Those seeking to prove Theodor Herzl’s negative attitude toward the idea of Hebrew as a modern language usually quote a passage from his seminal essay “Der Judenstaat” (“The Jewish State”): “We cannot converse with one another in Hebrew. Who amongst us has a sufficient acquaintance with Hebrew to ask for a railway ticket in that language! Such a thing cannot be done.”
Herzl knew Hebrew was the language of religious ritual, as he noted in his book “Altneuland” (“Old-New Land”), but thought it unsuitable as the everyday language of the future Jewish state.
He was not alone. “All the great Hebrew writers were against Hebrew speech, whether explicitly or implicitly,” the scholar Joseph Klausner wrote. Major figures in the Zionist movement, among them some who settled in the Land of Israel, also held the same opinion.
Berl Katznelson, for example, refused to speak Hebrew in the Diaspora, even with his teacher. “He spoke Hebrew to me and I spoke Yiddish to him,” Katznelson recalled.
To Herzl’s credit, it must be said that he recognized his mistake about Hebrew early on. Michael Berkowitz, who translated “The Jewish State” into Hebrew, noted in his introduction to the book that Herzl quickly cottoned to the idea of Hebrew as a living language.
“When he entered the Zionist circle and came to know the eastern Hovevei Zion group − their demands and aspirations and the state of their Hebrew education − he realized that there are among us many readers [of Hebrew], not only of books but also of newspapers.”
It was then that Herzl grasped the importance of revivifying Hebrew, not only in literature but in speech, as the living language of the Land of Israel.
As Berkowitz wrote, “When he gave me permission to translate his book into Hebrew, he found in this very fact − that Hebrew readers would read the book − proof that this language can and will be rejuvenated as the national language and that it must be the sole dominant language in the Jewish state.”
Shortly after the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, Herzl chose Berkowitz as his Hebrew secretary to summarize what the Hebrew press was writing about him and about the Zionist movement, and to translate the many letters in Hebrew that were sent to him.
According to Gershom Bader, who played an important role in the Zionist and Hebrew movement in Galicia in the 1890s, Herzl believed, under Berkowitz’s influence, that as a Jewish national leader it was incumbent on him to know Hebrew.
Indeed, Herzl studied Hebrew for a time, and asked the journalist Nahum Sokolow to find him a quick and easy method to master the language. Even though his studies were unsuccessful, he understood the importance of Hebrew for the Jewish people as a whole and for Zionists in particular, as various events in his life make clear.
For example, he wanted his children to learn the language. A Dr. Weinstein, Herzl’s Hebrew teacher, related “how happy Herzl was at every sign of progress his children made in Hebrew.”
Additional evidence is provided by another of Herzl’s biographers, Josef Patai. Every day, Patai wrote, Herzl’s children entered his study for half an hour and Herzl played and talked with them. After half an hour, Herzl took out his watch as a signal to the children that he had to go back to his work. On one occasion, Hans, his firstborn son, refused to leave, and when he saw that his refusal was having no effect, he called out in Hebrew, “I will not go!” Herzl embraced the Hebrew-speaking boy and extended his work break for another half hour.
In 1935, Asher Ehrlich, a Hebrew teacher at the Gymnasia Herzliya school in Tel Aviv, visited a relative of his who was hospitalized in a psychiatric institution near Vienna. “One day, I found a young woman at the patient’s bedside, conversing with her in Hebrew,” Ehrlich related. “She spoke words of consolation to her, saying: ‘The world is like a ladder. One person goes up and another goes down, and no one stands still − and we will yet go up.’ What is your name, I asked her. ‘Trude Neumann.’ And how do you know Hebrew? ‘My late father saw to it that I learned Hebrew.’ And who was your father? ‘My father was the writer Dr. Herzl.’”
Ehrlich, taken aback, refused to believe that Herzl’s daughter knew Hebrew, as her father was considered an assimilated Jew. The thought crossed his mind that perhaps, as she was confined to a psychiatric hospital, she was only imagining that she was Herzl’s daughter.
He asked the head nurse who the woman was. “To my amazement and my grief, she told me that she was the daughter of the Zionists’ leader, Dr. Herzl,” he wrote.
Ehrlich later met with Herzl’s daughter several times, at her request. “I want you to visit me often and we will converse in Hebrew. I want to know the language that my father considered sacred,” he recalled her saying.
Although he did not manage to learn Hebrew, Herzl tried very hard, from the outset of his Zionist activity, to insert Hebrew words and phrases into his writing. On May 21, 1896, he wrote in his diary that if his activity in the coming year would prove as successful as it had in the preceding year, “then I shall be ‘next year in Jerusalem’” – writing the phrase “leshono haboh b’roosholayim” in transliteration from Hebrew.
R. Binyamin, who translated some of Herzl’s writings into Hebrew, noted, “He made much loving use of Hebrew words.” In his letters I found various terms in Hebrew, such as the words for dispute, revenge, Levite, wicked, mezuzah and crazed, and also Hebrew and Jewish sayings such as “without the evil eye,” “for God’s sake,” “mazal tov,” “God willing” and others.
In his concluding address at the Sixth Zionist Congress 1903, Herzl declared in Hebrew, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning!”
In some cases he wrote Hebrew words using Hebrew letters. He signed a letter to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, considered the father of modern Hebrew, informing him that he had been unanimously elected to a committee of national leaders, in Hebrew.
There are also other indications of Herzl’s positive attitude toward resurgent Hebrew. According to Patai, Herzl made notes for a new novel he was planning to write, describing the victory of the Hebrew revivalists. When he visited Palestine in 1898, he vowed that on his next visit, which never came to fruition, he would speak Hebrew. The teacher and journalist Chaim Michel Michlin, who met Herzl in Jerusalem in 1898, wrote, “The conversation was in German, and he apologized, saying that as the Zionist leader he was indeed ashamed that in the capital of the movement he could not speak its language. But he hopes that if he should have the privilege to pay a future visit, he will by then be fluent in the Hebrew language.”
There are other testimonies from the Jerusalem visit of Herzl’s ability to insert the occasional Hebrew phrase into his conversations. A memoirist known as “B-I” (probably Itamar Ben-Avi, the son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda) related that as a youngster in Jerusalem he met Dr. Heinrich Loew, an editor and bibliographer, who was one of the first members of the Zionist movement in Germany and a delegate to most of the Zionist Congresses. Dr. Loew was fond of him, Ben-Avi noted, “because of the Hebrew that emanates from between my lips.”
Accordingly, Loew suggested that the two visit Herzl. Herzl asked Loew who the young man was. “Dr. Loew whispered something to him ... and I then saw Herzl walking toward me, his hand extended and his eyes alight: ‘Shalom lecha, et avicha yadati’ (Hello, I knew your father). My eyes opened wide; my ears did not believe it: Herzl speaking Hebrew! And Herzl laughed as only he knew how to laugh: ‘Are you surprised? I started to learn Hebrew half a year ago. The truth is that I do not know more than I said.’ Afterward, A. Shuv and Rabbi Yaakov Meir entered the room. Herzl got up to greet them with two words, also in Hebrew: ‘Bruchim habai’m!’ (Welcome).”
All the facts and quotations above were published in books and newspapers, including the first Hebrew translation of “The Jewish State.” How, then, did they escape the notice of historians and teachers? And if they knew about them, why did they hide them and describe Herzl as an assimilated Jew who was contemptuous of Hebrew and did not believe that it could be the living language in the Land of Israel? This subject requires thorough study.
Shlomo Haramati is a professor of education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This article was originally published in Haaretz on March 26, 1996.
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