Hebrew for Kids (and Parents)
by Jill Suzanne Jacobs
In 1882, when Eliezer and Deborah Ben-Yehuda set out to raise the first Hebrew-speaking child in two millennia, they had it tough. As Deborah groaned with labor pains, rumor has it Eliezer chided her to utter words only in Hebrew. So vehement was he that this child speak Hebrew, he vowed that his son would not even hear sounds of another language.
As their son — named Ben-Zion (“son of Zion”) — grew, so did the Hebrew language. Eliezer tirelessly invented new words, bringing the ancient language into what was then considered a modern world.
Today’s Hebrew-loving parents have it much easier. Not only has Hebrew been revived in the land of its birth, but it is exported around the globe. For adults, there are books geared toward the Hebrew learner (including one written by yours truly, Hebrew for Dummies), Hebrew language courses offered in nearly every major Jewish center in the Diaspora, and even an opportunity to learn Hebrew immersion-style, online, courtesy of Hebrew College.
For children, there is a wealth of Hebrew-language picture books that a parent with high school- or college-level Hebrew knowledge can read. It’s a great way for parent and child to learn together, continuing a tradition that began with the Ben-Yehuda family as the Hebrew language grew along with their son.
Shemot Muzarim (Strange Names)
By Shari Dash Greenspan
Illustrated by Avi Katz
29 pages. Urim Publications. $14
At top of the list is the recently published Shemot Muzarim (Strange Names) whose prose and illustrations are indeed delightful. Told in a child’s voice, the story reveals the quirky personalities of the children in a typical Israeli kindergarten along with their names, which don’t always fit.
Liraz (I have a secret) is always telling them. Shira (song) hates to sing. Ram (tall) is the shortest kid in class. And Binyamin (my right hand) writes with his left.
The story hums along with sing-song Hebrew prose and illustrations that reveal the insides of a typical Israeli kindergarten. What’s more, the illustrations showcase the wonderful diversity of Israeli society — made up of people religious and secular with skin colors ranging from chocolate brown to snowy white.
The simple Hebrew writing, along with pictures that help facilitate understanding of the text, make this picture book an ideal one for the beginning Hebrew reader. Armed with a good Hebrew-English dictionary, even a novice Hebrew student should be able to muddle through with his or her child, and have fun along the way.
Noam Mechapes Zichronot (Noam Looks for Memories)
By Mem Fox
Illustrated by Julie
32 pages. Urim Publications. $14
For the slightly more advanced Hebrew student — and the slightly older child — there’s Noam Mechapes Zichronot (Noam Looks for Memories), a story of a young boy and his relationship with the residents of a nearby home for the aged.
Translated from English, the story lacks the authentic Israeli ring of the previous picture book. Also, the words chosen for the Hebrew translation seem somewhat advanced for the young child, not to mention a beginning Hebrew student.
Still, for those parents with solid Hebrew skills, this book offers an opportunity to encounter Hebrew on a more sophisticated level.
The story’s main characters, the elderly residents of the home for the aged, and the challenges they face offer an opportunity to explain the process of aging to the very young. And Noam’s relationship with the elderly, particularly Miss Chana, illustrates the Jewish value of Hadar Penei Zekinim, honoring the elderly.
Laila Tov Yareach (Good Night Moon)
By Margaret Wise Brown
Illustrated by Clement Herud
Translated by Yehuda Meltzer
$1395. Ages 0-2
For the littlest of Hebrew learners Laila Tov Yareach (Good Night Moon), that classic children’s bedtime story, has been translated into beautiful Hebrew. The Hebrew is simple enough for an entry-level Hebrew student to master. And the ambitious parent may want to alternate reading the Hebrew and English versions of the book and in that way — like the parents of the first Hebrew-speaking children — grow their Hebrew literacy alongside that of their child’s.
Jill Suzanne Jacobs, author of “Hebrew for Dummies,” is a writer and Jewish educator in the Boston area. Her writing has appeared in many publications including JewishFamily.com, Babaganewz, and the Forward.
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