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Monday, October 18, 2004

Stepping Stones

While we were in the U.S. this past August, I spent quite a bit of time browsing bookshops. The English language book selection isn’t terrible in big Israeli cities like Tel Aviv or Jerusalem… but there is something about wandering into a really well stocked bookstore with no plan other than to skim titles that I have not been able to replicate here.

While I was paying for a few books in a store out on Cape Cod, I found an interesting box of magnetic words next to the cash register. Truth be told, I had been looking for these words since we arrived in the states, but had sort of given up by the time they found me.

For the uninitiated, I’m talking about Magnetic Poetry. The basic box comes with what seems like two gazillion words. There are additional sets one can buy that have specialty words, but at the time the one box seemed quite adequate.

When we got back home, I completely forgot about the box of magnetic words… and it languished under a pile of things that had somehow never been properly put away (shocking, I know).

As I was straightening up before this past Shabbat, I rediscovered the box of words, and (much to Zahava’s chagrin) I abandoned my chores to immediately place all two gazillion of them on our front door. Stop looking so smug... like you've never gotten sidetracked!!!

My initial inclination was to organize the words by parts-of-speech (nouns with nouns, prepositions with prepositions, etc.), but decided that part of the fun would be the randomness of the arrangement.

It wasn’t until all the words (including a few prefixes and suffixes) were on the door that a few interesting things became obvious:

First of all... it turns out that there were way less than two gazillion words… probably closer to 150-200.

Also, I noticed that this random collection of words was eerily similar in size and make-up to the limited collection of words in my Hebrew vocabulary (ok, maybe I have more than a 200 word vocabulary... but some days it feels that way!).

So, what’s the first thing I did once all the words were up on the door?

That’s right, I figured I’d take a couple of seconds and ‘throw out’ the first ceremonial sentence… maybe even leave a witty poem!

Heh, yeah right.

You see there were other lurking similarities to my Hebrew vocabulary... meaning that searching around for exactly the right word was an exercise in futility. Humorous sentences were considered and discarded because I was missing essential words. As a thought would take shape, I would have to change direction/intent based on the words I could find. Fifteen minutes later I actually had my first sentence, but it bore no relation to where I'd been heading when I had started out.

This too was very much like what happens when I try to express myself in Hebrew. The words are there (at least a modest collection of them) but nearly every cogent thought is hijacked by not having ready access to the right words.

Like most immigrants, my conversations are slow, plodding affairs with lots of hand gestures and facial expressions filling in for perfect grammar. They bring to mind the image of a careless person crossing a stream on stepping-stones who hasn’t picked out the route all the way to the other bank. Most of the time I am able to get to the other side (meaning that I almost always manage to finish my thoughts/sentences), but occasionally I still find myself stranded mid-stream.

Just so you don't think I'm complaining...it’s really amazing how many more 'stones' there are in the stream today than there were a year ago! The progress is glacial, though.

Since putting up the magnetic words, several new sentences have sprung to life. A few are Zahava’s doing, and one or two belong to Ari and/or Gili. I haven’t asked, but judging by the Asian syntax and ersatz proverb nature of the sentences, I would say that others have encountered the same challenges that I found. Maybe I’ll have to order one of the additional sets of magnetic words and surreptitiously add them slowly to the mix. I wonder if anyone will notice?

Once we become more familiar with what words are available to us, I’m sure the ‘poetry’ will flow more freely. But in the mean time, it’s kind of neat to have stumbled upon such a tidy little parallel to my ongoing language issues.

[Note: In case anyone wants to zoom in and suggest new sentences or perhaps a poem, just click on the picture for the full sized image]


Posted by David Bogner on October 18, 2004 | Permalink


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Very cool, Dave. I've never heard of this... I think a monthly update pic to see what witticisms or prophetic sentences have materialized on your door are in order!

I love the chocolate sentence... and can bet the farm as to who came up with that!!! (she's about 5'1 but makes up in volume what she lacks in stature!)

Interesting entry.

Posted by: val | Oct 18, 2004 3:39:13 PM

Dear David,
This is really a must have.
I had never heard of this before. Hopefully it is also available in Europe.
This game could become my favourite pastime.
Thank you so much for the inspiration and
have a beautiful week.

Posted by: Sandra | Oct 18, 2004 3:51:31 PM

Val... I don't want to instigate any trouble between you and Zahava, but can you please tell me how you define 'volume'. I'm unclear if you meant to imply volume, as in the magnitude of sound , or volume as in the amount of 3-dimensional space occupied by an object. Just curious. ;->

Sandra... You're very welcome. If you follow the link I placed on the words 'Magnetic Poetry', you should be able to find out about European distribution or ordering direct from the manufacturer. As I said, there are several different sets available.

Posted by: David | Oct 18, 2004 4:08:44 PM

We have some on our refridgerator. There is an ongoing game between my wife and I of leaving silly messages for each other.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 18, 2004 8:35:44 PM

I'd never get out the door if I had all those words on there!

Posted by: Beth | Oct 19, 2004 12:45:18 AM

Jack... Once I get a better handle on the 'vocabulary with which I have to work I will be able to consider leaving silly messages for my wife. Right now I'm stuck trying to create short phrases that actually make sense.

Beth... you'll notice that the words are on the outside of the door for just that reason! This way it may take me a few extra minutes to get in the house but I'll never be late for work. :-)

Posted by: David | Oct 19, 2004 9:10:56 AM

I'd like to note that no one has commented on the nature of your front door that allows magnetic poetry to stick, but that's a side issue. :D

We got one of these through Scholastic (when there was Scholastic in Israel) and have had hours of endless fun with it. Cellcom just sent one in Hebrew to its customers at Rosh Hashana, and NO ONE in our house has touched it.

Make your own conclusions. LOL

Posted by: jennifer | Oct 19, 2004 11:23:49 AM


That is half the fun, throwing up words to see what happens, it doesn't have to make sense. It is almost like doing the Madlibs of childhood.

And it is kind of fun to do things like that intentionally, just to see what response you get.

And while I am using your bandwidth, it reminds me of my last trip to Israel. The wife and I were at a kiosk because we wanted a snack.

While we were there some American kid walked up and asked for gaveenah. The guy at the counter screwed up his face and said that he didn't have any.

The kid got frustrated and asked again only to receive the same response. After watching this for about 5 minutes I realized what the American guy wanted.

He had confused the word gaveenah for gleedah. So I told him in English that he didn't want to eat ice cream that had turned into cheese.

He didn't appreciate the humor in this situation. Maybe no one else will, but funny things happen when you are working with a second or third language.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 19, 2004 4:50:23 PM

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