bark so much to get her point across. Maybe she feels like she has to scream because part of her voice has been muted and dampened.

Is there such a thing as a tail prosthetic?

To be fair, I think her little tail is cute and at this point I wouldn’t recognize her as Cricket with any other tail. This is who she is and its an integral part of her identity. But who would she have been otherwise?

I know a Golden retriever with a long, bushy tail, and she uses it not just to express happiness or outrage, but to bar her little poodle brother from passing by. She can swing that thing like a bat and knock all the chotchkes off the coffee table, or she can carefully tuck her tail out of the way, to be polite and demure. But Cricket doesn’t have those options.

Look at that glorious tail! (not my picture, because Cricket would not let me take such a picture).

Look at that glorious tail! (not my picture, because Cricket would not let me take such a picture).

Butterfly makes more simple sentences with her tail. Her tail goes down when she’s resting or concerned. When she’s excited and happy her tail swings full out – she makes circles in the air to announce her happiness. She waves her tail as a way of saying, Yes, I want a treat, Yes, I want to go outside, Yes, I’m the cutest puppy in the world!          When she’s a bit more sedate and formal, her tail sits up on her back like a plume and you can tell she is proud. She walks her girliest walk at these times, with her hips swinging gently from side to side. She’s not inviting interaction so much as walking the cat walk, to be admired from afar.

Butterfly's curly tail

Butterfly’s curly tail

I’d like to have a long fluffy tail, like a Golden Retriever. I would love to wave my tail back and forth and be giddy and free in telling people that I’m happy to see them. I’ve never been good at unrestrained expression; I tend towards understatement and reserve. But there’s something so wonderful about a dog waving her tail when she sees you. I’d love to be that person. I’d love to feel so secure in myself that I could tell people how much I care about them.

The happiness blur!

The happiness blur!

I wonder if we’d lose our capacity for denial with a tail so earnest and open and easy to read. Because I think these tails, this earnestness in dogs, is a big part of what we love about dogs. Even the angriest dog, because he’s honest about his anger, is easier to love than a human who masks what he’s really feeling.

I remember hearing about all kinds of human body modification surgeries that were becoming popular over the past few years – pointy ears were the most obvious, or the ear lobe expanders. I wonder if anyone has come up with a way of adding a tail, to be more like a dog. You’d probably have to take classes (from a dog?) in how to express yourself with your tail, and, knowing humans, we’d probably add a lot of complicated nonsense to get in the way of what we are trying to say. But it’s an interesting idea. On the down side, you’d have much more trouble finding clothes that fit, or a comfortable place to sit down.

 

Cricket’s English Comprehension

 

           

Sometimes I think Cricket understands full sentences. Like the times when she starts barking at her Grandma, trying to boss her around.

First, of course, I say “No,” in a firm, loud voice. But Cricket ignores the command and keeps trying to get Grandma’s attention. So then I tell her, in my conversational tone, that she’s being rude to her grandma and it is not time to go out or have a snack and she can rest for now. And Cricket listens to me, and stops barking, and crawls under Grandma’s chair to go to sleep.

Cricket knows the important words, like: walk, poopie, grooming, bathtub, chicken treats, cheese, out, go, sit, no, and Cricket. When we are out walking and I say the word “water,” she looks to the bag that holds her Tupperware cup full of water. If she hears the word “breakfast,” she will lick her lips. One time, when we were outside, I said the word “foot,” and Cricket lifted her back foot and stared at it.

            She has selective hearing, like any other child. When she’s exhausted, she’s less sensitive to words like “toy” or even “walk.” The “G” words almost always get through to her, though. If I say “grooming,” she runs to the bathroom and climbs into the bathtub, which is where the grooming happens. She loves grooming because it’s her most reliable source for chicken treats. She would prefer to stand in the bathtub and be fed treats without having to get a comb through her hair, but the treats make anything bearable.

When she is over excited, she can’t really hear me over the noise in her own head, or the screeching she’s doing out loud. When I take the leash out, she jumps two feet in the air, over and over, like a Jack Russell, and if I try to tell her to sit, so I can attach the leash, she seems to be screeching “What? What?!” as if I’m speaking French.

I remember seeing a dog on TV who could identify each of her thirty toys by name. Her dad, a psych professor, would say “fish” and she would dig through a toy box and come back with the fish. Cricket knows that “toys” are in her toy box or scattered on the floor, but individual names for toys don’t seem to be strongly correlated for her. If I say “Fishy” and it’s the only toy she sees, she’ll bring it, but if her birthday cake or purple dinosaur is near by she might pick that up instead.

She is very smart, but she has no interest in making the most of her potential. She’s not a working dog or a people pleaser. I wish I could accept this about her, but some part of me still dreams of index cards and word drills and Cricket hearing the word “fish” and digging through her toy box to bring me a fish. Because that would at least make me feel smart.