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The Jewish Deep Nation IV -- Hebrew, Wake Up!

For new readers: These submissions wish to show in theory, scholarship, and anecdotes that Jewishness during the exile, and all the more today in Israel, is a nationhood. Everyone has nationhood, and it’s basically one to a customer. Jewry sustained the essentials of nationhood for centuries until its Western branch abandoned them in favor of other countries’ nationhoods. By seeing it this way, we can understand so many contemporary Jewish phenomena that don’t make sense otherwise.


Readers have surely heard of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (Perlman) (b. 1858 in Lithuania, d. Jerusalem in 1922), the man who brought Hebrew back from the dead by raising his son to speak it natively, as no child had since the Hasmonaean era. He is also the man who invested scads of Hebrew words. But were these his definitive achievements? And was Hebrew dead at all?

No and no.

I call Prof. Ouzi Elyada of the University of Haifa to the stand. In his World in Yellow (in Hebrew; English forthcoming), he explains: Ben-Yehuda was among many of his time who gravitated from yeshiva studies to the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment) movement and abandoned religious observance. In April 1879, after he moved to Paris for medical studies, his first Hebrew article was published by the Jewish newspaper Haschachar. In this piece, Ben-Yehuda pronounced the Jewish people a nation in the secular sense of the term and proposed two instruments with which it would exercise its national self-determination: ‘aliya (repatriation to the Land of Israel) and the Hebrew language.

I interrupt Elyada to stress: By 1879, Europe had boasted a secular Hebrew-language press for several decades, featuring vehicles such as elitist newspapers and ideological and/or literary journals. Digression ends.

The Jews of Eretz Israel (part of Turkish Palestine) had journalistic organs of their own. That year, Ben-Yehuda contributed several pieces to one of them, Havatselet. In his submissions, he decried elements of the nexus of French culture and journalism. (Perhaps he saw no need to convince readers of Havatselet that Jewry is a nationhood—NG). Ben-Yehuda’s writings were well received that the paper’s editor, Israel Dov Frumkin, invited him to move to Eretz Israel and become his deputy. Ben-Yehuda did so. For the next three years, he made Havatselet a colorful vehicle for the dissemination of Hebrew as a living tongue. But he found Havatselet a flawed medium. His boss was pivoting the paper toward the country’s anti-Haskala population, a group on which Ben-Yehuda frowned to put it mildly. Second, Frumkin favored what Ben-Yehuda considered an intellectual, polemic, dry, and boring style. Ben-Yehuda wanted a modern newspaper for the masses, modeled after the French popular press, that would deliver news and commentary in a colorful and interesting way. Its Hebrew would be an overhauled, secularized thing, restored to vernacular use so that it could describe matters such as murder and rape, disasters and gossip, violent polemics, and erotica.

Ben-Yehuda invested the rest of his tubercular life to the cause, aided comprehensively by his second wife, Hemda. His newspaper, Hazvi, debuted in Jerusalem in October 1884. Occasionally renamed and temporarily shut down for financial reasons, it attracted contributors and readers due to its contents and its bombastic style. Soon enough, his “yellow press” had rivals that in some ways outclassed him and his successor, his famed first-Hebrew-speaker son Itamar Ben-Avi. In mid-career, he composed a lexicon that stands to this day as a landmark in the Hebrew evolution and revolution that his journalistic venture had set in motion.

Prof. Elyada has much more to say in his book, not least the “murder and rape, disasters and gossip, violent polemics, and erotica” that I mentioned above.

I argue on this basis that by the turn of the twentieth century—in less than two decades—Hebrew basically won the language war that periodically erupted as the Jewish national movement progressed. I’ll even go out on a limb and venture that it was so disproportionate a war as to be unworthy of the term. The enemy side hadn’t a regel to stand on.

I credit this more to Ben-Yehuda’s journalistic work and less to his parenting style and his dictionary. The reason: His newspapers provided a home for, and showed the way to, groups of modern-Hebrew devotees who enriched the language by reading the paper, writing letters to it, and more so discussing it. To sell a newspaper at that time, Ben-Yehuda resorted to street criers who belted out the main contents. The penurious Jews of Eretz Israel surrounded such vendors, bought one copy to share and pass around among many, and discussed the contents in the language in which they had been written.

The awakening of Hebrew passed two of the validity tests that I proposed last week: outcome and celerity. Outcome: That Ben-Yehuda termed his reinvention of vernacular Hebrew a national project matters little; that it was accepted as such by a population large enough to make it stick (in fact, a small number of very devoted people)—this is definitive. Celerity: it happened so quickly. No dead language, this.

Still, even today Hebrew is presumed to have risen from the grave. That’s one of Zionism’s greatest talking points, and the movement does deserve much credit for it. But as we know, Herzl opposed the choice of Hebrew as the movement’s national tongue. Zionism, its founder ruled, “was to have no national language, certainly not Hebrew—'Who among us,’ [he] asked, ‘knows enough Hebrew to ask for a train ticket in this language?’” (Anthony Padgen, Worlds at War: The 2,500—Year Struggle Between East and West, p. 419, quoting Herzl in Der Judenstaat, 1896). I tremble to assail Herzl, but seventy years or so earlier no one could ask for a train ticket in any language. (The Jaffa–Jerusalem railroad was approaching completion by then; when it opened, tickets were ordered somehow.)

But the most common post-mortem statement on Hebrew is still heard: it was “a dead language, used only in prayer.”

In my next posts, I hope to dismiss that argument by dissecting the contents and practice of Jewish prayer, citing many non-devotional uses of Hebrew in Diaspora life, reporting the use of Hebrew as a lingua franca in the Land of Israel before Ben-Yehuda’s time, and more. The purpose is to demonstrate that Hebrew never tumbled into a grave—or at least, that the grave prepared for it was never filled in. For centuries, in the east and the west, this possession of the Jewish deep nation lived on in the scrolls, the books, and yes, the mouths of Jews among the elite and also among the less-than-elite, and it was seen as an aspect, if not the prime aspect, of nationhood.

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