Honing Hebrew hilariously
Even the most ardent supporters of Israel might wish at times that its inhabitants had chosen an easier language … like, say, English.
However, because the linguistic choice of our common ancestors appears irreversible, two Israeli expats have come up with the idea of applying English phrases as memory cues to make Hebrew words stick in their minds. The result is a slim, richly illustrated and frequently funny pocket book by Yael Breuer and Eyal Shavit titled “Hilarious Hebrew” and billed as “the fun and fast way to learn the language.”
For instance, a cartoon shows a mountain climber and his unhappy dog getting soaked in the rain, with the man exclaiming, “OH, HELL. We forgot the TENT.” Below is the linguistic link: “The Hebrew word for ‘TENT’ is … OHEL.” The final word is spelled out in both English and Hebrew letters.
Another example is a freezing driver in an icicle-encrusted car, who notes, “It’s COLD in my CAR.” This is followed by, “The Hebrew word for ‘COLD’ is … KAR.”
Sometimes, the authors have to stretch for a connection: “The fastest car in the world belongs to BARACK Obama. It goes like lightning,” accompanied by a drawing of the smiling president clutching the wheel of a car. Beneath is the explanation, “The Hebrew word for ‘LIGHTNING’ is BAH’RAK.”
The originator of “Hilarious Hebrew” is Breuer, born in the Israeli university town of Rehovot and a former tank instructor in the country’s army. She now lives in Brighton, the popular seaside resort on the English Channel, and teaches modern Hebrew, coordinates events for youth programs and freelances as a journalist.
She soon shared her bilingual wordplay ideas with her friend Shavit, a pop-rock singer and guitarist, as well as a fellow Brighton-based Israeli, originally from Kibbutz Kfar Szold.
Although Brighton is hardly a major center of Israeli expats, there are about 100 of them, according to Breuer. They meet monthly in a Brighton pub for “Hebrew-only” get-togethers.
Breuer and Shavit started exchanging ideas and sentences and, in a few months, accumulated several hundred examples. They decided to turn their hobby into a book, and enlisted Aubrey Smith (also of Brighton) to do the illustrations, formed their own publishing company and, after two years, put the book on the market.
Describing the authors’ collaborative process, Breuer said, “Both of us come up with ideas, but I think Eyal’s are funnier than mine. Mine tend to be straight and simple, whereas his are quirkier.”
The first to test the efficacy of the authors’ teaching method was Smith, a gentile Brit, who absorbed many Hebrew words while doing the illustrations for the book.
“Hilarious Hebrew” is divided into sections under such rubrics as “Holidays,” “Family & Friends,” “On the Job,” “How Are You Feeling” and so forth. Also included is a listing of Hebrew letters and vowels and their English equivalents.
Breuer said she is perhaps proudest of the comment from a student she had tutored 22 years earlier and had recently met again. “She recited the English phrases I had given her two decades earlier to link them to Hebrew words, and she said they were still completely ingrained in her brain,” Breuer said.
“Hilarious Hebrew” is distributed in the United States by Gefen Publishing House.