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For the love of language: Richard Michelson wins National Jewish Book Award for children’s story about modern Hebrew

  • Children’s author Rich Michelson, seen here in his office at R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, talks about his newest book, "The Language of Angels," about the reinvention of Hebrew as a modern language. An original illustration from the book by artist Karla Gudeon can be seen on the easel behind him. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Children’s author Rich Michelson, seen here in his office at R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, talks about his newest book, “The Language of Angels,” about the reinvention of Hebrew as a modern language.  GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Children’s author Rich Michelson, seen here in his office at R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, talks about his newest book, "The Language of Angels," about the reinvention of Hebrew as a modern language. An original illustration from the book by artist Karla Gudeon can be seen on the easel behind him. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • ”The Language of Angels” has won a National Jewish Award, a Sydney Taylor Gold Award, and a Junior Library Guild Selection.

  • A detail from “The Language of Angels.” In this scene, Ben-Zion tries to teach his dog, Maher, some Hebrew words. Image courtresy of Rich Michelson

  • From “The Language of Angels.” Here, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his son, Ben-Zion, try to come up with the Hebrew word for ice cream. Image courtresy of Rich Michelson



Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2018

When he was growing up in Brooklyn, Richard Michelson was a long way from being part of any organized religion. Though his family was Jewish, no one went to synagogue, he notes, nor did they really identify as Jews: “We were, if anything, anti-religious,” he said.

So there’s a certain irony that today the acclaimed children’s book author and poet has made a name for himself, in considerable part, by penning stories about Jewish traditions and culture; he also has written more broadly about social-justice issues and civil rights.

In the process, he has become a requested speaker at synagogues, schools and other venues that appreciate the way his books make complex ideas accessible to children.

Michelson, the longtime owner of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, has tackled another topic of Jewish life — as well as a larger story about the wonders of language — in his most recent children’s book, “The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew,” which recently won the National Jewish Book Award and a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal (the Sydney Taylor Awards recognize Jewish children’s literature).

“The Language of Angels” is based on the real-life story of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a lexicographer and newspaper editor in Jerusalem who in the 1880s made Hebrew an everyday language for Jews when for centuries it had been uttered only for prayers. Ben-Yehuda used his young son, Ben-Zion, as the vessel for his experiment, insisting the boy only speak and hear Hebrew.

As father says to son early in the story, “You will be the first child in more than two thousand years who will grow up speaking only the beauty of our ancient tongue.”

It’s a story that Michelson, a former poet laureate of Northampton, first heard about more than 15 years ago, and one that seemed an intriguing possibility for a children’s book. But for a long time, he says, even after he’d done some significant research on the topic, such as reading biographies about both the father and son, he couldn’t figure out a way to make it work.

“I’m fascinated by language, and that seemed to be the essence of the story, that you have this guy who had to make up words for everything that had happened in 2,000 years,” he said. “And you can’t just pull words out of the air — you need a system. I live very closely with words because I’m a poet, and I realize the difference between two words can make or break a poem.”

“But I just couldn’t find my way into the story,” he added. “So I put it away and kind of forgot about it.”

Yet Michelson’s belated introduction to Judaism, in a sense, eventually helped him return to the book. As he explains, his real introduction to the religion began when his wife, Jennifer, who had been raised Methodist, converted to Judaism. To do that, she studied with their mutual friend, the late children’s author Julius Lester, and Michelson in turn discussed the topic with Lester.

Michelson, who lives in Amherst, said his very basic understanding of Judaism helped him write about the subject for children in earlier books such as “Too Young for Yiddish” and “A is for Abraham,” since he approached the topic at the level boys and girls did.

“The questions I had were the same questions kids would have,” he said. “It was ‘What would I want to know?’ and ‘How would I figure this out?’ ”

From Klingon to Hebrew

There was another inspiration for “The Language of Angels,” though this one came from an odd place — yet one that circled back to Michelson’s past writing for children.

His previous book was “Fascinating,” a 2016 biography of the late actor and photographer Leonard Nimoy, who became a pop-culture icon from his role as Spock, the Vulcan science officer in the “Star Trek” TV and movie series. Michelson and Nimoy became good friends after meeting in the early 2000s at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, where Nimoy recorded “Too Young for Yiddish” for a library of recorded Jewish books.

To help sales of “Fascinating,” Michelson went to some Star Trek conventions, even though “they’re really not my thing,” he said with a wry smile. At one in New York, he says a father and son came up to him and began speaking in Klingon, the language of one of the races of humanoids that appear in “Star Trek” (there is an actual Klingon dictionary, written by the linguist Marc Okrand, who created the language for the “Star Trek” films).

“It was a strange experience,” said Michelson. “The father told me his son didn’t know English, only Klingon. So I said [to the boy] ‘Are you going to grow up to be a native Klingon speaker?’ ”

Just then, he says, he realized how he could write the story about Ben-Zion and Hebrew. “It was like lightning the way the book came back to me. I’d write it from the kid’s perspective — a kid who is only allowed to speak Hebrew and is really isolated.”

Indeed, in the story, Ben-Zion is at first lonely and friendless; he hears other Jewish children in Jerusalem speaking to one another in their native languages such as Yiddish, but his father forbids him to use anything but Hebrew (Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was originally from what today is Belarus and spoke Russian, French and German as well as Hebrew; in the book, Ben-Zion’s mother, Devorah, sometimes sings to the boy in Russian to comfort him).

The story also documents the arguments Eliezer has with other Jewish leaders, who think using Hebrew to describe ordinary things, like “taking out the garbage,” profanes the language of prayer. When Ben-Zion speaks Hebrew to his puppy, Maher, during a walk, other boys throw stones at him because their fathers have told them that it’s wicked to speak “the holy language” to animals.

Yet Eliezer and Ben-Zion forge ahead, together devising new Hebrew words like “offanyim” for bicycle, which combines “ofan” (wheel) and “ayim” (a pair of). And when Ben-Zion begins sharing these words and ideas with other children, they become interested in the process, in turn revealing the language to their parents. Eliezer creates a dictionary for the new words — though first he has to coin a new Hebrew word (“milon”) for it.

“Even though it’s a book about Hebrew, what’s more important to me is that it’s a book about language,” said Michelson. “As kids, we think that language is something that’s given from on high … but it’s really a living, growing organism. That’s the number-one thing I wanted kids to get out of this book — that language is fun, you can play with words, even make them up.”

Another plus for the book, he says, is that the illustrations were done by Karla Gudeon, an artist he greatly admires (and represents in his gallery), after his publisher accepted his recommendation to hire her — something that rarely happens in the publishing world, he notes.

Though he is pleased by the awards for “The Language of Angels” — he’d previously been nominated for a National Jewish Book Award but hadn’t won one — Michelson says the biggest benefit of the testimonials will hopefully be greater visibility for a book whose subject has less broad appeal than, say, his profile of Leonard Nimoy.

“This is kind of a niche book, but ideally [the awards] will make people give it a closer look, people who ordinarily wouldn’t be interested,” he said.

And, he added with a laugh, “Awards are like a sugar high, and then it’s gone.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Richard Michelson’s
website is richardmichelson.com.