Eliezer Ben-Yehudah: Father of Modern Hebrew

Rabbi Drucker’s Book on Eliezer Ben-Yehudah
We Jews often struggle to define what Judaism is. It is a people, but so are Italians. It is a religion, yes, but that doesn’t say it all, either. Mordechai Kaplan, in wrestling with this question, described us as a civilization, because that word includes peoplehood, religion, philosophy and ethics, literature, history, and music. Tonight celebrates another part of our identity, the place we have called home for 3500 years, Israel.

The dream of returning to this land after two thousand years of exile began in 1881, when European Jews began to resettle in Palestine. In 1897, a young Viennese journalist, Theodore Herzl, called for a meeting of Jews from all over the world to plan the birth of a new Jewish state. This meeting began the movement called Zionism, Zion being an ancient name for Israel. “If you will it, it is no dream,” became its slogan. Never mind that Herzl had never been to this land; his words moved a whole generation of Jews to do more than dream and pray. They inspired heroic action that turned a fallow land of swamp and desert into a land of milk and honey.

Despite opposition from surrounding Arab countries and native Palestinians, and the Holocaust which destroyed two/thirds of us, Israel was born on May 14, 1948, the first Jewish state in 1900 years. Now that we were a people with a land, we naturally needed a language, and you all know that Hebrew, the language of our prayers, became the language of the country.

But this didn’t happen overnight. All beginnings are hard, and the language of Torah was not a language that could be spoken. In fact, it was like Latin, a dead language, until a man of extraordinary passion, singlehandedly resurrected it as a modern, spoken language. Growing up in Russia, Ben-Yehuda was a brilliant yeshivah student whose passion for the Hebrew language had little to do with religion. The nationalism he saw rising in Europe convinced him that it was time for the Jewish people to revive their native land and language. Only a 20 year-old could believe that he could forge a movement of seven million Yiddish-speaking Jews to leave Europe and speak a new language.

Ben-Yehuda knew that Hebrew had once been the daily language of his people. They told jokes, sold horses, and courted each other in this language. When the Temple was destroyed and they were scattered throughout the world, they abandoned Hebrew for the language of their respective countries. Hebrew was reduced to sacred texts and prayer. It became a substitute for the land of Israel, a sweet reminder of a time when Jews were safe and proud of their place in the world.

When the young scholar began to write of his dream of a spoken Hebrew, his fiercest opponents were the Orthodox Jews who believed that saying, “Take out the garbage” in Hebrew was sacrilege. Ben-Yehuda was unmoved by this, because he had left the rigidity of the traditional world in favor of a Judaism that spoke to post-enlightenment consciousness. Yiddish was the language of poverty and oppression, the language of exile.

In 1881, he left for Palestine with his young wife, Devorah, determined to become a modern Jew. That he had tuberulosis and that doctors had told him that his remaining years would be few was only another obstacle he would overcome. He felt called to bring land, language and people together. The land needed the language and the language needed the land. Hebrew was more than a means of communication; it embodied a Jew’s spirit and uniqueness.

On the way to Palestine Ben-Yehuda told Devorah that they would never speak any language but Hebrew again. Their children would be the first Hebrew speakers in 2000 years. Never mind that she couldn’ speak the language and that he himself could barely speak it. He was racing against time and there couldn’t be a gradual way. When they arrived in Jaffa, he encountered his first shattering obstacle. The land wasn’t empty; it was filled with dark-skinned Palestinian Arabs. “I am a foreigner,” he wrote. “My feet stood on the holy ground, the land of my ancestors, and in my heart there was no joy. I stood shocked.” Yet he quickly recovered when the driver of the cart that took them to Jerusalem spoke Hebrew to his horse. Jews in Palestine still spoke Hebrew!

Ben-Yehuda introduced modern Hebrew to the first European settlers as a journalist who wrote in simple Hebrew with a dictionary accompanying his weekly newspaper. While the Orthodox continued to throw stones at him and occasionally had the Turkish authorities arrest him, he kept his dream alive by beginning to write a dictionary of Hebrew that would be his life’s work. Settlers changed their names to Hebrew. Grien became Ben Gurion, Perelman became Ben-Yehuda. In Torah, names change as people change. Abram became Abraham. So too did the pioneers reflect a new kind of Jew, ready to struggle in a new land as a free people.

And it was a mighty struggle. A barren land, blazing heat, malaria–dayenu! They didn’t even have a language they could kvetch in! Ben-Yehuda was so single-minded he didn’t want his children to hear anything, not even birdsong, if it wasn’tt in Hebrew. His first child, Ittamar, was mute at five, seemingly without any language. Devorah’s friends told her that it was because his parents could barely speak Hebrew, so they suggested that she speak to him in any language that came from her heart.

One day Ben-Yehuda left the house for a trip to Jaffa and she began to sing Russian lullabies to her son. Ben-Yehuda had forgotten something and returned to the house to hear her singing. Ittamar wrote, “ll never forget that moment, when my father’s rage and my mother’s tears loosened my tongue and I began to speak.” He ultimately finished his father’s dictionary, making the language so rich and expressive that scientists, poets, lovers, and schoolchildren spoke a Hebrew expanded from 8000 words in Hebrew to 100,000. Ice cream, computer, bicycle, and airplane have become commonplace words. Many of these words were coined by Ben-Yehuda himself, borrowing from modern Arabic and ancient Hebrew.

Despite his fatal diagnosis, when Ben-Yehuda died in 1922 at 65, he had fathered twelve children and a language that would take its place among the spoken languages of the modern world. If he could have attended his own funeral, he might have been amused. In life he had fought with many different groups–he never would have won a popularity contest. But at his funeral, 30,000 people came to pay their respects and the government declared three days of national mourning. His influence continued to grow after his death. Today Israeli television bears Hebrew sub-titles for shows such as “The Practice.” Hebrew novels have won the Nobel Prize for literature. All this in a little over 100 years. Many told Ben-Yehuda it couldn’t be done and many told him it shouldn’t be done. Happily, he didn’t listen. Instead, he reunited the Jewish people with their ancient language and at the same time gave them a voice in the modern world.

The last word he worked on in his dictionary was “nefesh,” which means “soul” or “spirit.” This is the part of a human being that makes us unique. It is also the part which connect us to God and exists forever. The Nefesh in Elizer Ben-Yehuda gave his body and strength to survive long enough to revive the language the Jewish people believe God spoke to create the world.