Word of the Day Beit Sefer: Letting School Interefere With One's Education

It's back-to-school season, a good time to remember that, in Hebrew, just like in other languages, sometimes it's parents that are being schooled by their children.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

Home may be where the heart is, but in Hebrew it's also where the jail is, where the cemetery is, and where the courthouse, synagogue, armpit and school are.

Yup, all of those seemingly unrelated words are compound nouns that include the word beit, a form of bayit ("house" or "home"). Since it's back-to-school season, let's focus on beit sefer, which means "school" but translates literally as "house of the book."

Much like in the Queen's English (but not the stars-and-stripes variety), beit sefer – or beitzefer, to transliterate a deliberate misspelling of the word for skool – refers specifically to pre-university schooling. Israeli college buddies attend ooneeverseeta, not beit sefer, together.

My favorite use of this compound noun is the phrase oseh lo beit sefer, the Hebrew version of schooling someone (literally "making a school" for him). Unlike in English, though, schooling someone isn't necessarily about domination or defeat.

The Israelis being schooled (or should it be Hebrew schooled?) are often parents, pet owners or romantic partners. When children and animals are said to be founding these metaphorical educational institutions, it means they are doing their own thing, thereby imparting the lesson that the big people aren't always the ones in control.

Sometimes the phrase drips with the frustration and helplessness of being subjected to the whims of a miniature schoolmaster, as with a mother writing in a parenting chat room about how she feels like she can still hear her daughter complaining and crying even while she is in preschool. "I've totally had it today!!" she writes. "Tamar osah li beit sefer over the last two days."

In a more restrained use of the pseudo-educational term, a Ynet essay describes how the writer's partner schools him in love ("oseh li beit sefer b'ahavah") by teaching him about compromise and the need to face his challenges head on. At other times, the tone can be humorous or resigned, as with a pet owner complaining about being schooled by a dog that takes its owner's couch for a tree and a mother describing how, at 2, her son schooled her in parenting by being happier at day care than at home.

I first noticed this phrase as a new parent myself, when I explained to the day care center one morning that my baby had been up half the night, only to be told laughingly that the baby was schooling me. At first it seemed like an odd comment to hear from the people who were supposed to be the ones responsible for my daughter's actual schooling (or at least the Little League version), but it later struck me as almost revelatory. After all, what is parenting if not the school of hard knocks?

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.

Getting schooled on how to take a nap.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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