‘The Language of Angels’ tells the story of Hebrew’s revival


Summer Campground resident and prolific author Richard Michelson has published a new children’s book about the rebirth of the Hebrew language. “The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew” is the remarkable account of a young boy whose father allows him to speak only Hebrew, considered by many to be the language of angels.

The time is 1885, and the place, Jerusalem in Palestine, long before the establishment of Israel. Ben-Zion is a young boy whose father, Eliezer, wants to revive the ancient language of the Jews. At the time, everyone spoke Yiddish, used by many European Jews, or relied on the language of where they came from originally. Eliezer thought restoring Hebrew would help unite its people. So Ben-Zion is not allowed to speak anything but Hebrew, and his father even covers his ears rather than let him hear the sounds of animals.

“You will be the first child in more than 2,000 years who will grow up speaking only the beauty of our ancient tongue,” Eliezer says to Ben-Zion. It means he has no friends, until his father begins work on a Hebrew dictionary. Then he starts to help his father devise new Hebrew words about things and concepts that did not exist in the original form of the language. He combines the word for “wheel” with the phrase for “a pair of” to make “offanyim” for “bicycle,” and soon the children in the neighborhood are helping make new Hebrew words like “glida” (to freeze water) for “ice cream.” Ben-Zion ends up with many friends, and, ultimately, when the nation of Israel is founded in 1948, Hebrew becomes its national language.

In an appendix that enriches the story, the author, who is also a poet, explains how he put together the story of events that happened over 130 years ago. He includes additional information about Ben-Zion, his father Eliezer and his mother Devorah, as well as about the histories of Hebrew and Palestine.

The evolution of language is a complex process, but in Michelson’s hands it becomes easy to understand when seen through the eyes of a young boy who is eager to make friends rather than just follow his father’s dictum about Hebrew. The book illustrates the way language can unite people, and Michelson also points out that languages are living, growing organisms, a valuable concept for children to learn.

This is an author whose children’s books most often celebrate minority achievements. His books have earned many honors, including Amazon’s Best Dozen of the Decade, and they have been listed in the 10 Best Books of the Year by the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and the New Yorker. Among his most recent works are “Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy,” which won the 2017 Sidney Taylor Gold Medal Award; “S is for Sea Glass: A Beach Alphabet”; “Twice as Good: The Story of William Powell and Clearview, the Only Golf Course Designed, Built, and Owned by an African American” and “Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King.”


Richard Michelson’s “The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew,” illustrated by Karla Gudeon, Charlesbridge, 2017, $16.99.

Richard Michelson participates in a discussion about approaches and techniques available for chronicling a notable life, including perpersonal biography, narrative biography, scholarly biography, and picture book biography, at “Islanders Write” on August 14 at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury.