“Where did you meet them?”, I asked my mother after her new friends left our house. “At the club,” she responded, “and do you know that he speaks six languages fluently?”
Being multilingual was always a reason for admiration and a sign of higher education in my home – and especially for my mother who had limited education. But that held true not only for her, but for all of us. Young and old alike shared in respecting the skill and talent of people who could speak more than three languages.
In school we had to study at least two foreign languages. And, being a country of immigrants, we were used to hearing the “older generation” speak many languages: Hebrew of course, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Arabic, Rumanian, Hungarian, German and Portuguese, to name just a few.
Another exposure to foreign languages came from songs on the radio and mostly from watching foreign films. The production of Israeli movies was almost nonexistent back then, so the only movies we saw were foreign. And of course with foreign films came subtitles. In fact, growing up reading subtitles was a normal part of watching a film.
My childhood and adolescence were sprinkled heavily with American films where I was introduced to Gary Cooper and Elizabeth Taylor, cowboys and indians and the expanse of the west; British films where I was introduced to Lawrence Olivier and Peter O’Toole and the wry humor of the Brits; Italian films with Sophia Lauren and Marcello Mastroianni … and who can forget Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot who were France’s sexy export? And before Bollywood I remember the movies from India, where all of them had a theme of intense suffering followed by redemption, as well as the Spanish films sharing the same theme but in a much more melodramatic fashion. And all of those films stood in sharp contrast to the brooding, introspective and symbolic art of Ingmar Bergman.
All with subtitles, of course.
You can imagine my surprise coming to the States and realizing that no one was in awe by multilingual proficiency! Nor was it an aspiration and a goal. Moreover, Spanish which is the most common language spoken in California, was taught in school in a rudimentary fashion and most students had no desire to be fluent or proficient.
As to foreign films? They were few and far between, and only in major cities. So I guess the prevailing concept was that those who live in smaller cities are less sophisticated, or more isolated from other countries(?) Or is it that the ear of Middle America has some foreign language deficiency?
But truth be told, even in LA, most of my friends would say: “Subtitles? They give me a headache.” I guess there’s something different in the ventilation system installed in movie theatres here, because I can’t recall anyone getting a headache in Israel.
And let me take it a step further.
Without getting into politics, I was keenly aware of how the invasion of Iraq was going to fail shortly after it started, partially because there were so many assumptions about foreign countries based on ignorance. Ignorance stemming from a belief that everyone wants to be like us, and that we have the market cornered on what’s best in life.
And even though I realize that recommending foreign films with subtitles to the State Department, our generals and President Bush would have probably not change the course of history, I cannot but speculate that something could have been improved there, had they expanded their knowledge and familiarity with other countries, their culture and customs.
If any of them had any exposure to Al-Qadisiya, the epic recounting the triumph of the Arabs over the Persians in 636 AD, they would have appreciated the extent to which pride versus humiliation were intense and organic themes in Iraq and the Arab culture.
So subtitles taught me a lot about other people and their countries, they also made me more cosmopolitan, and they definitely introduced me to the cinema of the world with its intricate visuals, their unique artistic vision and especially to unique cultural themes that were so different than mine.
Thank you foreign films! You brought so much richness into my life, subtitles and all.