Watch Your Language

Watch Your Language

It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood when the sukkah mobile drove up. Sukkot, the Jewish feast of tabernacles, or booths, had arrived. And with it, all the accessories thereof in order to celebrate it in style. Including a couple of rabbis and a mobile sukkah or harvest booth.

Soon enough a gentile friend or two, attracted by all the commotion, showed up. Oh, happy day! For what is a Jewish festival without guests in attendance? Hospitality is, after all, a mitzvah, a commandment. And so is the study of Scripture. All the pieces were in place, and it was time to let the good times roll.

So this ordinarily quiet neighborhood in Little Rock, Ark., an epitome of the far-flung Jewish diaspora, resonated with a mix of different languages, Southern-accented English, Hebrew, my own native Yiddish and all the simultaneous translations thereof. It would have been a veritable Babel without the key that unlocks the gates of language to all comers: good will.

More than half a century now has passed since my teenage self had sat on a balcony in Tel Aviv while my hosts demonstrated how a succession of languages can be an exercise in courtesy and consideration instead of degenerating into a language war. As each new addition to the evening’s gathering arrived, the language shifted to make him or her welcome.

Being a Southerner, naturally, I rose as each of the ladies, or perhaps an elderly gentleman, appeared. The most…

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