by Avigdor Ben-Asher
When in 1958, on the occasion of Israel’s tenth anniversary, the first president of the independent Irish republic, Eamon de Valera, came to Israel, he told his host David Ben-Gurion, “I am astounded by the rapid development of your country, by its sophisticated agriculture and its industry in full swing, but, in my eyes, your most extraordinary achievement is your success in reviving a language that had been dead for 2,000 years — Hebrew.” “In 1921,” he added bitterly, “when Ireland achieved independence, the people in scores of Irish villages continued to speak Gaelic, our native Celtic language. However, in spite of a brief surge of literary output in Gaelic, we have failed to revive and reinstate our language in our country. Today, 35 years after we achieved independence, English has permanently supplanted our language, even if the official name of our country is Gaelic — Eire.”
Undoubtedly, one of the most remarkable successes of Zionism is to have taken a language that, like Latin, had been used exclusively for prayers and theological studies for 2,000 years (even during the time of Christ, Aramaic and not Hebrew was the language spoken in the land of Israel), and to have transformed it into a living national language, within the space of a few decades.
Not without a tough struggle. The Jewish schools in Eretz-Israel/Palestine at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries were divided between schools under German influence (the Hilfsverein network), French influence (Alliance Israelite Universelle) and English teaching schools. William Chomsky describes the battle for Hebrew in the newly founded Technicum, later renamed in Hebrew Technion, in Haifa. At the outset, the board of governors decided that German would be the teaching language so that this “most cultural language may serve as a bridge to the development of modern science.” It took a general strike of teachers, throughout the country, to obtain a reversal of this decision and impose Hebrew as the language of teaching. When the cornerstone for the Hebrew University was laid in Jerusalem in July 1918 (one year after the Balfour Declaration on the creation of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine), the question of which language should be chosen for teaching was no longer a matter for discussion. It was taken for granted that all the courses were to be taught in Hebrew at the university which opened in 1925.
Hebrew’s successful implantation in Eretz-Israel/Palestine was favored for several factors and mainly two. First was the necessity to have a common language in a country founded by immigrants arriving from all over the world. East European Jews spoke Yiddish. Many Sephardi Jews spoke Ladino. Many others spoke only the language of their country of origin, but most, if not all, those Jewish newcomers were familiar with the ancient tongue, Hebrew, only through their prayers. They did not speak Hebrew, but had some knowledge of it. Second, in addition to being the linguistic common denominator of those different Jewish communities, Hebrew was also the language of the Bible and the Bible was the main historic and geographic reference that could enhance the Jews’ national revival in Eretz-Israel, the land of their ancestors. The life of those ancient Israelites, full of misgivings and hope, of wars and periods of prosperity, of slavery and liberation, was depicted in the epic story told by the Bible — in Hebrew.
It all started in the second half of the 19th century, with the first quickenings of Zionist aspirations by the Jews of Russia, Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe, as a result of the ideals of national awakening propagated by the “Spring of Nations” of 1848 Europe. Literary and political Hebrew periodicals saw the light in Odessa, Vilno, Warsaw and in other great Jewish cultural centers. The renaissance of Hebrew is perhaps best illustrated by the epic of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, a Jew from Russia who came in the 1880s to settle with his family in Jerusalem.
Ben Yehuda published a Hebrew journal, but he had the revolutionary, and perhaps ingenuous, idea to address his relatives exclusively in Hebrew. When his wife or one of his children — who knew little Hebrew — would respond in Russian or Yiddish, he would pretend he did not understand. “If it is only written and not spoken, Hebrew will remain a dead language,” Ben Yehuda would reiterate. Soon all his family conversed in Hebrew. He even called his dog in Hebrew, scandalizing his neighbors, religious Jews, who got indignant at such profanation of the holy language of the Bible. Religious extremists pelted him — already! — with stones and broke the window panes in his printing shop. Ben Yehuda did not give in. He was soon going to publish the first dictionary of modern Hebrew, which included many new words he had coined specially to designate concepts and objects that did not exist at the time of King David and King Solomon. It was also Ben Yehuda who decided on how spoken Hebrew should be pronounced. As no records existed of spoken Hebrew from the biblical age, a choice had to be made between the Ashkenazi accent used in reading psalms aloud and the Sephardi accent used in religious rites. Although himself an Ashkenazi Jew, Eliezer Ben Yehuda opted for the more melodious Sephardi pronunciation. For all these reasons, Ben Yehuda is considered the father of modern Hebrew.
To revive and, especially, to implant spoken Hebrew in Eretz-Israel/Palestine, before, then after the birth of the State of Israel, proved a Herculean task. First, because it was a voluntarist, in fact, artifical act that could not rest on any natural habitat, as spoken Hebrew had since centuries disappeared from this region. Secondly, because each wave of new immigrants brought with it its native language, and only a minority of Jews spoke Hebrew. Thus the humorist Kishon could say, “Israel is the only country in the world where mothers learn their mother tongue from the mouths of their children.”
These obstacles not withstanding, Hebrew took root and rapidly became the language of the country, to the surprise of everybody. It became the language taught in primary schools, in high schools and universities; the language used in the army, in the workplace and for entertainment; a spoken and literary language used by a growing number of writers, dramatists, and cinematographers that created works, albeit uneven, but of significance and reflective of an extraordinary vitality.
During the time of the Bible and the Talmud, the Hebrew language had around 50,000 words; today Hebrew comprises more than 200,000 words.
This is the unique adventure of the Hebrew language, which only yesterday was considered a dead language, buried under the dust of ancient prayer books, and unchanged since centuries.