The ProsenPeople

Like Father, Like Son

Wednesday, February 22, 2017 | Permalink

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 is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Child abuse! Had I lived in Jerusalem in the late nineteenth century, I would have undoubtedly joined the chorus of those charging Eliezer Ben-Yehuda with that crime.

Would I have considered the Maccabees religious zealots who deserved to be routed, or would I have joined their Chanukah celebration? Would I have accused Jesus of heresy or shared in his Passover feast?

History has a way of confounding your beliefs and expectations. I can only judge myself and others within my own timeframe, but I am certain that I would have disliked much about Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, especially the way he bullied those around him—his children, wives, friends—in pursuit of his own dreams. But… what dreams they were, to bring Hebrew back to life in our own time! To champion a language, for how can you have a homeland without a common language?

Ben-Yehuda was successful beyond his wildest expectations, surmounting insurmountable odds. When Eliezer arrived in Jerusalem in 1881, no one spoke Hebrew as their daily language. Neighbors spoke Arabic, Spanish, Turkish, English, and numerous other dialects. It was a regular city of Babel. Jews who immigrated spoke Yiddish, Ladino, or any one of the many languages they had learned in the country that they emigrated from. Jews who had never left their Holy Land considered Hebrew appropriate only for religious worship. To speak Hebrew in the bathroom? Unspeakable! Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was meshugge!

But during his lifetime, 55 schools opened with all instruction in Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda created the first Hebrew dictionary and coined words for countless ideas and objects that had not been in existence when Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language. To make up new words, he studied ancient languages related to Hebrew: Assyrian, Egyptian, Amharic, Coptic, and Arabic, which was then only Semitic language that had remained in use throughout the ages. Ben-Yehuda believed that Jews and Arabs were mishpacha— family—and should share the land and live together. He delivered a lecture at the Arabic Academy of Science and told his audience about the close linguistic relationship between Arabic and Hebrew. He explained how he had borrowed many words from Arabic, and that some Arabic words had been borrowed from Hebrew. Most Arabs respected him and were pleased to hear their “sister tongue” spoken in the markets.

In 1948 the State of Israel was established, and Hebrew was made the national language. Today more than three million people speak Hebrew every day.

But my story is about Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda, the very first child in over 2,000 years to grow up with Hebrew as their first and, for a time, only language. He would hear ONLY Hebrew until he was five years old: that meant, of course, he couldn’t play with the other neighborhood children, and his father went so far as to cover Ben Zion’s ears when cows were mooing and dogs were barking. He forbade his wife, Devorah, from comforting her son with the Russian folk songs that she had grown up hearing.

Eliezer Ben-Yehude had a point to prove and his son was his experimental subject. When Ben Zion was four years old, he had yet to speak, and his mother was beside herself with worry. The neighbors mocked the crazy man in their midst. I’d have had him arrested for child abuse.

And yet… and yet the more I read, the more I fell in love with this madman. His passion for words and language, and his single-minded focus won me over. It helps, of course, that the son grew up to idolize the father, and become a man of words himself. Ben-Zion changed his name to Itamar Ben-Avi. Ben-Avi means “son of my father,” and like his father, he remained interested in words and language throughout his life. He wrote a biography of his father, as well as his own autobiography; he became a journalist and newspaper publisher.

Eliezer wanted all Jews to learn Hebrew so they could talk with one another, regardless of their origins, but Itamar wanted everyone in the world to be able to converse. He championed an international language called Esperanto, though with less success than his father. (In 1966, William Shatner—before he became Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame—starred in the Hollywood thriller Incubus, written and acted entirely in Esperanto. But that is another tale entirely, and we shouldn’t blame Itamar for that fiasco.)

After my book was completed I had the honor of corresponding with Ben-Yehuda’s grandson, a Florida-based rabbi who is also named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and also went into “the family business.” He wrote a biography of his grandfather, and as a writer and scholar he continues to champion his love of words and the Hebrew language. So I guess it a good thing that I wasn’t the one making the decision in the late nineteenth century about whether or not to toss the meshugeneh into jail.

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.

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The So-Called Rules of Language, Literature, and Baseball

Monday, February 20, 2017 | Permalink

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.

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The Early Origins of "Live Long and Prosper"

Thursday, September 08, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Richard Michelson wrote about following his own advice for aspiring authors and the encouragement he received in penning Fascinating, a children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy—which comes out this week! Richard is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek character, Mr. Spock, became a cultural icon—as did Leonard Nimoy, himself—but even his most ardent fans do not fully understand the important role that Judaism played in both the Star Trek series and Leonard’s life. (William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk, is also Jewish, though less directly connected to his faith.)

Leonard was born into a Yiddish-speaking, kosher—and I mean three-sets-of-dishes-kosher—Orthodox Jewish household on Chambers Street in Boston. He shared his small apartment with his older brother, his parents, and his Bubbe and Zayde. Three generations, four rooms.

When he brought his dad lunch and the Forverts at the family barbershop, he only had to walk three blocks. The shul was at the end of his street. Later the family attended a different synagogue, and although Leonard never discovered the dispute that led to the change, he loved to tell the joke about the Jew who was saved from a desert island, and proudly showed his rescuers the two shuls he’d built: one to attend and one he wouldn’t enter for a million bucks.

One Rosh Hashanah, when Leonard was eight years old, he accompanied his father to services. He was fascinated as a bunch of men went to the bima, orpulpit, and started chanting and swaying.

He was instructed, as tradition dictates, to cover his eyes during the Priestly Blessing.

But Leonard was an eight-year-old boy, and he couldn’t help peeking. He watched the men pull their prayer shawls over their heads, as their chants got louder. He watched them bless the congregation as they raised both arms in the air and held out their hands “as if they were shooting a two-handed jump shot. What were they doing with their fingers?”

At age seventeen, Leonard fell in love with theater when he was asked to be in a local production of Awake and Sing by the playwright Clifford Odets. It was about three generations of a poor Jewish family who lived together in one small apartment, and the director needed someone to play the part of the teenage son who yearned for a better life. “Lenny read the play,” I describe in my new children’s biography, Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy. “Could the author have known the Nimoys? How did Mr. Odets understand what Lenny was thinking—thoughts he hadn’t shared with anyone?”

When he started out as a professional actor, Leonard played in a production of Sholom Aleichem's It's Hard to Be a Jew at Hollywood's Civic Theatre, with the great Yiddish actor and director Maurice Schwartz. Leonard would later go on to tour the country as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, as well as playing Golda Meir’s husband in A Woman Name Golda and Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein in Never Forget.

As established a thespian as he already was at the time, it was in Star Trek’s second season, when the Enterprise visited the planet Vulcan for the first time, that Leonard’s most lasting contribution to American culture occurred. The script told Spock to shake hands with the Vulcan queen, but Leonard wanted to have a special greeting. “Asians bow when they meet,” he told the director, “and military men salute.”

“And how do Vulcans greet each other?” he was asked.

Leonard thought for a while, and then he remembered that awesome moment during High Holiday services when he was eight years old. He held up his hand in the ancient Hebraic gesture and blessed his fellow actors.

✷Live Long and Prosper.✷

Richard Michelson is the author of many acclaimed books for adults and children. His work has earned a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal and National Jewish Book Award recognition. Richard lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries.

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Do What Scares You

Wednesday, September 07, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Richard Michelson wrote about following his own advice for aspiring authors in penning Fascinating, a children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy—which comes out this week! Richard is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


When I was deciding whether to accept the “job offer” to write the children’s book A is for Abraham in a series of cultural and state alphabet books by Sleeping Bear Press, I ran through the pros and cons with my friend and mentor, Leonard Nimoy.

The cons seemed obvious. I had never attended a Jewish Day School, I knew no Hebrew, I knew no Yiddish, I never had a Bar Mitzvah, I couldn’t recite any prayers, I never followed the traditions, and I even “cheated” on Yom Kippur, noshing when I should be fasting.

The pros? I couldn’t think of any offhand. And it was a daunting task. Boil down all of Jewish knowledge and history into the most important 26 categories. Write two- or four-line poems for young children to read and a sidebar explaining the subject in depth for older children.

Leonard thought it over and decided I was the “logical” choice.

Because I didn’t know anything, every part of Judaism interested me. And I saw it from the outside, like a child might. I had so many questions! It is often difficult to learn from a person who is too much the expert, he counseled. The fish cannot explain water. You need to be standing on dry land.

And his most important artistic advice: Do what scares you!

Leonard had insatiable curiosity and he lived by the mantra: Go, Do, Explore. He was an actor, director, photographer, singer, poet, pilot, and playwright. When he was offered the part of Spock he hesitated. At that time, he already had a successful thirteen-year career, having starred in two movies and numerous television shows, including the highest rated series of the day. He’d started his own studio to help teach younger performers.

Now he was being asked to wear pointed ears and a silly haircut. He was afraid he would lose all credibility. But then he remembered how his Zayde, who had come to the United States with a sense of adventure to find a better life, had always encouraged him to take chances.

Leonard’s parents, on the other hand, arrived much later. They were fearful people, as befits immigrants from Zaslav, Ukraine who escaped Russian pogroms. His mother was smuggled out of the city in a hay wagon, and his father was sneaked across the border. Their papers, upon entering the United States, had been stamped “Alien.” They were always telling young Lenny to stay home, fit in, and play it safe.

If he was yelled at for staying out too late, Leonard’s Bubbe used to console him by singing her favorite Yiddish poem: Itzik Manger’s There Is a Tree That Stands, which is about a boy who wants to turn into a bird and fly away. In the song, it’s cold out and his mother makes him put on a coat, then galoshes, then a hat and gloves, until he is so encumbered that

I try to fly, but I can’t move…
Too many, many things
My mother’s piled on her weak bird
And loaded down my wings.

I look into my mother’s eyes
And, sadly, then I see
The love that won’t let me become
The bird I want to be.

So Leonard decided it was time for him to take a chance, close the circle and become an alien.
Go. Do. Explore.

In his honor I decided my “V” would stand for Vulcan, and my side bar would incorporate the long history of Jews in the arts. So I penned two lines:

V is for Vulcan. Star-Trekkers, I’m guessing,
know Spock’s greetings’ based on a Kohanim blessing.

They were, perhaps rightfully, rejected by my editor, and a different “V” verse was substituted in their place. But I am pleased for the opportunity to share the couplet for the first time with Jewish Book Council’s readers—and I’ll talk more about that blessing of theh Kohanim, which became the starting point of my book Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy, in my next blog post!

Richard Michelson is the author of many acclaimed books for adults and children. His work has earned a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal and National Jewish Book Award recognition. Richard lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries.

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Everyone Has a Story to Tell—Just Remember to Write It Down

Tuesday, September 06, 2016 | Permalink

With his new book Fascinating, a children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy, coming out this week, author Richard Michelson is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


As a college graduate, I was well versed in Russian literature and American history; and I could name the dynasties of French and English Kings. But I knew next to nothing about the life my grandfather had lived in his Eastern European shtetl, or how he came to settle in America. I never asked. I do not recall that we ever had a single conversation of substance while he was alive. When my children were studying for their bar and bat mitzvah, I decided I needed to do some research, so I could pass down family history. So I wrote a children’s book titled Too Young for Yiddish, where a boy who looks and sounds a bit like me gets a chance to hear his Zayde’s story firsthand. He learns that “history is what happens to real people,” and he forges a relationship with his grandfather through the miracle of fiction that I wish I had experienced in “real life.”

When I speak to children and they ask the dreaded prepared question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I invite them to go home that very day and ask their parents, grandparents, best friend’s parents, and their best friends about their lives. “Everyone has a story to tell,” I say. “Just remember to write it down.”

When I speak to aspiring authors at conferences, the advice is almost exactly the same. “Be curious about the lives that surround you, and listen carefully. Write down what you hear. Do it now. Don’t wait.”

So how did I forget my own advice in my long relationship with Leonard Nimoy?

When Leonard was asked to record Too Young for Yiddish for the National Yiddish Book Center, we started a relationship that lasted twelve years, until his death. We emailed daily, phoned regularly, and often traveled together. He was a serious photographer, having built his own darkroom as a 13 year old boy. When Star Trek was cancelled after three seasons, Leonard contemplated changing careers and he went back to UCLA and studied photography.

I am an art dealer and ended up handling his photographic career. As we traveled together to exhibitions—and, later, family events—we shared stories of our childhoods, our evolving relationships to Judaism, and our political beliefs. We bonded over a love of art and literature. Mostly we laughed together, often over the fact that we looked alike, and no one would believe that we were not father and son.

Leonard was a first reader as I wrote many other picture book biographies, profiling well known figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in As Good As Anybody and people who I thought had been unfairly left out of the historical canon, like Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King, who was also the first “professional” baseball player, and the first Jewish manager (I have started a petition to get Pike in the Baseball Hall of Fame.)

Why did it never occur to me to put Leonard Nimoy’s story down on paper? Over the years I facilitated countless interviews—everyone was interested in his life—but it wasn’t until I’d watched a documentary, Leonard Nimoy’s Boston, that his son Adam had made (originally conceived as a family memoir for the Nimoy kids and grandkids)—that I realized Leonard’s life story would be perfect to inspire the “next generation.”

At the time, I had no idea that Leonard would pass away three months later from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD (his daughter Julie is working on a documentary to help raise money to fight the disease: COPD: Highly Illogical). In fact, my expectation was that we would go on a book tour together. I give thanks that Leonard was able to read the finished manuscript before he passed on:

It’s wonderful and I’m flattered… It is an amazing piece of work and I love that you decided to do it, he emailed me the same evening I sent him my manuscript.

I am glad I didn’t wait.

Richard Michelson is the author of many acclaimed books for adults and children. His work has earned a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal and National Jewish Book Award recognition. Richard lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries.

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And the Winner is...

Thursday, January 08, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The Sydney Taylor Book Awards have been announced!

Richard Michelson and Raul Colon, author and illustrator of As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom, Karen Hesse, author of Brooklyn Bridge, and Valerie Zenatti, author of A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, are the 2009 winners of the prestigious Sydney Taylor Book Award.

The Sydney Taylor Book Award honors new books for children and teens that exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience. The award memorializes Sydney Taylor, author of the classic All-of-a-Kind Family series. The winners will receive their awards at the Association of Jewish Libraries convention in Chicago this July.

To read more about the Syndey Taylor Award, please visit here.

Stay tuned next week for the winners of the 2008 National Jewish Book Awards!