Fol­low­ing up on his children’s biog­ra­phy of Leonard Nimoy, Richard Michel­sons 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’s many books for chil­dren and adults have received many awards and acco­lades, includ­ing a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award and the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award. Michel­son hosts Northamp­ton Poet­ry Radio and served as Poet Lau­re­ate of Northamp­ton, MA. In addi­tion to being an author Michel­son is a speak­er and rep­re­sent­ed the US at the Bratisla­va Bien­ni­al in Slovakia.