The Lan­guage of Angels

Richard Michel­son; Kar­la Gudeon, illus.

  • Review
By – February 20, 2017

This pic­ture book, illus­trat­ed in deep vibrant col­ors with atmos­phere, spir­it, and a rich­ly devel­oped sense of time and place, tells the sto­ry of the re-emer­gence of Hebrew as a mod­ern, spo­ken, liv­ing lan­guage but it tells it poignant­ly, per­son­al­ly and sweet­ly through the eyes of a child whose life was affect­ed and shaped by a rad­i­cal exper­i­ment con­duct­ed by his father, Eliez­er Ben-Yehu­da, who was the dri­ving force behind the revi­tal­iza­tion of this ancient lan­guage for mod­ern times. Eliez­er Ben-Yehu­da decid­ed to bring up his son using Hebrew as the only lan­guage the child was per­mit­ted to speak or hear; a chal­leng­ing, com­pli­cat­ed child­hood for young Ben-Zion, as no one else at all, any­where in the world spoke mod­ern Hebrew. They could­n’t speak the lan­guage as Ben-Zion’s father was still in the process of devel­op­ing it. Even ancient Hebrew was con­sid­ered holy by those around him and inap­pro­pri­ate for every­day use. There­fore, Ben-Zion was unable to com­mu­ni­cate with any­one at all except for his own par­ents, result­ing in lone­li­ness and con­fu­sion although the aim of his par­ents was one of high­er pur­pose rather than the iso­la­tion they caused.

Michel­son takes the read­er on a lan­guage jour­ney show­ing us all how new words devel­op log­i­cal­ly and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly. Ice cream becomes gli­da based on an ancient root word for freez­ing. Dic­tio­nary becomes milon based on old­er terms for ““place”” and ““words””. Using sim­i­lar thought process­es, offanay­im becomes bicy­cle and bet-hase­fer becomes school. These words did­n’t exist in ancient Hebrew because the items or con­cepts did­n’t exist at that time and had to be devel­oped in response to things occur­ring in the mod­ern world. The new words would not be absorbed into soci­ety if they did not make sense so link­ing them to log­i­cal roots and pre­vi­ous con­cepts was impor­tant. The read­er gets a good glimpse into how lan­guage devel­ops roots and con­tin­ues to grow.

Ben-Yehu­da start­ed teach­ing his lan­guage first to his son and then to oth­er chil­dren and then the oth­er chil­dren start­ed teach­ing it to their par­ents and even­tu­al­ly the new/​old lan­guage flour­ished and spread. By the time Ben-Zion was old­er, there were many peo­ple with whom he was able to com­mu­ni­cate and share his ideas and who under­stood his language.

An exten­sive author’s after­word gives more infor­ma­tion about the Ben-Yehu­da fam­i­ly and explains where the author took some lib­er­ties with strict his­tor­i­cal fact while keep­ing to the accu­rate his­tor­i­cal spir­it. He tells a bit more about the life of Ben-Zion as an adult when he was known by the name of Ita­mar Ben-Avi and dis­cuss­es some of his accom­plish­ments. He also edu­cates the read­er more thor­ough­ly about the devel­op­ment of the Hebrew language.

High­ly rec­om­mend­ed for ages 5 – 10.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

Discussion Questions