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Language of Love

There were five people in my family and between us, we spoke five different languages. We could have said “I love you” in any of them, but the language of love was tough for us.

My father was Hungarian. He’d point to the platters on the table with his fork and say “Eat. Eat. Take another piece.” That was his way of saying szeretlek. The rest of us didn’t know a word of Hungarian, not even that one, and we could not have pronounced it if we wanted to.

My mother was French-born but she didn’t adopt the reckless ideas of love from the French. Her love was measured by her countless selfless acts as a Jewish mother. Nevertheless, on rare occasions, she would sink into the red velvet recliner in the living room, close her eyes and murmur along with Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose. We’d sit and watch the 45rpm spin round and round under the record player’s needle in our Brooklyn living room, while our mother seemed to be transported far away. We begged her to teach us some words in her exotic lovely language and she taught us songs such as Alouette, Gentille Alouette. We practiced “I love you” in French, Je t’aime, in the large ornate mirror above my parents’ dresser, along with bonjour and ooh la la just to roll it around our mouths and pretend we were sophisticated, daring Parisians. When my mother prepared artichoke, we’d really ramp it up. We’d savor – more than the taste – the knowledge that none of our friends’ mothers prepared this dish. We’d tilt our invisible berets on our heads, gently dip the petals into oil with our pinkies extended,say the borei pri ha’adamah blessing and nibble around the heart. Our exotic French vegetable had a heart. How romantic. Then we’d practice on each other and burst out laughing. Bon appétit. Ooh la la. Je t’aime! Ha ha, hoo hoo. 

My sister, brother and I were American-born and we learned English in school, but “I love you” would get stuck in our throat like the ptcha my mother prepared for our Shabbos meal, that we dare not swallow. My father smacked his lips eating what he considered a European delicacy and my mother pleased him by preparing that gelatinous dish along with all his other favorites – chicken soup and cholent. That was her “I love you.” 

My father would tell us how geshmak the dish was while my mother was still pottering around in the kitchen. We’d urge him to tell her, and when she returned to the dining room with another steaming tureen of food, and turned towards him in anticipation, he wouldn’t say a thing. So, we’d prod him: “Tatty has something he wants to tell you.”


He’d blush like a young boy on a first date and would say “The ptcha is…” clearing his throat, “uh... it reminds me of Europe. My mother always made this in Europe.” That was his “I love you.” 

We circled around the words too. We found it easier to say “I love you” by making our parents color-paper cutout birthday cards or tissue-paper flower bouquets that said it for us. Or we’d jump on our parents, wrap our legs around them and burrow our heads in their necks – too shy to meet their eyes and say what we felt. “I love you,” felt too intimate. It sounded artificial to us. English was our “outside-the-house” language.

The fourth language in our household was Hebrew. We prayed in Biblical Hebrew, but Ani ohev otach was not quoted anywhere in the Bible. Perhaps our forefathers and mothers whispered it in the privacy of their tents. Somehow using the Holy Tongue to talk about our feelings didn’t seem appropriate at all – quite blasphemous. This language was strictly for speaking with God.

Finally, our “in-the-house” language was Yiddish. Ich hob dir lib sounded guttural and all wrong. Besides, our family spoke Yinglish, a pidgin mixture of Yiddish and English. If we ever dared to say it to each other, we would probably have said “Ich love dir,” which really sounds all wrong.


We had trouble with love in any language.

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