This meant that she was competent in both ways of Hebrew pronunciation.
She lead the Tehillim in a pleasant sing-song and most charmingly of all, she was so into the davening that the words flowed out in whatever pronunciation naturally flowed forth.
This means that she said: "Shir Hama'alois" -- with the second "a" pronounced as the classic Yemenite guttural "ayin," followed by "ois" instead of "ot."
It was obvious that she had no idea she was mixing nusachs.
Here was Am Echad in one person.
It was delicious.
Communicating in the "Right" Nusach
And that is important for formal davening.
But if you're equally comfortable in both, then when immersing yourself in the uplifting heart of Tehillim, both might flow forth naturally.
And really, it's better to just immerse yourself in your love of Hashem than to hold yourself back and get caught up in the technicalities of consistent pronunciation.
For me, sometimes "Shabbos" is easier to say than "Shabbat."
Especially if I want to describe something as "Shabbosy."
"Shabbaty" just doesn't feel the same.
I still find "tsnius" (modesty) more comfortable to say than "tsnee-OOT" because "tsnius" is how I first learned the word.
But all that depends who I'm talking to because it's important to say things in the way most comfortable for the other person.
Likewise, when speaking with a Chassidish Yerushalmi friend, I try to greet her with "Gut Shabbos," even if she's greeting me with "Shabbat Shalom."
In fact, my Chassidish neighbors always use Sefardi pronunciation when speaking to me and other Sefardi neighbors.
They also smoothly turn the conversation from Yiddish to Hebrew if a non-Yiddish-speaker arrives, including when they address each other (which they normally would in Yiddish) in front of the non-Yiddish-speaker.
It's all just a friendly way of respecting one's fellow.
When my children first started attending a Sefardi school, the Moroccan ganenet used to wave to me out the window of the van, calling out, "Gut Shabbos!" as they sped by on Friday afternoons.
She didn't need to do that because, despite my Ashkenazi ethnicity and American nationality, I'm not frum from birth (i.e., I didn't grow up with "Gut Shabbos!").
Furthermore, I'm married to a Moroccan who davens in a Sefardi synagogue, and we happily send our children to a Sefardi school and I am quite comfortable with "Shabbat Shalom!" and general Sefardi pronunciation.
But in her experience, Ashkenazi Americans say "Gut Shabbos!" and she wanted me to feel comfortable and accepted.
So I felt very touched by her warm "Gut Shabbos!"
As always, it's the heart that counts.
Language Foibles from the Heart
(She attended our Sefardi synagogue because it was within walking distance and I'm not sure that she was aware of the differences. To her, it was a kosher synagogue with a mechitza and an Orthodox rabbi, and that's all that mattered.)
During Sukkot, she would come up to me to wish me a good year among other good things, and she did so in Yiddish.
I only got the gist of her exact words ("a gut yahr!"), but I remember the feeling of warmth and pleasure that soaked through me as she leaned her smiling wizened face toward me with her wrinkled hand on my arm and blessed me from her heart.
In Shayna's experience, frum people bless each other in Yiddish.
So it never occurred to her that she shouldn't speak to me in Yiddish, especially since I was the rebbetzin — no matter that I came from a secular English-only background (which she didn't know about) and that I was married to a Moroccan-Israeli and that we were standing in a Sefardi synagogue.
She poured out her new-year blessings in Yiddish because that's what she understood was the right thing to do.
And I loved her for it.
Conversely, if you are in Israel and you greet your Sefardi neighbor with "Gut Shabbos", she might get offended.
Because then it feels like you're imposing your nusach on her, as if her nusach isn't good enough.
And sadly, there are indeed some Ashkenazim with that attitude, which is why your Sefardi neighbor isn't being oversensitive when she gets miffed about your perfectly friendly "Gut Shabbos."
(Although she should still give you the benefit of the doubt, that you were just expressing your ahavat Yisrael in the best way you knew how. Or that you just forgot how it might come off to her.)
Along these lines, another Sukkot in Eretz Yisrael was approaching when an English-speaking Chassidish-American acquaintance came up to me and started wishing me all sorts of nice things for the coming year — in Yiddish.
Ironically, I suddenly felt irritated.
I don't know Yiddish, I fumed silently.
Why was she putting me in this uncomfortable position of nodding blankly and not knowing how to respond to her gush of words because I mostly didn't understand?
She knows I'm originally from an "out of town" location in America, maybe knows I'm not FFB, and that I'm firmly in the Sefardi community here in Eretz Yisrael.
Why on earth would I understand all the Yiddish coming out of her mouth?
This admittedly insignificant incident left me disgruntled.
But why? What was wrong with me all of the sudden?
Why, when Shayna did EXACTLY the same thing, it imbued me with warm fuzzies...yet when this acquaintance did it, I got all flustered and resentful?
Even stranger, I actually like Yiddish. I enjoy trying to speak it with my friends' children who only know Yiddish.
So why did I all of the sudden have a problem with Yiddish?
Probably because — again — it's the heart that counts.
Shayna was brimming with goodness, so when she talks to you in the language of her choice, then all her goodness just gushes forth into you.
And Shayna was speaking to me in Yiddish because she thought that was the best way to convey her good wishes (like the Sefardi ganenet above); she had no idea I didn't understand.
In other words, Shayna & the Sefardi ganenet strove to speak MY language.
The fact that they missed the mark doesn't matter because it really is the THOUGHT, the INTENTION that counts.
And that's how I took it.
Yet this acquaintance tended to be firmly entrenched in her own world and in her way of doing things.
She and her husband were used to being leaders of their community, and expressing good wishes in Yiddish was the RIGHT way to do things, gosh darn it, whether the listener understood and whether the listener was comfortable or not.
In other words, she wasn't reaching out to me, she was asserting herself over me (and vicariously, over a whole large group of fellow Jews).
Was this intentional? Likely not.
Some people are just very self-absorbed and so used to holding on to their own thing (which, if you've lived frum in America, you need to do to resist the pull of secular American culture), they don't realize when they've overstepped.
The Language of the Heart
- Be like Shayna.
- Be like my son's Sefardi ganenet.
- Be like my wonderful Chassidish neighbors.
- Be like the Yemenite Tehillim leader.
Reach out from the heart without overreach from the ego.