"Where's your accent from?"
I hope that you all had a good winter break. As some of you know, I was back in London for several days. Last Sunday we visited the cemetery for the stone-setting for my mother’s Matzevah. It was a sad but important moment as we come up to the first anniversary – the yahrzeit – of her passing.
At the reception afterwards, someone asked me if I ever thought that I’d live again in London. It’s a complicated question. I’m not quite a Londoner born and bred – because I was born as my father was, in the city of Coventry in the West Midlands – but we moved to London when I was four months old and I lived there until going to university. And yet, I calculated recently that I have spent more than 80% of my adult life elsewhere, and it no longer feels like home.
Especially since moving to Singapore, I have learnt that the simple question “where do you come from?” is enough to throw many of us into paroxysms of hesitancy. And this is often true of children here more than their parents. It’s easy enough for someone to say, “I come from London, have lived around the world but now I am based in Singapore”, but it gets even tougher when you say, “my mum was born in country A but grew up in country B, my dad comes from country C, I was born in country D but now we live here in Singapore, country E”. It’s a common enough story – if you’ve been here long enough you get used to this kind of narrative – but not always the easiest when you have to tell it to people in other countries who are not living on the ex-pat circuit.
Which brings me back to London. Quite frequently, this visit included, people ask me “Where’s your accent from?” Last time, on my own High Street in Orpington, it was coupled with “I know you’re not from around here.” This time it was preceded by a compliment, the flattering “I love your accent. Where are you from?” And, having grown tired of insisting “I’m from here, from here, I lived here before you were born” and foisting a Woody Allen-style nervous discourse, or showing off my exaggerated London twang as an imagined cockney wide-boy, I merely settled for a chuckle and a raised eyebrow.
The other answer I could have given, was that I am a Wandering Jew. Caught in a period of exile, be it two thousand years of Diaspora, or seventy years weeping by the rivers of Babylon, or forty years in the desert after leaving Egypt, the Wandering Jew is forever returning home. The correct question is not where I came from, but where I am going to. And the answer can be Israel, but not yet. The Promised Land, like Odysseus’s home-coming is always the imagined destination, but the story – the life that happens to you while you await your dreams – are the trials and tribulations, the wanderings and the perambulations, that happen to you along the way.
This week our Torah portion is Vaera. It’s the second parasha in the Book of Exodus. God remembers the Israelite’s cry in Egypt, and calls on Moses to take them away from Pharaoh’s slavery and lead his people to freedom. It is, of course, a story that we know well. But what I would like us to focus on tonight is Moses’ reluctance to lead, and his hesitancy in assuming the mantel of leadership.
In Exodus chapter 6, verse 10 it is written: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.’ But Moses appealed to the Lord, saying: ‘The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me–a man of impeded speech!'” Moses complains to God several times before this that God’s mission for him is impossible. He doubts not only his own abilities to lead but also those of the Israelites slaves. Why would they believe him when Moses told them that it was time to go? Moses says that he is someone with “uncircumcised lips” – the meaning of which is a little opaque: perhaps either he means that he had some kind of speech impediment, or was not a good speaker and inarticulate. The biblical commentators go to town on this, and in several directions, both physiologically and psychologically. Rashi says that his lips are somehow “closed”, that his words don’t flow, that his rhetoric is not fluent. And one scholar, Nahum Sarna, has argued for a third possibility. Moses grew up as an Egyptian, speaking the language of the land. Perhaps he’s trying to tell God that after so many years in the land of Midian, his fluency in Egyptian isn’t what it used to be. That he’s no longer a native speaker of his own native tongue.
This is a problem I recognise from my own experiences in London. People can hear that I have some kind of semblance of native English, but that it’s not idiomatic of London. I can give you several examples. My “t’s” – should either be British (with a proper “t”) or Bri’ish (with a glottal “t”). Currently, they sound more like the American “d” – “Briddish” – presumably from too much contact with so many of you lot! I add Frenchisms to my talking from my time living in Europe: for example, I said “I am taking a coffee” when it should have been “having a coffee” – je prends un café – when everyone knows one can only take tea, and preferably during a cricket match. Or I say: “I feel myself…” – again from French “je me sens”, when no one English should be saying that at all – at least if they don’t want to get into trouble.
And yet – God chose Moses and told him that it’s not Moses’ words that count, but rather, God’s. Perhaps it’s even an advantage for a bad speaker to be the one who conveys another person’s words. Eloquence is provided by God, rather than in the job description of the Prophet. Moses is not expected to be glib or golden-tongued, rather it’s his humility, and perhaps his liminality as someone who grew up between Israel and Egypt, that selects him for his destiny as history’s most famous Jewish leader.
As I recall my struggles and fumblings for words in London last week, this gives me a crumb of comfort. Not that I want to be Moses, but at least that I find a way of describing who I am in the place I once called home. If calling oneself a Wandering Jew is a little too grand, then perhaps I should at least adopt the Jewish manner of answering a question with a question. “Where are you from? Where’s your accent from?” Aha – where do you think I’m from? And that can be the start of a conversation. Shabbat shalom.