An excerpt from Pierre Birnbaum’s new biography of the French titan
Here is the stirring story of how Hebrew was rescued from the fate of a dead language to become the living tongue of a modern nation. Ilan Stavans’s quest begins with a dream featuring a beautiful woman speaking an unknown language. When the language turns out to be Hebrew, a friend diagnoses “language withdrawal,” and Stavans sets out in search of his own forgotten Hebrew as well as the man who helped to revive the language at the end of the nineteenth century, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. The search for Ben-Yehuda, who raised his eldest son in linguistic isolation—not even allowing him “to hear the songs of birds”—so that he would be “the first Hebrew-speaking child,” becomes a journey full of paradox. It was Orthodox anti-Zionists who had Ben-Yehuda arrested for sedition, and, although Ben-Yehuda was devoted to Jewish life in Palestine, it was in Manhattan that he worked on his great dictionary of the Hebrew language. The resurrection of Hebrew raises urgent questions about the role language plays in Jewish survival, questions that lead Stavans not merely into the roots of modern Hebrew but also into the origins of Israel itself. All the tensions between the Diaspora and the idea of a promised land pulse beneath the surface of Stavans’s story, which is a fascinating biography as well as a moving personal journey.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda often gets credit for the remarkable invention of modern Hebrew, history’s only example of a dead language brought back to life. When Ben-Yehuda came to Palestine in 1881, he carried with him a mission to make Hebrew the lingua franca of all Jews, compiling dictionaries, publishing journals, and raising his children as the first in almost two millennia to speak Hebrew as a mother tongue. But his legacy today is complicated; his role debated, debunked, and even forgotten. The story of the resurrection of Hebrew is a founding myth turned into a living symbol of a nation and a people. The pioneer “A dreamer with his feet firmly on the ground.” —Ilan Stavans “All my life I have been inconsolably grieved about two things. I was not born in Jerusalem, not even in the land of Israel. And my speech, from the moment I was able to utter words, was not in Hebrew.” —Eliezer Ben-Yehuda “Let us revive the nation and its tongue will be revived, too!” —Eliezer Ben-Yehuda While many fellow immigrants to Palestine in the late 1800s applauded Ben-Yehuda’s efforts to make Hebrew the official language, rabbis at the time, according to his biographer Dvorah Omer, “regarded him as an infidel for daring to use the holy tongue for everyday matters.” What troubled them? What arguments might Ben-Yehuda and his colleagues have used against them? Can you think of any historical or religious antecedents for this debate? Or any contemporary examples of a similar debate between the sacred and the secular? Ben-Yehuda asked fellow immigrants, already enduring the hardships of life in a new land, to use an outdated, impractical language. He set an example by insisting that his children hear nothing but Hebrew from birth. What might objections from others have been? What would it be like to raise a child in a language no one else speaks? What challenges would a parent encounter? Stavans’s friend, the translator Eliezer Nowodworski, argues, “It’s a known secret that Ben-Yehuda didn’t revive Hebrew. … He convinced himself he did. But others were equally involved in the endeavor. I would say that rather than praising him for reviving a moribund tongue, we should credit Ben-Yehuda for reinventing it.” What does he mean by this? Do you agree? What’s the difference between reviving and reinventing? The plaque that once marked Ben-Yehuda’s home on Abyssinian Street in Jerusalem is now gone. “It’s as if history had erased him and his family altogether,” Stavans writes. Why do you think he has been forgotten? A crucial aspect of invigorating Hebrew was creating new words to comply with modern-day requirements. To this end, Ben-Yehuda published periodicals and set about creating a dictionary. Can you imagine how someone would begin to create new words? Where would you have looked for inspiration? What meaning do you take from the similarities to Adam naming the beasts in Genesis? When he began his dictionary project, Ben-Yehuda did not “seek help around the Jewish world by notifying people that he was in search of entries, textual references, and bibliographical sources.” Why do you think he failed to do this? Was it a mistake? What other decisions did he make that may or may not be considered inappropriate? With five of a projected seventeen volumes completed upon his death, “stuffed with obsolete words nobody in Israel has use for today,” what do you think is Ben-Yehuda’s legacy? Would he consider his mission a success or a failure? Would he take solace in Hebrew’s supremacy today at the expense of his own reputation in making it central to Israeli life? Stavans argues that Ben-Yehuda was a monomaniac. What role does monomania play in a life such as Ben-Yehuda’s? What other early founders of Israel fit this description? Dreams “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed.” —Psalms 126 “If you will it, it is no dream.” —Theodor Herzl The Ilan Stavans’s impetus for writing this book was a dream, in which a woman speaks to him in a language he cannot understand and which a friend interprets as being about language withdrawal. “Losing one’s Hebrew might be a synonym for losing one’s soul,” he tells Stavans. Does losing a language imply a lack of responsibility or will in the speaker? How important is it for non-Israeli Jews to speak Hebrew? The resurrection of Hebrew, like Zionism itself, grows out of an improbable dream. In helping create modern Hebrew, how did Ben-Yehuda alter the notion of Jews as a people in exile? How does a common language—more or less so than a homeland—make exile a dream of the past? Israel was founded on many utopian ideas, the use of Hebrew among them. What are others? What utopian dreams of the founders have been abandoned or have not come to fruition? Stavans’s dream is also an erotic one—the woman speaking to him is lovely, young, and nude. What role does eroticism play in the story of exile? How are both Stavans’s quest and the return from exile love stories? How is a physical longing for land (or a language) like erotic, platonic, or parental love? The dream is also filled with anxiety, a nightmare about the loss of memory, language, even identity. How does this anxiety about memory—remembering and forgetting—play out in Jewish history and lessons from the Bible? Hebrew in History “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” —Psalms 137:5 “Language is wine upon the lips.” —Virginia Woolf There are at least three epochs in the evolution of Hebrew: an early period before the consolidation of Israel as a clear-cut nation, when the language was a Canaanite dialect; the language of King David’s time, or biblical Hebrew; and the modern-day version, which is as unlike its predecessor as today’s English is unlike Chaucer’s. Though biblical Hebrew represents an official language likely spoken in court and among the elite, the Torah records only a portion of it, about eight thousand words, “not even remotely close to what a living language” requires. How is any written language different from what we use daily to communicate in the world? How does the language of government records, say, differ from the way we speak among our families, colleagues, and friends? Herzl “envisioned that German would be the language of Israel.” He said, just before his death in 1904, “We cannot converse with one another in Hebrew. Who amongst us has the sufficient acquaintance with Hebrew to ask for a railway ticket in that language?” What were other practical impediments for reviving Hebrew? Why was Herzl partial to German? Today, the Hebrew language and Zionism are so inextricably bound that it’s impossible to imagine the language revival movement was once entirely separate. How different would Israel be without modern Hebrew as its language? If Herzl had had his way, what would a German-speaking Jewish nation be like? Ben-Yehuda was flabbergasted when he first saw a secular book translated into Hebrew, an 1861 copy of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe that a Talmudic scholar kept hidden. “Could the sacred language, the language of the Bible, the Mishnah, and the Gemara, be used for such mundane matters? Was it possible that the language of King David and the prophets, the language that Maimonides and others had connected with the divine, could convey secular content?” How did he answer these questions for himself? How does the debate continue today over the notion that Hebrew is inappropriate for secular matters? Hebrew took hold during the second aliyah, from 1904 to 1914. Prof. Bernard Spolsky believes immigrants during this period must have been quite disciplined: “To have embraced a strange language, incomplete tongue, one signaling their biblical heritage but still in the process of formation as a vehicle of modern communication, when the hardships of daily life (building nascent communes, working at arid soil, battling an unwelcome environment) begged for relaxation, seems like a season in Dante’s purgatory.” Why did these immigrants use Hebrew more than those in the first aliyah? Were they more committed to it or did something require them to embrace it in a new way? One of the author’s interests is the way non-Jews have taken to Hebrew, from an early settler who arrived in the American colonies on the Mayflower, to the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebhur, to the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, who penned a 1934 essay I, a Jew. What do you think motivates non-Jewish interest in modern Hebrew? Edmund Wilson, whom Stavans calls a classic example of a non-Jewish Jew, wrote, “The violence and vehemence of Hebrew is implicit in the structure of the language itself.” What did he mean by that? To what extent was he filtering his description through an unconscious Christian bias? How would you describe the aesthetic qualities of Hebrew? Hebrew and Nation Building “Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.” —Cecil Roth “Let us teach our young to speak it and then they will never betray it.” —Eliezer Ben-Yehuda Ben-Yehuda came to Israel out of a desire for normality. But his desire was fraught with paradox: In order to be like everyone else and have one’s own nation, he chose to create a language that set him apart. How does the debate of particularity versus universality play out in the creation of modern Hebrew? How important was the need for normality in Ben-Yehuda’s time? How has that changed since? How is this desire at odds with the idea of being a chosen people? In what ways does the language reflect the land itself? “The dream of creating a homeland was mounted on the premise that the Diaspora needed to come to an end. And Yiddish, more than any other language invented by the Jews, symbolized that Diaspora.” Stavans believes this is why Ben-Yehuda expunged all Yiddish books from his library. At what expense did Hebrew win the battle over Yiddish? Should Yiddish be protected and kept alive or has the success of Hebrew made it obsolete? What place does Yiddish have in Judaism today? Hebrew and Jewish Identity “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” —Goethe “[Walter] Benjamin’s quest for Hebrew is like Kafka’s infatuation with Yiddish: It was a Platonic love affair without practical consequences.” —Rabbi Rebecca Krausz Prof. Spolsky calls the Tower of Babel a “cautionary tale. Monolingualism has never been a feature in Jewish life. Having multiple languages has been an asset in the Diaspora. But it has made it difficult to bring the Jewish people together.” Do you agree? What role does multilingualism play in Jewish identity? What does it mean that Americans are, for the most part, the world’s first Jewish monoglots? Ben-Yehuda heard a student say to his teacher that “a Jew can be a good man without knowing Hebrew,” and he was appalled when the rabbi failed to rebut. For Ben-Yehuda, “Judaism is Hebrew.” Do you agree? Can a Jew be a good person without speaking Hebrew? Can one be a better Jew for speaking Hebrew? When Stavans was a child in Mexico learning Hebrew from visiting Israeli teachers, he writes that their pride in their country “had a double edge. It concealed an element of condescension toward the Jews who had not returned to Israel. We were in need of redemption—still in bondage. They perceived the Diaspora as synonymous with backwardness.” Has the prevalence of Hebrew diminished the Diasporic experience? Is one Jewish experience more authentic than another? Hebrew was saved through refrigeration, argues one of Stavans’s friends. By using the sacred tongue for religious debate, the language was kept on ice, so to speak, for later regeneration. Since Latin is analogous in many ways, could it similarly be revived? Why or why not? If not, why is Hebrew different? Hebrew Today “Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands, and goes to work.” —Carl Sandburg “A clean language is proof of a healthy life.” —Faruq Mawasi Stavans sets out to answer these questions: “Were Israelis proud of Hebrew? How did the language they employ today connect with their past? Did they still see Hebrew under the prism of the Zionist dream…?” What answers does he find? What do you think? How is Hebrew regarded in American communities, both secular and religious? Ben-Yehuda spurns other languages for Hebrew, giving up his polyglotism to become a monoglot, a reversal of the Tower of Babel story. Since the 1990s, Israel has had a “three-plus” policy, encouraging citizens to speak the three official languages, Hebrew, Arabic, English, plus one other language. But for the first time since the first aliyah, new immigrants, particularly Russians, are keeping their original language. Should new immigrants relinquish their native tongues? Will polyglotism balkanize Israel or make it stronger? “Hebrew is messy, boisterous, even chaotic,” says Abraham Tal, author of a popular dictionary of Hebrew slang, who argues that the rise of vernacular is the most important trend in the language’s development today. What role does jargon from various influences, from pop culture to the military, play in the transformation of any language? Is Hebrew—because of its revival, or because it is spoken by people more prone to speak multiple languages—more susceptible than other languages to these influences? Is Hebrew a language that is “useful, neutral and alive”? Or does it, for reasons of history, religion, politics, or personal identity, have a status unlike other languages?
“Resurrecting Hebrew is exciting and penetrating. This story will be read with deep interest by all those who are fascinated by the renaissance of an ancient language.” Continue reading
ILAN STAVANS is the author of two collections of short stories and fifteen works of nonfiction, including On Borrowed Words and Dictionary Days. His many awards and honors include an Emmy nomination, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Pablo Neruda Medal, and … Continue reading
An excerpt from Pierre Birnbaum’s new biography of the French titan