Modern Hebrew and the Man Who Made It Happen

April 2, 2019Chelsea Feuchs

To the average tourist in Israel, “Ben Yehuda” is simply the name of a popular central street in Jerusalem. It is a place to grab some falafel, stop by a Judaica store for souvenirs, and overhear squealing teenagers bumping into old friends. As many people with a background in Jewish history know, though, this street was named for the primary reviver of the Hebrew language: Eliezer Ben Yehuda. Recently, I visited The Academy of the Hebrew Language at the Hebrew University Givat Ram campus, which contains archives of this influential and visionary man.

Today, we take the existence of the modern Hebrew language for granted, but until the late 1800s it was not used beyond prayer and Torah study. We also take for granted the acceptance of Ben Yehuda’s ultimate goal: to revitalize Hebrew and use the language as a medium for connecting Jews to each other. Yet Ben Yehuda encountered serious opposition throughout his career, particularly from traditional Jews who believed that this holy language should not be used in profane, everyday life. Further hindering his efforts was the limited vocabulary of the ancient language, which needed to describe modern objects and concepts. In creating new words relevant to his day, Ben Yehuda followed stringent rules that favored circumlocution in Hebrew rather than the adoption of European terms or linguistic roots. It was with this strict mindset and dedication that Ben Yehuda authored his life’s work: the modern Hebrew dictionary.

This hardworking, passionate Jewish man, though, was not necessarily someone your bubbe (Yiddish for grandmother) would approve of – and not just because he would insist you call her savta (Hebrew for grandmother). For all of Ben Yehuda’s impressive linguistic accomplishments, his single-minded dedication to the revival of Hebrew resulted in some difficult idiosyncrasies. For example, Ben Yehuda insisted that his children speak and listen only to Hebrew, isolating them from other children and external education. He also married his sister-in-law after his wife’s untimely death, but only after she agreed to change her name from Paula to Hemda because he refused to speak even that non-Hebrew word. Ben Yehuda’s dedication to his dictionary was so complete that his children had to schedule short meetings weeks in advance if they wished to see their father.

Standing in the model of Ben Yehuda’s study at The Academy of the Hebrew Language, I was hard-pressed not to be enthralled by the man, despite his many eccentricities. Our tour guide removed a box from Ben Yehuda’s old cabinet and carefully displayed a series of notecards in his own hand, evidence of the painstaking work it took to reshape ancient Hebrew into a modern language. It is thanks to this difficult, peculiar, motivated, singular-minded person that Israel looks and sounds as it does today. The street signs I read, the chatter I overhear, the television I watch, the awkward miscommunications I have in Israel are all in Hebrew.

After my visit to Hebrew University, I returned home and went for a jog in the park. Along my route, I noticed a group of Israeli children and parents, all gathered to watch a magician perform some tricks. The magician questioning to the crowd, the people offering excited replies, and even the cranky kids off to the side and those being reprimanded by their parents – all were speaking Hebrew, a restored, revived language that is the basis for much of Jewish life today.   

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