Jan­ice Stein­bergs most recent book, The Tin Horse, is now avail­able. She will be blog­ging here for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing all week.

I thought I had entered com­plete­ly into the world of my nov­el: Boyle Heights in the 1920s and 30s, when the Los Ange­les neigh­bor­hood was home to some 50,000 Jews and a cen­ter for Jew­ish life. Then I start­ed get­ting ques­tions from Tony.

Tony is Tony Hudz, the charm­ing man who direct­ed the audio­book of The Tin Horse. And he need­ed to know how to pro­nounce every word — for instance, should Dan­ny Berlov’s last name be Bear-lov or Bear-lohf? My first response was, Nei­ther;” my men­tal voice had always said Ber-lov. But Dan­ny is a new immi­grant when he enters the sto­ry in 1926. And Tony’s query made me real­ize I was hear­ing Dan­ny’s last name as it would have evolved a gen­er­a­tion lat­er, when its Yid­dish inflec­tions had been absorbed into Eng­lish.

In my nov­el, Yid­dish phras­es often make their way into Eng­lish con­ver­sa­tion. But Tony ramped up my aware­ness of how the whole soup of lan­guage would con­tain the pro­nun­ci­a­tions, stress­es, and rhythms of Yid­dish. And that the Eng­lish heard by Elaine Green­stein, my main char­ac­ter, would take mul­ti­ple forms: the stan­dard Amer­i­can of native speak­ers like her father or her teach­ers, and the Yid­dish-fla­vored Eng­lish of her immi­grant moth­er, grand­fa­ther, and many of the adults in her world. Bro­ken Eng­lish.

I’m aware of love that immi­grants feel for their native tongue and the emo­tion­al impact of leav­ing it behind. A friend who emi­grat­ed from Argenti­na says her son is gen­tler when he speaks Span­ish. A psy­chol­o­gist who grew up in Cuba tells me that immi­grant clients can access the deep­est child­hood mem­o­ries only in their moth­er tongue. Eva Hoff­man, who left Poland as a child, titles her beau­ti­ful mem­oir Lost in Trans­la­tion.

Bro­ken Eng­lish, how­ev­er, has no such fond asso­ci­a­tions. Rather, it’s a source of shame, the Amer­i­can-born child cring­ing as Mama or Papa mas­sacres pro­nun­ci­a­tion and syn­tax. But as Tony led me to think more deeply about the Eng­lish in Elaine’s world, I won­dered if there was also a sweet­ness to hear­ing this bro­ken tongue, this Eng­lish cracked open to reveal a Yid­dish soul. 

Vis­it the offi­cial web­site for The Tin Horse here.

Jan­ice Stein­berg is author of The Tin Horse and of five mys­tery nov­els. She is also an award-win­ning arts jour­nal­ist and has pub­lished over 400 arti­cles in the San Diego Union-Tri­bune, Dance Mag­a­zine, Los Ange­les Times, and else­where. A Mil­wau­kee native, she holds a B.A. and M.A. from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia-Irvine. She lives in San Diego with her husband.