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

by Richard Michelson

Other authorsKarla Gudeon (Illustrator.)
Book, 2017



Call number

E 400 MIC




Watertown, MA : Charlesbridge, 2017


In 1885, few Jews in Israel used the holy language of their ancestors, and Hebrew was in danger of being lost-until Ben Zion and his father got involved. Through the help of his father and a community of children, Ben modernized the ancient language, creating a lexicon of new, modern words to bring Hebrew back into common usage. Historically influenced dialogue, engaging characters, and colorful art offer a linguistic journey about how language develops and how one person's perseverance can make a real difference. Influenced by illuminated manuscripts, Karla Gudeon's illustrations bring Ben Zion-and the rebirth of Hebrew-to life.

User reviews

LibraryThing member DonnaMarieMerritt
Based on a true story, Eliezer wants his son, Ben-Zion, to speak only Hebrew. He even covers his ears when animals make noises because they are not part of "the Language of Angels."

The first obstacle? Hebrew hadn't been spoken as a main language in over 2000 years. The second obstacle? Ben-Zion is
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lonely without a way to communicate with other kids. Eliezer begins to teach them Hebrew, too, for his son's sake and also with the hope that they will teach their parents. The third obstacle? There were no Hebrew words to describe modern objects. The children take part in inventing new words for the milon ("a place for words" where Eliezer began recording every Hebrew word).

This incredible story is told in a way children can understand with concepts they can relate to, including loneliness and bullying. The beautiful art is a perfect match for the text. I was fascinated by the history behind this book and enjoyed learning more in the Afterword. For instance, when Eliezer moved to Jerusalem in 1881, no one spoke Hebrew (except in prayer). Today, more than three million people speak it—an accomplishment that amazed me!
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LibraryThing member nbmars
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
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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?
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