One of the many ways cultures manifest their differences is through the curses and expressions used to register pain or discomfort.
Growing up in America, I employed any number of choice terms, ranging from invoking the names of leading religious figures, to various colorful expletives I accost you with here.
In Israel, one of the expressions uttered by children, in particular upon stubbing a toe or any other mild frustration, is “Ayah.” It doesn’t mean anything. Just sounds kind of like “ow” or “ouch” or “oy.” Five-year-old Aviv and many of his kindergarten classmates can be heard uttering “Ayah” at regular intervals.
Now, every night I make up a “‘pon a time” story for Aviv. The tales invariably feature a fanciful cast of fairies, giants and magic carpets. The thing is, I never know what story I’m going to tell until I sit down on Aviv’s bed – they’re all made up on the spot. I’ll look around the room for some inspiration.
Smoke from a barbeque outside one night led to a story about aliens that talked by spewing fire at each other. Another time it was the boy with the smelliest shoes in the world (you can guess where the idea for that one came from).
One night, just as Aviv was climbing into bed, he knocked his head into the side of his dresser.
“Ayah!” he cried out.
That’s all I needed.
“Once upon a time," I began, "there was a little boy named Aviv. He was about five years old and sometimes, like all five year old boys, he would get hurt. Whenever he bonked into something or stepped on a toy, he’d cry out ‘Ayah.’ And when he did, Ayah would come.
“Ayah was Aviv’s special angel. Her job was to make the ow-ee feel better. As soon as she came, the pain would always start to go away.”
“Ayah's not real,” Aviv interrupted."There's no such person."
“Of course there is,” I responded. “But she’s invisible. You can't see her. No one can. But you always know when she's there. You can feel her tickles on your neck."
I returned to the story.
"So, Aviv called Ayah a lot and there was never a time when she didn't come. If Aviv got a particular painful ow-ee, Ayah would bring her friends Raya and Shmaya."
“Raya and Shmaya?” Aviv giggled.
“What, she should call Yogi and Boo Boo?”
“So I was saying. Over time, Aviv fell in love with Ayah, and she with him. They whispered to each other that someday they would marry.
“But as Aviv got older, he stopped calling out when he got hurt. He learned to keep his feelings inside. To be a big strong man who didn’t cry. A real gever. And he forgot about Ayah.
“Ayah was very sad. She missed Aviv terribly. But what could she do? She was only allowed to come if she was called. Those were the rules. She spent her days waiting with Tinkerbell and the other fairies whose masters had forsaken them too.
“Eventually, Aviv grew up. He married someone other than Ayah. They had three little children of their own. One day, when Aviv’s littlest boy was just about five years old, he was in the kitchen getting an apple out of the fridge when it dropped on his foot. And for the first time cried out ‘Ayah!’
“And do you know who came?”
“Of course it was Ayah! Even though she didn’t come for Aviv this time, he knew she was there. He felt her tickles on the back of his neck. And right then and there, He remembered their special times and right then and there he promised never to forget her again.
“And today, if that big man Aviv gets an ow-ee, you know what he does? That’s right. He calls for his Ayah. And she always comes. And they lived happily ever after.
"OK Aviv. Time to say Shema.
But as I looked over to him, I saw that he was already fast asleep. He can do that, just fall asleep on a dime, without uttering a word or a even a sigh. I don’t even know if he heard the ending.
But no matter. He already knows this story by heart.