I have a confession to make. After living 50 years in Israel, my Hebrew is still not up to par. I watch the nightly newscast on television and read an article or two in the weekend newspapers, but most of my life is in English. I work in an English-speaking environment and I talk with my wife and my children in English (with my granddaughters, I do speak Hebrew). My creative writing is in English (this article, for example), and I read for pleasure in English.
Recently, I made an exception to my reading habits. I read Mrs. Lilienblum’s Cloud Factory, the debut novel of the award-winning Israeli author Iddo Gefen, in Hebrew. I had previously enjoyed his short story collection, Jerusalem Beach, a book that won the $100,000 2023 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. I couldn’t wait for his novel to be published in English (sometime next year?), so I read it in Hebrew, the language in which it was written.
Mrs. Lilienblum’s Cloud Factory is thoroughly enjoyable, very witty, with fully developed characters and an amazing plot. I highly recommend reading it in any language.
Another confession to make. There was an occasional word or two in the book with which I was not familiar. I did understand the meaning of those words in the context of how they were used and if I chose to do so, I could simply skim those sentences without losing the essential beauty of the writing. In one case, however, I really wanted to know a word’s meaning as it was used repeatedly in the text.
To nod. How could I not know the translation of such a simple word?
As I continued to read, I couldn’t get that particular word out of my mind. To my surprise, it appears in every chapter of the book, sometimes more than once. In present tense, in past tense. He nodded; we nodded.
The author will have to excuse me, but possibly the word was overused? Reading in bed at night (another confession to make – I usually read on my tablet but in this case, I was actually reading a paperback), I said the word aloud every time I came across it in the book. This annoyed my wife. She is now reading the book herself, also noticing the excessive nodding taking place.
I finished reading Mrs. Lilienblum’s Cloud Factory and uncharacteristically, dived right into another book in Hebrew. Eshkol Nevo’s excellent new short story collection is entitled לב רעב in Hebrew, which translates as ‘Hungry Heart’, based on the song by Bruce Springsteen. For some reason, the first page of the book suggests that it will be published in the future in its English edition as Attachments.
To my surprise, I came across a familiar word.
In some of the stories, the word appears more than once. In different tenses, in gender feminine, or in plural. I nodded. She nodded. We nodded.
After reading two Israeli books in their native language, both of which I highly recommend, I have learned one thing about Hebrew literature. Your characters must be nodding as much as possible if you want readers to enjoy your writing.