Following up on his children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy, Richard Michelson’s newest book for young readers The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew comes out tomorrow! Richard will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
A riddle: Which came first, the thought or the word? “In the Beginning was the Word,” but was that word thought into being? Or did the word create the thought?
My job title is writer, and words are my tools, my stock in trade. As a poet, I am often surprised when I finish a poem, as to the meaning I’ve communicated. I usually have no idea what I mean to say until I am done writing, and if the poem is successful I will be on the same journey as the reader: amazed by where my sentences have taken me. Right now, I still don’t know what this blog post will actually be about.
I write to discover what I am thinking. And yet the written word is what I use to capture my thoughts.
Most children think of language as “God-given,” or immutable, and why shouldn’t they? We teach them “the rules” in school, and grade them on their vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. But, of course, rules are the fictions we tell ourselves so that we can all think that we are playing the same game.
Baseball always had three strikes and 4 balls and three outs and nine players and nine innings, didn’t it? Even back in the days when it was “created” by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown? As I learned while writing my book Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King, a National Jewish Book Award finalist, baseball wasn’t invented in Cooperstown, and likely Doubleday never even heard of the game, which evolved from Cricket—which evolved from Rounders, which evolved from God-knows-where, over time. In fact, in 1575 BCE (3500 years ago) there was a wall relief on the banks of the Nile in the shrine of Hathor in Hatshepsut’s Temple depicting the pharaoh Thothmes III holding an olivewood branch, ready to strike with his right hand. In his left hand, he holds a ball, which he appears ready to throw. The inscription reads: “Striking the ball for Hathor who is foremost in Thebes.”
Baseball wins could have just as easily gone to the first team to score 21 runs. There could have been no balls or strikes; there could have been one out per side or seven players per team. All were at one time in the rulebook. Language evolves in a similar fashion, by trial and error. Some words stick, and some never make it into popular usage.
So when artist/illustrator/educator/mensch Neil Waldman and I were having lunch fifteen years ago while collaborating on Too Young for Yiddish—through which I learned that the Yiddish language had evolved out of a mixture of Hebrew, Polish, and German, and that Isaac Bashevis Singer proudly claimed that Yiddish was the only language without a word for “armaments”—I asked Neil his thoughts about whether a language without specific words for weapons would inhibit thoughts of violence. I don’t recall his answer but I do remember him casually mentioning the life story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda and his quest to invent words and make Hebrew the daily language of the Jews. I was fascinated. Neil, who lived in Israel at one time, said: “I was going to write that story, but couldn’t find my way in. I now give you the idea as a gift.” It took me fifteen years to find my way in. (Thanks, Neil.)
Imagine trying to get Italians to all start speaking Latin again—and succeeding within your lifetime? Hebrew began to die out as a “living language” around the time of the Maccabees. Because it was used primarily for prayer, it hadn’t incorporated new words for anything invented since the language solidified 2000 years earlier. Ben Yehuda changed all that.
Of course, I didn’t think of the amount of work such labor entails. What fun, I thought instead, to be Adam naming the animals all over again! I wondered how Ben Yehuda made up a name for “ice cream” or “bicycle”—neither of which existed in biblical times. (You can find out if you read the book!)
The Language of Angels is a book about history, and it is a book about friendship and it is a book about family, and it is a book about the current political Mideast situation, and it is a book about the “reinvention” of Hebrew. And now I am at the end of this post and I’ve figured out what I wanted to say: my book is mostly about my love of words in and of themselves, and how much fun it is to play with language. That is something I hope to share with all children and those of you who once were children yourselves.
Richard Michelson is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts. He has written many acclaimed books for adults and children, including Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoyand The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew.