Hold Your Tongue

VERSO / Volume 1, Number 1
Essay by Anna Arov

June 8, 2014

When I heard about the theme of hold your tongue, I thought I would bring you all a tongue to hold. It’s my tongue, as I bought it from my organic happy cow butcher, but you are all free to hold it.

This tongue and many that came before it contributed the trauma of my life.

The most tangible way the trauma materialized was in the kitchen, yes, the kitchen being the safest place of a house, maybe second to the bedroom. I should add that the first ten years of my life were spent in Russia, my family is Russian, Jewish Russian. The women in my family spent hours in the kitchen, it was even where one received guests and it was thought that if an apartment didn’t have a table in the kitchen then it was uninhabitable. Tongue was often on the menu, it was prepared in its entirety to be eaten over the week in installments. Lucky for me, one of my favourite dishes was tongue. It was served in thick slices with a bit of horseradish. I ate it and accepted it without questioning what the neighbours were eating or what other kids my age were eating.  Tongue is associated with the Jewish kitchen, but I only learned that later.

I would walk through the kitchen and peek into the large pot simmering away on the stove. The pot was filled by a curling tongue surrounded by floating carrots, celery, and bay leaf or two. This smelled up the whole house and this is the smell I associate more with birthdays and celebrating than the warm smell of baking. One needs to boil the tongue for a couple of hours, and then when it’s cool, you peel back the skin. I snuck in to run my finger along the papillae of the tongue, which was rough and unresponsive. I could never reconcile that rough feeling with the melt in your mouth meat, which was presented domino style with a sprig of parsley.

Eating tongue feels absurd. This is the muscle used to manipulate food in your mouth and it is covered in taste buds to actually taste the food that goes in there. In a way it’s a close as one can come with a dead animal, well I can think of a couple of other ways, but they are much more perverse. To have an animal tongue in your mouth is a wild idea and if you want to have a total existential experience, eat tongue and think about that fact.

I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up in Russia or because my father was an atheist, the closest I got to feeling Jewish was through eating the food, through the tongue stinking up the whole apartment. Being Jewish was never really talked about and when it was, everyone’s either dropped like they were discussing some secret or they were shouting with indignation, the children were not included into those discussions. Anti-Semitism was very prevalent in Russia at that time and I think my family tried to protect the children from it by not explaining it to us. That way when the neighbours would say things like, “you are not Jewish, you are a good kid,” we wouldn’t understand. When a girl I was playing with in a typical Russian field of birches tucked in between the Krushev flats called me Jew, I would only hear it as an insult and whack her in the head with the cast of my freshly broken arm. They were protecting us from shame.

The shame was abstract and intangible.

I didn’t want this to get heavy or political, I just wanted to write about tongues. But in the wake of the EU elections resulting in many countries voting for a right wing government and the way Putin is trying to take over Ukraine.

If you ever have the opportunity please try tongue and think about the wonderful absurdity of coming that close to a cow and if you never try it.

I was at a party recently and someone asked me why the Jews were hated so much to warrant genocide. Part of me wanted to distance myself from myself, part of me wanted to turn the question back on him, part of me wanted to change the subject, because how the hell did we get on this topic.

I tried to address this but thought it better to change the subject to food.

I’m not sure Jewish pride exists because it goes counter to the Jewish upbringing, we are told to keep the

A while back I was at a conference and there was a panel on Jewish shame, I never realized this was a thing, though I felt at home. And I learned of the many levels of shame jews deal with and that there is a thing called survivor shame. Shame touches who we are as people, it is never what we did because then you may feel guilty.

I was playing in a typical Russian field of birches tucked in between the Krushev flats with a girl friend. We were seven, I had a broken arm in a cast, and we running around pretending to be horses. I’m not sure what happened but she looked at me and called me a jew, she said it just like that, ‘jew’. We had never talked about me being jewish, that’s not what seven-year olds do, but she knew and I knew. My first impulse was shame, after which came anger and then, what I believe to be the opposite of shame – pride. And I hit her over the head with my cast. I know this was wrong, violence is wrong and I feel sorry for that, but shame and pride got mixed up in my seven-year-old brain. I never told my parents what happened, but I did eat tongue when I got home with a wad of horseradish. When I cried, I probably told my mother it’s the horseradish, and yes, I wanted another piece of tongue.  

To make proper tongue, one needs to …..

Ever since I can remember, my mother would traumatize me with food. Soup always stood between me and something tasty.

The opposite of shame is pride



1 the most obvious the language. Yidish was a secret language over the generations in my family but it the vocabulary was lost by the time it got to my parents so whispers were the only way to keep me out of the loop.


2. keeping quiet, I was not to tell anyone that we were moving. Of course I didn’t know we were moving. But just in case I caught wind of what was being whispered about.


3. I was not to tell anyone that I was Jewish, this was never spoken but understood. Actually the word Jewish was not one I heard much. It was something I told my closest friends in secret. It was often part of a similar ceremony as showing someone what your vagina or penis looks like, which was a popular pastime in Russia at the time.


4. When I went to Hebrew school in Canada, my parents packed a butter and salami sandwich for me. After three years, my father was called in and told that if the Jewish rules were not being held up in the home then maybe it was better for me to transfer to a public school.


5. My grandmother’s family had to evacuate several times, her brothers both died at the front, one of them tortured. After the war my grandfather became a dentist and would often have a patient afraid to get into the dental chair despite their desperate need for a dentist, they thought he would murder them, because that’s what the newspaper wrote about Jews. My father’s family was fleeing Russia, when their train was bombed and he chose that inopportune moment to be born. As an adult he was one of the 2% Jewish students allowed in the university. His father didn’t want to give up religion and join the communist party, which resulted in his large family living in poverty. Nobody explained this to them. 

Anna Arov bio