The Makings of History The Hebrew Man

How did the story of the black slaves affect the Zionist-socialist worldview of David Ben-Gurion, and how did reading it in Hebrew affect the novel itself?

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

David Yosef Grun was about 12 or 13 years old when he read "Uncle Tom's Cabin," by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It would be interesting to know how the story of the black slaves affected the Zionist-socialist worldview of David Ben-Gurion later in life, but it is equally interesting to hear he read the American novel in Hebrew.

Avraham Zinger's translation of the classic was published in Warsaw in 1896. This in itself is an interesting fact: Even then, there was an audience in Eastern Europe for secular Hebrew literature. Ben-Gurion was not even among the first generation of Hebrew-speakers in Poland.

He liked to say Hebrew was his first language; this is both true and not true. In Plonsk, his birthplace, people spoke Yiddish, including the Grun family. However his grandfather, Zvi-Aryeh, had been a Hebrew teacher as a young man, and when his grandson was 3 years old, he sat little David down on his lap and started teaching him "Hebrew in Hebrew." Ben-Gurion's father, Avigdor Grun, also knew Hebrew and was a member of an organization to "elevate our holy tongue and Hebrew literature."

In December 1900, a few dozen teens from Plonsk met to discuss the ideologies and activities of a new organization called Ezra, founded by David Grun among others, to promulgate Hebrew as a spoken language. They organized Hebrew classes and made a point of speaking with a Sephardi accent. That was Grun's first public activity. Starting at age 14, he kept a diary in Hebrew.

When he became an editor of the weekly Heahdut, established in Jerusalem in 1908, David Yosef Grun changed his name. His choice was based on the fact that a Yosef Ben Gurion had been a defense official in the government in Jerusalem during the great revolt against the Romans.

For the next 40 years, until the state was established, and during his tenure as prime minister and until his dying day, David Ben-Gurion identified Hebrew culture with Israeli sovereignty and hoped it would dominate Jewish culture, which he identified with the Diaspora. In this context, he often said he preferred the Bible to the Talmud.

One story tells how Ben-Gurion chided Rozka Korczak, one of the leaders of the resistance in the Vilna Ghetto, after she arrived in Palestine in December 1944. Shortly afterward, she appeared at the sixth Histadrut labor federation conference - and spoke in Yiddish. Ben-Gurion complained that "the refugee comrade" spoke in "a foreign language" rather than Hebrew. Another source cited him as saying "a foreign and grating language."

Twenty-five years earlier, a similar incident occurred in the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem (which was recently reconstructed). The chief rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, began to deliver a homily in Yiddish. Menachem Ussishkin, a leader of the Zionist movement, walked out demonstratively. Then several young people raised a ruckus, and Rabbi Kook began speaking Hebrew. Several people in the audience objected to this as well, and Rabbi Kook switched back to Yiddish.

The struggle for the preeminence of Hebrew and against "jargon," as its purveyors called Yiddish scornfully, was considered an expression of Zionist patriotism. In the 1920s there was an organization called the Language Defenders' Battalion.

For his part, Haim Nahman Bialik developed the thesis that Hebrew owes its survival to Yiddish. Had the Jews spoken Hebrew in all the lands of their exile, the language would have changed from one country to another, and its original form would have been lost forever. Thanks to Yiddish, which temporarily replaced Hebrew, the latter was preserved.

The Hebrew culture that has developed in the land of Israel - in the realms of education, literature, poetry, theater and the media - and, above all, the use of Hebrew as the language of the government administration, the economy and everyday life, is the main achievement of the Zionist movement, along with the establishment of the State of Israel.

Ben-Gurion considered Jewish identity, and therefore the state, to be dependent on the language. As prime minister and defense minister, he sent the Israel Defense Forces to help teach Hebrew in new immigrant locales.

Such a viewpoint was not always self-evident: Theodor Herzl, for example, thought the everyday language in the Jewish state would be German. Many of the state's founding fathers also sought to maintain their Diaspora identity. Members of the Central Council for the Promulgation of Hebrew in 1930s Palestine had names such as Greenbaum, Bograshov, Bistretzky, Hantke, Levinson, Mossinsohn, Farbstein, Schmeruk, Sprinzak, Bialik, Ussishkin and Berlin.

Minutes taken at official meetings, including cabinet meetings and Knesset sessions, show that when speakers believed they had said something really important and wanted to ensure they were properly understood, they often switched to Yiddish. Prime minister Levi Eshkol also thought in Yiddish.

Nowadays many Israelis speak quite meager Hebrew. The winner of the Haaretz Short Story Competition this year was writer Girma Mengistu, who was born in Ethiopia. One of the jury members praised his language as "ancient and majestic," not "meager and functional Israeli." Many Israelis speak fractured Hebrew because they acquired the language only after they or their families came to Israel. In many cases, they picked up a language so far removed from its foundations that it should indeed be called Israeli, not Hebrew. Hebrew could almost be defined as "an extinct language."

One out of every three children in Israel today is growing up in households that speak either Yiddish or Arabic. This is not how Ben-Gurion imagined the future of the Hebrew language. But even he was not really a great language purist. He did not just content himself with making history, he also wanted to be his own historian. Similarly, he was not content with acting to spread the Hebrew language: He saw himself as a philologist and as such waged a naive battle against the use of the object particle et in Hebrew. However, his books, articles, speeches and especially his letters are written in meager, awkward, boring and often faulty Hebrew - a far cry from the richness of language that characterized others, such as Moshe Sharett, Moshe Dayan and Abba Eban.

Yiddish did not become a "foreign language" here, and Ben-Gurion himself used it. When he published his letters to his wife Paula, he had to translate some of them into Hebrew, as they had originally been written in Yiddish. His first book - on the geography of the land of Israel, which he wrote with Yitzhak Ben Zvi - came out in Yiddish before it was published in Hebrew. Above all, Yiddish was evident in his accent: In every language that he spoke, including Hebrew, his mammaloshen could be heard.



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