Abigail Klein Leichman
June 4, 2012

I just came across Ori at the Beach, a picture book available in Hebrew/English and Hebrew/French.

The simple and colorful board book written by Delphine Woda and illustrated by Daniel Deroo shows an Israeli boy playing in the sand. On each page Ori is doing something else — playing matkot (beach paddleball, Israel’s unofficial national game), eating watermelon, playing with his pail and shovel.

A few words describe what Ori is doing, Hebrew above the picture and English or French on the bottom. On the side, the words are transliterated into the opposite language.

When we were raising our kids in New Jersey, we certainly wanted them to learn Hebrew and sometimes we read them story books from Israel, especially those by the incomparable Alona Frankel: Sir Ha-Sirim (Once Upon a Potty), Sefer Ha-Laila Tov (The Goodnight Book), Ha-Yom Ha-Raa Shel Tova (“Tova’s Bad Day”), Sefer Ha-Bgadim (The Book of Clothing).

The children also learned Hebrew in their schools. But because they weren’t immersed in the language, and we weren’t good enough Hebrew-speakers to converse in it at home, they didn’t hear Hebrew enough to become fully bilingual. And that’s one of my greatest regrets. Coming to Israel after high school, my kids had to work hard at fluency (the army was a big help). I believe the failure to produce Hebrew-literate Jews is one of the biggest problems in the Diaspora.

Now our oldest son and his wife (also an American immigrant) are raising their two Jerusalemites in an English-speaking household. The children go to Hebrew-speaking nursery schools, so they exist in a completely bilingual universe. I’m so jealous! Their little brains have already absorbed and sorted out more linguistic complexities than mine ever has, and the oldest is just three-and-a-half.

Not that the dichotomy is completely smooth yet. I’m fascinated with the way they mix the two languages in the same sentence (“Ani did it myself!”) and even the same word (“t’come here, Savti!”).

Experts in this field recommend that each person in the child’s life speak only one language exclusively, so as not to cause confusion. Miraculously, by the time they’re in kindergarten they can switch back and forth from one language to another as effortlessly as swatting a ball across the beach. Just like Ori.

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