Confessions of a Polyglot

At his best, Ilan Stavans offers a casual, personal report of what he calls a 'journey of discovery,' of both the roots of modern Hebrew and the sources of his own fascination with the language

Benjamin Balint
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Benjamin Balint

At his best, Ilan Stavans offers a casual, personal report of what he calls a 'journey of discovery,' of both the roots of modern Hebrew and the sources of his own fascination with the language

Even if it were merely the language of the Bible, and nothing more, Hebrew would be a miracle. Without Hebrew, there could be no Bible, and deprived of its biblical bedrock, Western culture would be unimaginable. Even apart from its ubiquitous influence, biblical Hebrew is in itself a marvel of terse concreteness. In the King James Version, Job curses the day he was born in 22 words. In the original, eight words suffice. But of course the language by no means died with the close of the Bible. As it wended its way from Genesis to Daniel, from Mishna to Midrash to Maimonides, to its revival a century ago as an everyday vernacular, Hebrew all along acted as a rich repository of cultural meanings and memories.

Modern Hebrew, which took hold in the decade or so before World War I, is about as distant from the Bible's idiom as today's sabra is from the ancient Israelite. But the resurrection of this dispersed and stateless language is no less astonishing.

That rebirth, and its midwife, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, are the subject of a new book by Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst College. Though the book is fronted by a portrait of the bespectacled man who more than anyone else guided Hebrew from the synagogue into the home, it is not a biography or critical study. Readers wishing to learn about Ben Yehuda would more profitably look to his autobiography, "A Dream Come True," to "Tongue of the Prophets," by the journalist Robert St. John, or to Yosef Lang's recent comprehensive biography, "Speak Hebrew!" (in Hebrew, and reviewed in the September edition of Books?.)

Stavans' book is rather a casual, personal report of what its author calls a "journey of discovery," in which, like an avid student, he seeks out a series of experts to help him locate both the roots of modern Hebrew and the sources of his own fascination with the language. His interlocutors, who supply the substance of the book, include the Spanish Hebrew scholar Angel Saenz-Badillos; Eliezer Nowodorski, a translator living in Tel Aviv; Bernard Spolsky, adviser to the Israeli government on language policy; writer and translator Hillel Halkin; Reuven "Ruvik" Rosenthal, editor of a dictionary of Israeli slang; novelist David Grossman; and Faruq Mawasi, vice president of the Writers Union in Israel and head of Israel's branch of the Arabic Language Academy.

Along the way, as Stavans reports on his conversations, we get to know Ben Yehuda (ne Perelman), and his tireless efforts to bring about the unprecedented renaissance of an ancient language. Ben Yehuda appears first as a Litvak yeshiva student in Plotzk, then as a Sorbonne student and Francophile. Then he becomes a quixotic Zionist, and fervent supporter of the Jewish settlement of Uganda. Finally, after his arrival in Jerusalem in 1881, where he found a job teaching at the Alliance Israelite Universelle school, he becomes a journalist, newspaper publisher, lexicographer, word coiner (he invented the very word for dictionary - milon - and compiled the first modern Hebrew dictionary), and a devoted Hebrew revivalist.

As Stavans notes, Ben Yehuda wasn't the only language utopian of the day. His almost exact contemporary, L. L. Zamenhof, invented Esperanto. But Ben Yehuda was unique in so tightly yoking linguistic and political rebirth. Theodor Herzl didn't mention Hebrew in "The Jewish State." For Ben Yehuda, however, Hebrew and Zionism enjoyed symbiotic unity. "The Hebrew language can live," he said, "only if we revive the nation and return it to its fatherland."

A different kind of symbiosis paired Ben Yehuda with the object of his labors. "All my life," he wrote, in his autobiography, "I have been inconsolably grieved about two things. I was not born in Jerusalem, not even the Land of Israel. And my speech from the moment I was able to utter words was not in Hebrew."

Remarkably, one would not guess from this mention of grief that Ben Yehuda lost three children to diphtheria in 10 days. Nor was personal tragedy the only reason his Herculean labors did not always go smoothly. He was aware that from the beginning, this strange Semitic language was both primordial - Dante called it "the language which the lips of the first speaker formed" - and pedestrian. Yet for the sin of turning the sacred tongue to mundane purpose, the rabbis of Jerusalem excommunicated him, and got him in trouble with the Turkish authorities.

And while some of the words Ben Yehuda invented are now taken for granted - like ofanayim for bicycle - 2,000 of his words were stillborn. His word for tomato, for instance, which Hebrew speakers now universally call agvania, was badura. And his word for democracy: amunot.

Still, Ben Yehuda's achievement in midwifing a modern language that so keenly feels the press of its ancestors is immense. When he died in 1922, at age 64, his funeral was attended by 30,000.

Stavans closes his book - and the personal journey it traces - with a pilgrimage to Ben Yehuda's grave on the Mount of Olives. When he finds the gravestone, he notices that it has been spray-painted. A friend tells him that when a member of the Ben Yehuda family was informed about the desecration, apparently at the hands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, she asked, "In what language was the graffiti splashed on?"

"In Hebrew."

"Ah, then Ben Yehuda won."

Distractingly self-indulgent

For all of this book's pleasing informality and lightness of touch, it is marred by several flaws.

To begin with, it seems undigested. Some of this shows in the book's mistakes in matters of Jewish literacy. Stavans writes that Gershom Scholem devoted a chapter of "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism" to the golem, when in fact the eminent scholar of kabbalah devoted but a single en passant paragraph of his book to that legendary creature. Stavans conflates the Great Sanhedrin of 71 judges with the local Sanhedrin councils of 23 that existed in ancient times. And he gets the great Italian-Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto's name wrong.

Where it is not hasty, the book's tone can be distractingly self-indulgent. "During lunch in a fancy Tel Aviv shopping center, I ordered a leafy salad with multigrain bread and a carrot juice," Stavans writes. Or, "I took a hot bath and opened one of the Ben Yehuda biographies I had brought with me. In a nearby room, a party was going on. For a second, I thought of dialing the hotel's reception desk to complain."

Most glaringly, however, Stavans, a professor of Latin American culture at Amherst, imparts to his book a detrimental ambivalence about his subject. In one sense, his long fascination with languages and lexicons - he calls a chapter of his 2005 memoir "Dictionary Days" "Sleeping With My OED" - lends itself to a fruitful encounter with Ben Yehuda.

But in another sense, Stavans, who studied Hebrew at a Bundist school in Mexico City and lived in Israel for a year in the late 1970s, lets his own concerns get in the way of a clear view. This is for the simple reason that while Stavans has devoted his career to linguistic borrowings and cross-overs, to the blurred boundaries of Spanglish and Franglais, to skipping from Spanish to English to Yiddish, Ben Yehuda pulled in the contrary direction. "Having been a polyglot," Stavans writes of Ben Yehuda, "he wants to become monolingual. The implication of this switch irks me."

Calling himself "a full-fledged Diaspora Jew," Stavans has elsewhere said, "I enjoy being an interloper, an outsider." To one of his essays, he gave the title "Life in the Hyphen." "I have to be a minority," Stavans has said. "If I am not a minority, I would cease to write."

Eliezer Ben Yehuda yielded his soul to the abiding impulse that urgently sought an escape from minority status - for his people and its language alike. For this quality, which is the very opposite of irksome, he goes unfathomed by his latest chronicler.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, has reviewed books for the American Scholar, Commentary and the Wall Street Journal.



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