"As my grandfather passed on his language to lifeless air as I fell asleep in front of him
How would I have known that out of all the phrases, his real name, it is reduced to almost nothing
Only the numbers remain
Eyns Tsvey Dray Fir Finif Zeks Zibn Akht Nayn Tsen
How could I have known that
The decade I didn’t speak cost me a tongue."
These are the words of a winning poet, 16-year-old Jean Klurfeld, a senior at Bronxville High School. Her poem, "Zeyde," won an international award. It was inspired by a lesson on immigration, language and poetry and how first-second- and third-generation immigrants deal with the language barrier between them and their parents or grandparents. The teen's hard-hitting topic is about her late grandfather, Robert Klurfeld, who moved to America from Israel as a young child.
Recently, Jean traveled to London to receive the prestigious Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. There are 15 winners of the competition, sponsored by Foyles bookstore and The Poetry Society in the United Kingdom. The contest draws 11,000 entries every year from 6,000 poets. Click here for a list of all the winners and their poems.
Jean, who lived in London the past two years, submitted her poem while studying there. She was alerted to the competition by a local librarian. An English teacher at her school read her poem and liked it, Jean said. She remembered her grandfather and talked about how a language barrier impacts family members in an email exchange with Daily Voice Plus.
"There’s a pattern now, where an immigrant comes from their native country speaking Polish, Korean, Somali, Thai, or in my case Yiddish, and their children grow up in America learning English instead. They can understand their parents and speak to them, but their own children, the grandchildren of immigrants, will not learn the language of their grandparents. And while language is a set of words, it’s also a vital part of a culture. It’s how family members talk to each other - over the dinner table, at holidays, after school. When a language is lost a family loses some of what binds the older generations to the younger," she said.
Robert Klurfeld came from Israel when he was six, speaking only Yiddish, his granddaughter recounted. "When I was his age I couldn't understand any of it. He didn't have any place to put the remnants of his language, and so much of it was forgotten."
As she got older and looked into her past, Jean said she felt "deeply saddened" that she could not "connect with my own past in the way that I wanted to." She couldn't talk to him about it so she wrote the poem as a tribute to him "that he very much deserved."
Luckily, Jean's "bubbe" Shellie Klurfeld is the person who "greatly contributed to the knowledge" she has of her relatives today, said the teenager.
When I am twenty, if my grandmother bubbe is still here
Have I listened to her words and said them like I should and like he deserves?
Will I have taken the time and respect to my own blood to carry the star that pained me?
Will I have learned?
Jean is grateful to her grandmother for fueling her love of learning and teaching her to read at a young age.
"My grandfather was very much focused on making sure I had the best childhood I could possibly have, and he despised talking about himself. From what my sister and I were able to gather, and from what my grandmother told us, he was bullied and it was very much a sink or swim (keep speaking Yiddish or learn English) environment. He was bullied for being audibly less fluent than other students his age, and I can only imagine what that would’ve been like in middle school, which is already not a very positive environment, to say the least."
Inspiration continues at her new school Jean said has a "flourishing English department with enthusiastic staff and a rich curriculum."
"My interest in writing and poetry is very much nurtured here, and my studies in AP Literature have fueled my love of reading and my passion for writing."
Writers need to read. Jean passes on this time-worn advice to other budding poets:
"Read as much as you can. Read romantic poetry from the mid 19th century, read the first writing in English to ever exist, read translated work from Native Americans and Inuits, read abstract science fiction, read books your best friend recommends to you, read poems translated from sign language, or French, or Italian, definitely from Latin and Greek. Watch spoken word poetry, read out loud to yourself, walk around with a book in nature, in the forest, take one day and try and read a book without putting it down once. Write whenever you feel like it. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to come out of you no matter what."