Thirty years ago, Yael Breuer worked as a counsellor at Camp Northland B’nai Brith, which is situated just north of Haliburton, Ont. Breuer was one of six Israeli staff who worked there that summer and, although she didn’t know it at the time, she now believes her efforts to teach campers Hebrew words planted the seed for her successful book, Hilarious Hebrew.
Hilarious Hebrew, which is co-authored by her friend, Eyal Shavit, and illustrated by Aubrey Smith, uses English phrases containing words and names, to teach the reader Hebrew words. For example, one phrase says: “The man with the big EAR comes from the CITY. The Hebrew word for ‘city’ is … eer.”
Another one, featuring a celebrity, states: “The actor Tom SELLECK loves his BEETROOT. The Hebrew word for beetroot is … sellek.”
Breuer said that she and Shavit never planned on turning the phrases into a book. She moved to Brighton, England, a few years after her stint at Camp Northland. She taught Hebrew there and used some of the phrases in her class, after seeing how well they worked with her campers. About five years ago, she told Shavit about them.
“He loved it so much that he started making up more of these sentences. And then I would make more sentences. We actually texted them to each other over the mobile phone over a period of a few months,” said Breuer.
“We enjoyed making them up and making each other laugh. Once we realized we’ve accumulated a good amount of these sentences, Yael suggested we make it into a book – so we did,” added Shavit.
Once they decided to make the book, the next step was to find an illustrator, which proved to be a challenge.
“Eventually, we found this illustrator through my neighbour,” Breuer said. “By that time, we really gave up on finding the one and only. But this guy was just the right one.”
Breuer said that Smith’s experience illustrating the book provided a proof of concept for its method: even though Smith had no connection to Hebrew, Judaism or Israel, he began using Hebrew words in his emails to Breuer.
Breuer and Shavit self-published the book in 2014. It has since been expanded and is now on its fifth edition.
The book is available at multiple stores in Toronto and Montreal, which means a lot to Breuer, as Canada was the birthplace of the Hilarious Hebrew concept. Breuer also visits both cities often, as one of her friends from Brighton now lives in Toronto and her brother lives in Montreal.
Breuer has not been back to Camp Northland in 30 years, but she remembers that summer fondly and hopes to one day send her daughter there.
“I had just actually finished two years in the army, but in some ways, this one was slightly harder – being away from home for three months in total,” she said of her camp experience. “I had a group of 20 girls … and I looked after them. And then another month, I had another group of 20 or so girls. We slept together in the same shed, a cabin, it was by a beautiful lake. It was great. It was a real experience.”
Since 2014, the book has sold thousands of copies worldwide and received numerous awards, including one from Foyles bookstore in England, which Breuer calls “a very old, very traditional English institution.” The Jewish Agency in London even purchased copies to present to new immigrants to Israel.
Breuer and Shavit are both proud of their creation.
“Seeing the success of Hilarious Hebrew is quite overwhelming,” said Shavit. “When we were making the book, I knew I would be proud of it, regardless of whatever level of success it may achieve, so seeing it succeed like it does is absolutely amazing.”