Issue 184, Spring 2008
S-Z-C-Z-U-C-Z-Y-N. I can’t pronounce the name of the town my mother’s mother’s from. But Natata, who is from Warsaw and was in my Hebrew class in Jerusalem, and who helped me without knowing it to forget about someone back in New York, tried to teach me. I’d hoped, in the monthlong summer class, to relearn the Hebrew I’d learned as a child and since forgotten. But I had trouble concentrating, because everything reminded me of something else, and because Natata was always in the room, five hours a day, five days a week.
My first dream in Hebrew that summer was of a color map of Poland with Hebrew writing on it, no sounds. The town is hard to spot because there is a brown-orange border crossing a blue border in the eastern part of the country, hovering translucent just above the paper that fills my field of vision: Russia, Poland, Poland, Russia. Just before waking I see it, bolder print than the other cities. When I was awake, Natata told me how to pronounce it: like shchtoot’n but the sh and ch must be articulated separately yet as a single syllable. My mouth could make no sense of this. How many times had I heard my mother’s mother say the name of the town she came from, Szczuczyn? She told me she’d left because of a boy, well before the war, a boy she still loved when she left. The way I remember it, she didn’t pronounce the name of the place she came from the way Natata said it’s pronounced, but what is the memory of a sound? Have you ever recognized a gone person’s voice saying your name and turned and no one was there?
Natata was studying speech pathology, specifically stuttering, which we were discussing as we got off the bus to walk down King George Street, downtown Jerusalem, and were interrupted by the sound of a jackhammer that sounded something like the pattern of plum-skin bits on her teeth in the mirror at the juice place, open to the street, that we were on our way to. To replace the grapefruit juice that she wanted and he didn’t have, the proprietor with an obvious thing for her made her a mix of plum and orange, a remarkable simulation.
Harry Dow, my dad’s dad, once heard Eugene Debs tell a Jewish group in Houston in the 1920s a joke that hinges on the difference between Lithuanian and Polish-Ukrainian pronunciations of a popular potato dish. Zaide, as I called Harry, said that Debs said that the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats was the same as the difference between koogel and kigel. I may be wrong that it was Eugene Debs in Harry’s story, but that’s what I told Natata. She repeated EU-gene, saying she liked the sound of it and knew the name from an X Files episode she’d seen in Warsaw ten years before. It’s the one that ends with Eugene Tooms, a villain who can stretch himself thin enough to fit through any opening, as he is served a meal in his jail cell through—and Natata couldn’t quite find the vowel for the word for the opening he’s being served through, and which he calmly stares at because he, and the viewers, know he can easily escape through it—through a slut, she said. I corrected her. She exaggerated the mid-mouth, open, short o sound to get to slot, then sipped her simulated grapefruit juice. When she articulated that first unmanageable syllable in my grandmother’s hometown, her lips formed a sudden oval, though she said nothing about this when she instructed me on tongue placement. She laughed to discover the top of the mouth is called, in English, the roof.