Writing in Hebrew
Before publishing Double Crossing, I published four picture books in Hebrew. English is my native language. How did I come to write books in Hebrew? Herein lies a story.
When I first came to Israel in the early 1970s, I could not speak
or understand the Hebrew language. As a child, I had learned only a bit of prayer Hebrew. I came to Israel after graduating from Oberlin College in order to do volunteer work for a year in a program based on the American Peace Corps. For three months we studied Hebrew intensively everyday. At the end of the course, I was sent to teach English on Kibbutz Cabri in northern Israel. At that point I had learned long lists of vocabulary words, but could barely speak or understand a few sentences. But when I came to the kibbutz, I made an important decision: I resolved to only speak Hebrew with the people I met, except for the English required for my work as an English teacher.
I certainly didn’t talk much the first few months! Many families invited me to visit them, but after the first few sentences, I would sit silently listening to their conversation, but not understanding very much. Still I persevered. I decided I was going to speak without worrying about building the correct grammatical structure before the words came out of my mouth. I also continued my Hebrew lessons and took part in the cultural life on Cabri, going to lectures and plays, even though I could understand very little. Patience was the name of my game.
And then it began to happen. I was sitting with a family one evening listening to the news on the radio and suddenly realized I had understood the announcer. It was a news report of the horrendous terrorist bombing of the Swissair plane in which many lives were lost, so it has always stayed in my memory. Then one night not long after I dreamed in Hebrew! I knew that my mind was making the switch into a new language. By the end of the year I was speaking fluently.
Today, my favorite language is “Heblish” or “Engrew” a hybrid spoken only by native English speakers who also speak Hebrew. With my friends I slide back and forth between the two languages, at home in both. But even after all these years, my Hebrew has never reached the same level as my English: I can write picture book texts, but have never been able to write a novel in Hebrew.
Only one of my picture books in Hebrew has been published in English translation, although I have prepared translations of all of them. When I write in Hebrew, I use my Hebrew name: Hava Tal.
- The Runaway Carriage crosses the border between fantasy and reality as Shiri, a young girl, tries to catch the runaway baby carriage carrying her baby brother whom she was supposed to be watching. The realistic landscape evolves into a frightening fantasy of whales and witches as Shiri tries unsuccessfully to catch the carriage which escapes time and again. The exciting plot veils the theme of sibling jealousy. The idea for the story came to me one day while I was pushing a baby carriage up a steep hill and suddenly thought: What would happen if I lost my grip on the carriage? Of course, this would NEVER happen to a mother, but a little girl with a new baby brother might be tempted...
- New Kid in the Class focuses on the problems of assimilation into a new culture as an Israeli boy faces the challenge of befriending a Russian-speaking immigrant. The first person narrator has difficulty understanding the behavior of Boris and resents the “favoritism” of his teacher who encourages the kindergarten children to play with Boris. The realistic portrayal of the narrator’s angry feelings and his close relationship with his father have made the book my most popular work. The book is included on many lists of recommended books for children in Israel. The idea sprang from an actual incident in my son’s kindergarten. New Kid in the Class is now available in English as A New Boy from The Milk and Honey Press. Click here to read sample pages.
- I Want to Go Home won an honor award at the Israeli Museum for the illustrations of Michal Bonano. When Yoni spends a few days on his grandparents’ kibbutz, he confronts his homesickness and adjusts to being away from his parents for the first time. This gentle poetic story conveys a portrait of life on an Israeli kibbutz as well as the loving relationship between grandparents and grandchild. I love this book for its positive portrayal of kibbutz life and Yoni’s realistic adjustment.
- Not Afraid of Dogs was written for the many children who fear dogs. Roi is afraid of the neighbor’s dog until he adopts a puppy that follows him home. His new dog demonstrates how to make friends with the neighbor’s dog and helps Roi overcome his fear. On my kibbutz we have many dogs that run around freely all day. I always feel sorry for children (and adults) who are afraid of dogs.
If you can read Hebrew and want to read my books, you can order them at the following sites:
If you are a publisher and interested in reading the complete manuscripts, please contact me.
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Direction: If you are reading this, you are reading from left to right. Hebrew, and the other Semitic languages, are written and read from right to left. Books in Hebrew open in the opposite direction from books in English. In pictures books in English, the actions portrayed move from left to right. In Hebrew picture books, they move from right to left.
The Alphabet: There are 26 letters in the English alphabet and 22 letters in the Hebrew. Did you know that the word “alphabet” comes from the names of the first two letters in the Hebrew alphabet: aleph and bet? Some letters in the Hebrew alphabet are written differently if they come at the end of a word. The Hebrew letters also have a numeric value. This means that they can be used instead of numbers. The year is often written in letters rather than numbers. The first day of the week is called “Day A”, or “yom aleph.” The second day is called “Day B”, or “yom bet.” Hebrew does not use capital letters, so you don’t have to worry about capitalizing proper names or the word at the beginning of a sentence. Like English, it has a printed and written script, although the letters are never connected.
Vowels: Every first grader learns that the vowels in English are a e i o u and sometimes y. Hebrew has no vowel letters. This makes it difficult to know how to pronounce a word. To overcome this problem, a system of dots or points is combined with the letters to demonstrate how to pronounce them. These dots are only used in religious texts and texts for beginning readers, however. Everyone else eventually learns to read without them.
Vocabulary: English has been developing naturally for hundreds of years out of a combination of Germanic and Latin-based languages. It is very difficult for a modern speaker to read Old English or Middle English without assistance. Modern Hebrew grew out of Classical Hebrew, which fell out of use as a spoken language when the Jews were exiled from Israel with the fall of the First Temple. Hebrew as a spoken language was only revived in the early twentieth century. That’s why Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus and his followers in Israel at the beginning of the first millennium. However, Biblical Hebrew continued to be used as a language of prayer up to the present day. Modern speakers of Hebrew can read the Bible almost as easily as they read the morning paper.
The fact that Modern Hebrew has only been spoken for the past century means that a lot of modern words word are missing and needed to be invented. This is made easier by the fact that most Hebrew words consist of a three-letter root that has a meaning. By adding prefixes and suffixes, new words are created by the Academy of the Hebrew Language. However, it is one thing to create a new word and quite another to popularize it. Some words catch on and some don’t. Many words used by Hebrew speakers today are taken from English (televisia and radio, for example), Yiddish, Russian, and Arabic and European languages.
As a writer who writes in both Hebrew and English, I find that Hebrew lacks the enormous variety and subtlety of vocabulary found in English, because of its developmental history. There may be ten words in English and one word in Hebrew to describe a person’s behavior. On the other hand, Hebrew is far more compact than English. A quarter page paragraph in Hebrew may be twice as long when translated into English.
Grammar: All Hebrew nouns are either masculine or feminine. Adjectives and verbs must agree with the gender of the noun. Luckily, they usually come after the noun, although there are exceptions. English has twelve tenses, while Hebrew has fewer than half. Having taught English to non-English speakers, I am convinced that English is harder to learn than Hebrew because of the difficulty of understanding and using the different tenses correctly. “I could have been eating if you would have prepared the food on time” is understandable by a native English speaker but totally confusing to someone learning English as a second language. Then there is the problem of irregular verbs. The lack of a unified spelling system in English (Why are see and sea spelled differently? What is the “x” doing in xylophone instead of a “z”? ) also drives non-native speakers crazy, and even native speakers bless the invention of the spell checker.
Some Hebrew Words used in English: amen, messiah, hallelujah, leviathan, manna, Sabbath, Satan, cinnamon, camel, sapphire.
For more information about the Hebrew language:
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