Word of the Day Hakinah Nehama: The One Plague That Is Still With Us

Who is the most famous louse in Israel and where did it get its name?

Hakinah Nehama. Unlike in the U.S., schools in Israel don't send home children with lice.Tomer Appelbaum

On seder night we remember the exodus from Egypt, and the 10 plagues that immediately preceded it. While tradition has it that the Jews living in Egypt were immune from the plagues, it seems that at least one of them – the third plague, kinim (kee-NEEM), or lice – has followed the Jewish people into the Promised Land.

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Lice may be the bane of parents of small children everywhere, but it is typically more prevalent (and less stigmatized) in Israel, since, unlike in many U.S. counties, schools here don’t close their doors to children who have small insects that are busy laying eggs on their scalps and desperate to spread the fun.

So how do teachers alert parents that it’s time to get out the lice comb, again? On bulletin boards across the country, they tack notes informing parents that a very specific, and apparently quite busy, louse – one named Nehama, to be exact – is spending some time in the classroom. “Hakinah Nehama ba’ah levaker,” they announce, or in English: “Nehama the louse has come to visit.”

Who exactly is this louse, and how is it that every early childhood educator in Israel knows its name?

The person we have to thank is Meir Shalev, the renowned Israeli author who wrote such grown-up books as “A Pigeon and a Boy,” “The Four Meals” and “My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner,” as well as children’s books including the 1990 story “Hakinah Nehama,” about an adventurous louse who wants to see the world (and changes her name in the international title, “A Louse Named Thelma”).

“In the morning, when Nehama went with Uri to gan,” the Hebrew story tells us, using the word that commonly refers to preschool as well as kindergarten. “She jumped to Michael and from him to Dan / And from Dan to the teacher and from her to Tamar... From head to head, she didn’t stop wandering around / because she was a very curious louse.”

On the first night of Passover, take a look around. If you see a small child scratching his or her head relentlessly, you can be fairly certain that the plague did not end with the Egyptians, and that the ever curious Nehama has come to visit your seder table.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.