Remaking The Hebrew Textbook: St. Paul Writer Creating ‘Rogue Hebrew’ Guide

Several years ago, Michael Getty, a St. Paul-based writer and poet who taught himself Hebrew, was reading The Book of Jonah when he noticed just how strange it is.

The strangeness wasn’t just in the story – where Jonah, called by God to deliver judgment to the city of Nineveh, runs from his duties and is swallowed by a giant fish. Instead, Getty was bewildered by the language of the book itself.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this text is super weird,’” Getty said. “The translations that you read out there are these very tame and well behaved things…But when you dive into the Hebrew, the Hebrew is super crazy.”

That inspired Getty, who has a background in academic linguistics, to try and bring Hebrew’s weirdness to people learning the language. Now he’s knee deep in writing a book called “Rogue Hebrew: A Self-Teaching Guide For The Insatiably Curious.”

Built in a graphic novel style (written and illustrated by Getty himself using an e-ink tablet) the book is “for people who are really curious about the kind of native wildness, and weirdness and wonderfulness of all stages of Hebrew,” he said.

But, as with learning any language, there are a lot of building blocks to learning Hebrew. Among the first hurdles English speakers run into is the fact that Hebrew is written from right to left, and that Hebrew is usually written without vowels.

To tackle that, Getty uses an appropriately unique approach in “Rogue Hebrew.” For example, he has Hamlet’s famous “To be, or not to be” monologue written by William Shakespeare – and then writes the English letters of the monologue from right to left, like in Hebrew.

Once someone realizes they can still read Hamlet, the next step is to take away all the vowels. It’s not an ideal way to read Shakespeare, but it helps teach the fundamentals of linguistics, Getty said, while also getting confident with the way Hebrew is built. If you can read Hamlet from right to left without vowels in English, then you can learn to read Hebrew, too.

“One of the best predictors of success in learning a second language is your literacy in your first language,” Getty said. “So I spent a lot of time exposing people to what they already know implicitly about English.”

Getty also uses the memory palace technique (made famous by the TV show “Sherlock”) and the letter-image-word association approach in his book. But he’s not shy about using them in ways that will definitely stick: For the Hebrew letter Vav or ו (which, helpfully, makes the “v” sound), Getty writes that it can be associated with a vibrator to help you remember what sound the letter makes.

“You’re probably never gonna forget Vav again,” Getty said. “Your whole life – you might forget everything else you know about Hebrew, but you’ll remember that.”

This kind of approach in “Rogue Hebrew” is a direct challenge to what Getty sees as the stiffness used in many language textbooks and teaching methods. In writing the book, Getty draws on his background in academic linguistics and what he learned teaching the subject.

“There’s a very set character and pace of things that you do with people” when learning languages, he said. “The only reason that you do it that way, is that the people who taught you did it that way – and the people who taught them did it that way. So I wanted to kind of re-wild learning.”

Doing so with Hebrew, outside of a classroom, is somewhat of a relief.

“I don’t miss teaching classes that go for an entire semester, I don’t miss grading, and I don’t miss textbooks,” Getty said. “I do miss the fun and the spontaneity and…the joy of learning new things that are presented in an engaging way.”

As a former teacher, Getty also knows the importance of making sure his approach is still understandable to students. So while he’s only three chapters into “Rogue Hebrew” (of what will likely be 15-20 chapters) Getty is hosting virtual community sessions to workshop the book on Wednesday evenings throughout January.

“The product has turned out to be so crazy that I really need to be in conversation with people who think they might want to use it, to make sure that it’s crazy in all the best ways, and doesn’t go completely off the rails and [become] something that only I will ever appreciate,” he said.

Once “Rogue Hebrew” is done, Getty plans to publish it for free online, either through an e-book or directly on a website. For now, he’s sharing what chapters he does have with people the old-fashioned way: through Google Drive. He doesn’t expect a lot of people to engage with it, but the book will continue to be an important passion project.

“It’s easy to imagine a world in which only a dozen people ever read this,” Getty said. “And that would be fine.”