Traversing the Bounds of Sense

In a cemetery, a dexterous meditating piscine artist meets an ailing sinister male arachnid (5,6). Get it? Oh come on, it's obvious. To meditate, you need a mantra - ommm. Piscine = fish = nun. In Aramaic, that is. Ale is a kind of beer. What might you find in a cemetery? A crypt. What sorts of arachnids do you know? Mites? Spiders? Oh right, ticks. Dexterous = right, sinister = left. What goes from right to left? On the tip of your tongue? Eureka! It's Amnon Birman, the world's most prolific composer of Hebrew cryptic crossword puzzles. In Birman, the reestablishment of Hebrew as a living tongue is complete. A language in its infancy must be comprehensible; in its youth it must be beautiful; in its young adulthood, useful. But only when it reaches the full bloom of its maturity does it transverse the bounds of sense. Here's one of his clues. The silence of a senior officer (3). The answer is elem, which is a fancy Hebrew word for "silence," but is also the acronym for the military rank of colonel. Birman lives in a spacious ground-floor apartment in an old stone house just a short walk across a small park from my own place. He greets me and my wife, Ilana (an avid fan of crossword puzzles, but not the cryptic kind) in a rumpled black sweatshirt, with mussed hair. His dining-room table is strewn with half filled-in crossword matrices. There's also an Indian cookbook, subcontinental cuisine being one of Birman's hobbies. There's not a dictionary in sight. "I wasn't born a crossword puzzlist and there weren't any cryptic crosswords in Hebrew when I was born. I was born a lawyer," he tells us. "At the end of 1985, Mrs. Birman decided that with four small children she couldn't read books any more and she started solving crosswords. I'd look over her shoulders and little by little I began understanding the rules. For example, (5,6) means the answer is two words, the first with five letters and the second with six." Another of Birman's clues: A conversation in Kamchatka (4). Chat. Get it? (Thanks to ICQ, it's a word in Hebrew, too.) By that time Birman was also a writer of a feuilleton with a left-wing bent in the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha'Ir. He began, for fun, making up clues to the answers in his wife's cryptic crosswords. One of the editors at the paper heard about his hobby and suggested he try his hand at composing an entire puzzle. The rest is right-wing British bodily tissue (7). History, I mean. (That one's mine. Sorry.) After a year of trying to do it all, he closed his practice (he specialized in aviation law) as the least interesting and lucrative of his ventures. He retired from his Kol Ha'Ir column four years ago. Now he sits at home and produces six cryptic crossword puzzles each week: one for Kol Ha'Ir, two for the daily Ma'ariv's Friday paper, one for the women's magazine La'Isha, and one that he sends out by snail-mail to 300 subscribers. Each year, prize-winning subscribers are invited to an Indian meal at his home. It must be some conversation. What's a cryptic crossword? It's a puzzle in which the clues indicate the answer by association and wordplay as well as by definition. Generally, the clue combines both a definition of the word and an allusion that depends on some end-run around the word, although Birman himself is not always so pedantic. The birth of the English cryptic crossword is dated to 1926, in The Observer of London, and its invention is credited to Edward Powys Mathers, whose very appropriate penname was Torquemada - his puzzles are still considered a torture to solve. According to Birman, the first Hebrew version was authored by a finance ministry official, Yoram Haro'eh and appeared in 1956 in - you guessed it - Taxation Quarterly. He's still writing them for the daily Ha'aretz. In Hebrew they're called tashbetzei higayon - "logic crosswords"- whether out of irony or perversity. Logic is not exactly what you need to solve them. In fact, the form's move into the Hebrew language allowed it take off on new flights of fancy. "You need a lunatic, almost criminal mind, indecent and deviant. You need an astounding command of the language and a rich world of associations," Birman tells us. To illustrate the indecent part, he gives us a clue. In Hebrew it's nolda le-harama (5) which literally means "born to be raised." The answer is kosit which means "shot glass." If you know Hebrew slang, you'll figure out the obscene parallel clue and solution. I'm certainly not going to tell you. But it's just this sort of variant readings of Hebrew consonants that allows the setter - that's the official term - of a Hebrew cryptic crossword to go places no English setter can go. "The English vocabulary is 14 times as large, but the lack of vowels in Hebrew script allows a demonic elasticity that makes cryptic crosswords in this language a paradise for the setter and the solver," Birman declares. While the form can cross boundaries, its fans can't, really. "My English is very good, and I even lived in England for a while. But when I look at the cryptic crossword in the Daily Telegraph, I don't have a prayer of solving it," Birman confesses. "Even when I look at the solution, I only understand ten percent of them. To solve these puzzles, you need to be part of the setter's world of associations, you have to know the cultural context." For example, "She brought a tracker to the world in Tuscany (6)." Maybe it will help if I point out that the Hebrew word for "tracker" is gashash? Oh, you'll never get it. The answer is Empoli. Empoli is a city in Tuscany. Em is Hebrew for mother, and mothers bring new beings into the world. So what about the tracker? Well, you'd need to know about the classic Israeli comedy team, Hagashash Hahiver, one of whose three members-the Ashkenazi one with the glasses-was nicknamed Poli. Oh. Is this where Mendele Mocher Sefarim and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda thought we'd end up? Would they have worked so hard to make the Jews' ancient tongue into a language of modern literature and life if they'd known it would come to this? So that I can learn from an expert, I suggest to Birman that we sit down and solve one of his puzzles together. "I can't do that," he says firmly. I assume he's intent on guarding some of his professional secrets. So I reassure him that I will not give anything away. "No," he says, "I can't." "I mean," he says, "that I can't. I don't know how." "You don't know how to solve your own puzzles?" Ilana asks, incredulous. "I've never solved a puzzle in my life," he says. "I just write them." Every year, Birman's three hundred subscribers vote for their favorite clue. Last year it was a hotel owner's fantasy about a plump woman (5, 4). "What do you think?" he asks me. By the flicker of a smile on his somewhat stubbly face I gather that there's something lewd about it. Tefusa melei'a, he says. The expression means "maximum capacity" or "no vacancy." It also means "the fat lady's caught." That's how you know when the puzzle's over. Get it? No? Well, you're in good company. Birman didn't either. • Haim Watzman is author of 'Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel' and 'A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel's Rift Valley.' He blogs at click here.