By DAVID IZRAELEVITZ
My father and I enrolled in English language lessons in Uruguay before coming to America and my younger siblings absorbed the new language at school like the proverbial sponge. It was my mother, at home all alone, gratefully relying on the abundant Spanish TV programming available in New York City, who lagged behind the rest of us. The few words she picked up over the first years here were learned by trying to converse with our next-door neighbors, a Greek family including another mother similarly stuck at home, presumably without even the benefit of local Greek television programming. We became quite close with that family even though our immigration experiences were so different, and I still remember that we were initially puzzled by our neighbors constantly yelling “Soup, soup!”. “Silence” in Greek sounds very much like “soup” in Spanish.
Being immersed in a new language gives one a special appreciation of linguistic subtleties and coincidences, even some comical ones. I still get “kitchen” and “chicken” mixed up, much to the amusement of my native-born wife. English pronunciation sounds like dogs growling to a nine-year-old who doesn’t understand that many English words lack discernable vowels. An embarrassing part of family lore was the time, at a dinner hosted by some American relatives, that my father mispronounced “beautiful beaches” while describing the main tourist asset of Uruguay.
I even remember learning specific English words and their meanings. I started sixth grade in America, and my earliest friendship was with another student in my class whose English was a little better than mine, but still shaky. He invited me to play at his home, and I recall his explaining the difference between two definitions of “to miss”, either to have misplaced something, or to long for someone or something. In Spanish they are completely different words, but I have since found it interesting that there is a relationship between the two connotations. Someone readily at your reach is not someone you long for or have misplaced. And maybe someone you long for may be physically next to, but emotionally distant, from you. There is a lesson in everything.
I was thinking about the months to come as we seek to turn the corner on this COVID-19 pandemic, when the phrase “espero que si” kept coming to me. “I hope so,” can be a powerful propellent, as can “Amen,” if uttered sincerely. How many things there are that we accomplish because we hoped so much that we pushed ourselves to achievement. I think of the scientists who hoped their approach to a novel vaccine would effective, doctors and nurses who hoped they could help their patients, teachers who hoped they could push their students to learn even when their most powerful weapon, a pat or a smile, was inaccessible to them.
Homonyms like “to miss” have their equivalents in Spanish, and “esperar” is one of them. If used in its simplest form as above, it means “to hope,” but if applied to someone specific, like “te espero,” it becomes “to wait.” Hope and waiting, anticipation and patience. They are both potentially powerful concepts. It was difficult for me to find the right topic to write about over the last few months, but now, I begin to feel that we are about to turn the corner, and we must be both hopeful and patient.
There is a Jewish folk tale about what Hell is like, and if you will permit me this brief digression, it goes something like this:
In Hell, the story goes, elbows no longer bend and everyone has before them their very favorite food at a long banquet table where, in the presence of all other sinners, they spend Eternity unable to enjoy the food at their fingertips. In Heaven, the story continues, elbows similarly no longer bend and everyone has before them their very favorite food at a long banquet. What is the difference, then, between Heaven and Hell?
We are so close, and if we display the courage to wait and to hope, we might lessen the total toll of this plague, and think of how many lives we might save, in the long coming days. The vaccine is surely coming, but it will be many months before we will be able to attend to our daily lives without the obligation of masking in public, of social-distancing, of forgoing discretionary travel.
In Heaven, the old Jewish tale concludes, people feed one another, while in Hell we think only of ourselves. Many will still depend on our care and obligation for their well-being for many days to come, until we reach the Holy Grail of herd immunity. Maybe the New Year will bring with it the power of hope and the discipline of patience toward mutual concern, for even in this hellish season, a little bit of Heaven is still within our reach.