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The Language of Angels: A Story about the Reinvention of Hebrew

Cover to The Language of Angels: A Story about the Reinvention of Hebrew

What happens if no one speaks a language for nearly 2,000 years? Is it dead? Latin and ancient Greek are sometimes called “dead” languages because they are rarely spoken anymore. We still use both those languages, especially for worship services or studying science and literature, but most people do not talk to each other using either language every day.

It was the same for Hebrew, which has also been called “the language of the angels.” A Jewish scholar and father, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was one of many Jews living in Palestine (part of the Ottoman Empire) in the 19th century, and he wanted to give the Jewish people who had drawn together from across the world a shared language, a language that reflected their faith.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was so committed to Hebrew that he would not let his small son Ben-Zion hear any other language so he would become a native Hebrew speaker—the first in centuries. But Ben-Zion could understand nobody in his city, and almost nobody understood him. He had no friends and, as the book’s author tells it, he was a lonely boy.

In time, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda came to realize that the only way to truly bring back Hebrew was to teach it to more children than just his son. Ben-Zion helped teach his friends, for in a little while he did have friends. Ben-Zion helped add new words, adapted from older Hebrew words or other languages, so people could talk about modern things.

Many of the older Jewish scholars were not happy to see what they considered their sacred language changed. Other adults simply were not interested. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda realized he must make a start with the children. So, Hebrew schools began to take root, and now, over 100 years later, Hebrew is studied by young people and spoken by many people throughout the world.

Richard Michelson’s The Language of Angels is a picture book retelling of how fresh life was breathed into Hebrew by a father and son who lived to see their hopes realized. Its handsome and vivid illustrations have many nods to Jewish traditions and designs. You may see a sample of the book below and check out a copy from your library.