This book is based on the autobiography of Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda (later calling himself Itamar Ben-Avi), whose father was instrumental in creating modern Hebrew in Israel. While the dialogue is invented, the story, according to the author’s Afterword, follows the general framework of the history later written by Ben-Yehuda.
Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda was born in Jerusalem on July 31, 1882, the son of Deborah and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. As a young boy, Ben-Zion spent most of his time alone, because he did not speak the same language as any of the children living nearby. His father wanted Ben-Zion to hear and speak only Hebrew, “the Language of Angels.”
In the 1880s, Hebrew was only used in scripture and religious rituals. Eliezer decided to start a school with all lessons taught in Hebrew. There was some protest from others in the community: why should they not speak Yiddish? They already knew that tongue, and besides, “Hebrew is holy and should be used only for prayer.” To use Hebrew for everyday activities seemed profane and inappropriate to them.
Eliezer argued that Yiddish was the language of the ghettos, where they were not free. He created a dictionary for Hebrew words, including many he had to make up to represent modern ideas and objects. The first volume was published in 1908. As the author explains in his note, Eliezer studied ancient languages related to Hebrew for sources, so the words would have logical roots.
In the text, Michelson explains how some of the new words came about, such as the words for ice cream and bicycle.
The Afterword also tells us that during Eliezer’s lifetime, fifty-five schools opened in Israel with all instruction conducted in Hebrew. By 1948 when the state of Israel was established, Hebrew was the national language.
The illustrator, Karla Gudeon, created vibrant and kid-friendly digitized watercolors in a folkloric style that show the words by what they define, as well as depicting them as building blocks.
Evaluation: It is so interesting to see how a new language gets established. The author manages to simplify the process in a way that makes it understandable to a young audience. Adults will have much to discuss with children who read this, such as the role language plays in uniting a community, and the way it needs to evolve and grow to remain relevant. There are also philosophical issues to consider: was it fair of Ben-Zion’s dad to insist he not talk to other children until those children learned Hebrew?
Published by Charlesbridge Publishing, 2017