Fol­low­ing up on his children’s biog­ra­phy of Leonard Nimoy, Richard Michel­sons newest book for young read­ers The Lan­guage of Angels: A Sto­ry About the Rein­ven­tion of Hebrew comes out tomor­row! Richard will be guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

A rid­dle: Which came first, the thought or the word? In the Begin­ning was the Word,” but was that word thought into being? Or did the word cre­ate the thought?

My job title is writer, and words are my tools, my stock in trade. As a poet, I am often sur­prised when I fin­ish a poem, as to the mean­ing I’ve com­mu­ni­cat­ed. I usu­al­ly have no idea what I mean to say until I am done writ­ing, and if the poem is suc­cess­ful I will be on the same jour­ney as the read­er: amazed by where my sen­tences have tak­en me. Right now, I still don’t know what this blog post will actu­al­ly be about.

I write to dis­cov­er what I am think­ing. And yet the writ­ten word is what I use to cap­ture my thoughts.

Most chil­dren think of lan­guage as God-giv­en,” or immutable, and why shouldn’t they? We teach them the rules” in school, and grade them on their vocab­u­lary, gram­mar, punc­tu­a­tion, and spelling. But, of course, rules are the fic­tions we tell our­selves so that we can all think that we are play­ing the same game.

Base­ball always had three strikes and 4 balls and three outs and nine play­ers and nine innings, didn’t it? Even back in the days when it was cre­at­ed” by Abn­er Dou­ble­day in Coop­er­stown? As I learned while writ­ing my book Lip­man Pike: America’s First Home Run King, a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award final­ist, base­ball wasn’t invent­ed in Coop­er­stown, and like­ly Dou­ble­day nev­er even heard of the game, which evolved from Crick­et — which evolved from Rounders, which evolved from God-knows-where, over time. In fact, in 1575 BCE (3500 years ago) there was a wall relief on the banks of the Nile in the shrine of Hathor in Hatshepsut’s Tem­ple depict­ing the pharaoh Thothmes III hold­ing an olive­wood branch, ready to strike with his right hand. In his left hand, he holds a ball, which he appears ready to throw. The inscrip­tion reads: Strik­ing the ball for Hathor who is fore­most in Thebes.”

Base­ball wins could have just as eas­i­ly gone to the first team to score 21 runs. There could have been no balls or strikes; there could have been one out per side or sev­en play­ers per team. All were at one time in the rule­book. Lan­guage evolves in a sim­i­lar fash­ion, by tri­al and error. Some words stick, and some nev­er make it into pop­u­lar usage.

So when artist/​illustrator/​educator/​mensch Neil Wald­man and I were hav­ing lunch fif­teen years ago while col­lab­o­rat­ing on Too Young for Yid­dish—through which I learned that the Yid­dish lan­guage had evolved out of a mix­ture of Hebrew, Pol­ish, and Ger­man, and that Isaac Bashe­vis Singer proud­ly claimed that Yid­dish was the only lan­guage with­out a word for arma­ments” — I asked Neil his thoughts about whether a lan­guage with­out spe­cif­ic words for weapons would inhib­it thoughts of vio­lence. I don’t recall his answer but I do remem­ber him casu­al­ly men­tion­ing the life sto­ry of Eliez­er Ben Yehu­da and his quest to invent words and make Hebrew the dai­ly lan­guage of the Jews. I was fas­ci­nat­ed. Neil, who lived in Israel at one time, said: I was going to write that sto­ry, but couldn’t find my way in. I now give you the idea as a gift.” It took me fif­teen years to find my way in. (Thanks, Neil.)

Imag­ine try­ing to get Ital­ians to all start speak­ing Latin again — and suc­ceed­ing with­in your life­time? Hebrew began to die out as a liv­ing lan­guage” around the time of the Mac­cabees. Because it was used pri­mar­i­ly for prayer, it hadn’t incor­po­rat­ed new words for any­thing invent­ed since the lan­guage solid­i­fied 2000 years ear­li­er. Ben Yehu­da changed all that.

Of course, I didn’t think of the amount of work such labor entails. What fun, I thought instead, to be Adam nam­ing the ani­mals all over again! I won­dered how Ben Yehu­da made up a name for ice cream” or bicy­cle” — nei­ther of which exist­ed in bib­li­cal times. (You can find out if you read the book!)

The Lan­guage of Angels is a book about his­to­ry, and it is a book about friend­ship and it is a book about fam­i­ly, and it is a book about the cur­rent polit­i­cal Mideast sit­u­a­tion, and it is a book about the rein­ven­tion” of Hebrew. And now I am at the end of this post and I’ve fig­ured out what I want­ed to say: my book is most­ly about my love of words in and of them­selves, and how much fun it is to play with lan­guage. That is some­thing I hope to share with all chil­dren and those of you who once were chil­dren yourselves.

Richard Michelson’s many books for chil­dren and adults have received many awards and acco­lades, includ­ing a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award and the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award. Michel­son hosts Northamp­ton Poet­ry Radio and served as Poet Lau­re­ate of Northamp­ton, MA. In addi­tion to being an author Michel­son is a speak­er and rep­re­sent­ed the US at the Bratisla­va Bien­ni­al in Slovakia.