By Jim Gerrish and Olivia Wheatley-Stachorek
Courtesy of Bridges for Peace

Today the Hebrew language is experiencing a great upsurge in poetry, prose and play writing. This upsurge has even been compared, by some, to the renaissance of the English language during the Elizabethan period. In addition, Hebrew is the everyday language of over five million Israelis, from tiny school children to university professors. What makes this information astounding is that, in the beginning of this century, Hebrew was considered a “dead” language. By the late 19th century, the language had become limited to study, to prayer, to family or communal observances, and to ritual purposes. Some thought it too sacred to be used in everyday conversation, and Hebrew was simply no longer a commonly spoken language.

All that has changed in our century. In fact, the transformation was completed in this century’s early years, long before the founding of the State of Israel. This work of restoration was carried out primarily through the efforts of one man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

Ben-Yehuda was born in Tzarist Russia in 1858. He was given the name of Eliezer Perlman, a family name which he would later exchange for a Hebrew one. Ben-Yehuda was possessed with an almost fanatical zeal to restore the Hebrew language as the spoken language of the common man, just as in the days of the Bible. He found it very strange that the Hebrew people could speak some seventy other languages, but they could not speak their own. His was an apparent divine calling as he describes it in his own words: Suddenly the sky seemed to open up, a bright light shone in my eyes, and a strong inner voice rang in my ears, “Rebirth of Israel in the land of their forefathers.” It was because of this voice, which did not leave me for a moment and kept ringing in my ears day and night, that all my ideas, all of the plans I had for my future life, were shaken and upset. After a soul searching inner struggle, a new idea gained the upper hand and the words which captured all my life were, “Israel in its land and its language.”

In order to accomplish his goal, young Ben-Yehuda and his new wife, Deborah, moved to Jerusalem in 1881. The city was then under Ottoman (Turkish) control, and was a shocking sight to the couple. Jerusalem was a city riddled with poverty and disease, and life was very difficult. Nevertheless, the Ben-Yehuda’s were undaunted. Eliezer immediately set about publishing a Hebrew newspaper in the city.

It was the beginning of an almost unthinkable ordeal for Ben-Yehuda personally. He would have to work 18 hours a day for 41 years to accomplish his mission. He would have to complete his monumental work of making Hebrew a spoken language and creating the first modern Hebrew dictionary, while he struggled with tuberculosis, persecution from Orthodox neighbors, and finally imprisonment by Ottoman officials. He would have to suffer the loss of his first wife and several of his children to disease. Nevertheless, Eliezer was determined to raise the first Hebrew-speaking children in 1,700 years.

When Ben Zion (Son of Zion), his first child was born, he forbade anyone to speak a word to him except in Hebrew. One of the first great tragedies for Ben-Yehuda was that his son refused to speak any words at all, even though he was three years old. Finally, one day during a family argument over speaking Hebrew, the child ran to his father and uttered his first words, “Abba, Abba!” (Hebrew for daddy).

Dola Ben-Yehuda Wittmann, who is now 91 years of age, and the only surviving child of Eliezer, loves to tell stories of her fanatical father. She relates how her father tried to supplement the lack of Hebrew speaking playmates for the children with a dog and a cat. Dola quips, “They became the first animals to speak modern Hebrew.”

It was hard for the family in those early years when they were the only ones who spoke Hebrew, and they could virtually speak to no one else! Very religious, Orthodox Jews even shunned the Ben-Yehuda’s and ridiculed Eliezer’s desire to see Hebrew revived as a spoken language. They believe that the language of God should not be reduced to the language of the streets.

Eliezer’s first wife, Deborah, gave him five of the children, and they truly were the first Hebrew speaking family since the early first millennium. Robert St. John, in his biography of Ben-Yehuda, records the following incident in his battle to make Hebrew once more a spoken language: One day when Deborah and Eliezer were walking down one of Jerusalem’s narrow streets, talking in Hebrew, a man stopped them. Tugging at the young journalist’s sleeve, he asked in Yiddish: “Excuse me, sir. That language you two talk. What is it?” “Hebrew,” Eliezer replied. “Hebrew! But people don’t speak Hebrew. It’s a dead language!” “You are wrong, my friend,” Eliezer replied with fervor. “I am alive. My wife is alive. We speak Hebrew. Therefore, Hebrew is alive.” *

After his wife, Deborah, died an untimely death with tuberculosis, Ben-Yehuda married her sister, Hemda, and continued to bring forth Hebrew speaking children. He brought forth eleven in all. Through his newspaper and by other means, he kept going with his determination to make Hebrew a spoken language once again. Fortunately, he lived to see the day when the Palestine census was taken, and virtually every Jew in the land listed “Hebrew” as his language.

Ben-Yehuda traveled far and wide to gather materials and to research the world’s libraries for lost Hebrew roots. By his Herculean efforts, he gathered the materials to complete the 16 volume dictionary of the revived Hebrew language. He worked long and hard, and finally had to stand up to do his work because his discomfort with tuberculosis was so great he could not sit. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda died while working on the Hebrew word nefesh (soul). With that word, one of the greatest souls of modern Israel passed from the scene, leaving behind his completed life goal of a spoken Hebrew language.

* Robert St. John, Tongue of the Prophets, Wilshire Book Co., N. Hollywood, CA, 1952, p.84

© Bridges for Peace