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1858: Hebrew's Reviver Is Born

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Eliezer Ben-Yehuda at his desk in Jerusalem.Credit: Wikimedia

On January 7, 1858, Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman, better known by the name he adopted for life as a Hebrew speaker in Palestine, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, was born. In the early days of the Zionist movement, it was he who believed that the Jews moving to the revived Jewish homeland in Eretz Israel could be convinced to speak Hebrew. And the best way to accomplish that was through personal example.

Ben-Yehuda was born in Luzhki, Lithuania (today in Belarus), into a family of Chabad Hasidim, who hoped he would himself become a rabbi. He had a traditional religious education, but on the sly the head of his yeshiva also exposed him to the ideas of the secular Enlightenment. This led him to switch to a Russian-language gymnasium and later to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, where there were teachers who taught Hebrew using Hebrew as their language of instruction. At the time, modern Hebrew literature was being revived by such writers as Mendele Mocher Sefarim and Abraham Mapu, and he became obsessed with such works. He was also inspired by the knowledge that Hebrew had served since at least the Middle Ages as a lingua franca for Jews from different communities around the world both for verbal and written communication.

In 1881, Ben-Yehuda, now married, arrived in Jerusalem, where he decided he and his family would speak only Hebrew. His first son, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda (who later renamed himself Itamar Ben-Avi), was indeed raised in an environment in which he was permitted to hear only Hebrew (Ben-Yehuda's wife, Devora, was forbidden from even singing Russian lullabies to her children). At the same time, he began compiling a dictionary of modern Hebrew, a large part of which consisted of words he had created out of ancient Hebrew roots to express modern concepts. He published its first volume in 1910; the 17th and final volume appeared in 1959, long after his death. And he found a receptive audience to his proposals among the highly committed Zionists who were arriving to populate Palestine, both to the idea of speaking Hebrew and to that of setting up schools where Hebrew would be the language of instruction. The main source of resistance came from the ultra-Orthodox community, primarily in Jerusalem, who considered it sacrilege to use the sacred tongue in their day-to-day lives.

Ben-Yehuda tried to dress like the ultra-Orthodox, but he was identified as a heretic and even subjected to a herem, a religious ban. The Ottoman authorities, too, fueled by false tips from Ben-Yehuda's Jewish enemies, viewed him with suspicion, even going so far as to arrest him at one point. During the years of World War I, when the Turks outlawed Zionist in the Holy Land, Ben-Yehuda moved temporarily to the United States.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda also established and edited, at different times, three Hebrew-language newspapers, and he helped to set up the Committee (today, the Academy) of the Hebrew Language. By the time of his death in 1922, the British Mandate was ready to recognize Hebrew as the official language of the Jews in Palestine.

When Devora died, in 1891 at age 36, she left him with five young children. Eliezer sent for her sister Paula in Russia, with whom he had been in love for some time, and married her. She changed her name to Hemda. In the meantime, just months after Devora’s death, three of their children died of diphtheria over a period of just 10 days. Ben-Yehuda mourned for two weeks, and then resumed publication of his paper Ha’or.

Ben-Yehuda's office, preserved for visitors in Jerusalem.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Hemda remained Eliezer’s wife and helpmate for the next three decades, until his death, from tuberculosis, on December 16, 1922.

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