This Day in Jewish History / First Boy to Be Raised Speaking Modern Hebrew Dies

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Eliezer Ben Yehuda at his desk in Jerusalem. Insisted that son Itamar hear only Hebrew at home.Credit: Wikimedia

On April 8, 1943, Itamar Ben-Avi – the first child to be raised speaking modern Hebrew – died at the age of 60. The son of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the Zionist founder of the resurrected ancient language, Ben-Avi spent his life as a journalist, an energetic and creative Zionist functionary, and did his part to coin new terms in Hebrew.

He was born Ben-Zion Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem, on July 31, 1882, to Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the former Devora Jonas. His idealistic father found significance in the fact that his first son – “The first of the children of the nation who would return to speaking the language of the fathers,” as he later wrote – was born on the same day as Rishon Letzion, one of the earliest new Jewish settlements, was founded. “Is it not one of the wondrous events of human history that the beginning of the revival of our land and the beginning of the revival of our language happened simultaneously, on the same day, virtually at the same hour?” he asked.

At the father’s insistence, Ben-Zion – who changed his name to Itamar Ben-Avi after his mother’s death, in 1891 (“ben” means “son of,” and “avi” means “my father,” but also is the acronym of “Eliezer Ben Yehuda”) – was, from birth, not permitted to hear any language other than Hebrew at home.

According to the son, he didn’t began to speak until age 4, after seeing Eliezer Ben Yehuda fly into a fit of anger when he heard Devora singing their son a lullaby in Russian.

“I suddenly understood everything that was happening in this house,” he recalled in his own memoir, “stood up straight before my father with the will of a boy defending his mother, even against his father, and screamed, ‘Father!’

“Mother covered me with kisses. They both realized that good had emerged from evil, and that from my great shock at seeing my father enraged and my mother sobbing, the dumbness had been removed from my lips and speech had come to my mouth.”

Ben-Avi studied at both the teachers college of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, Paris, and the University of Berlin’s Institute for Oriental Studies, before returning to Palestine in 1908.

He then joined his father in the editing of, and also writing for, the Hebrew newspapers Hatzvi and Ha’or.

Ben-Avi aspired to see Hebrew adopt a Latin alphabet, and claimed it was he who gave the idea of doing the same thing for Turkish to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whom he met in 1911 in Jerusalem. Atatürk was more successful in realizing that project.

In 1919, Ben-Avi founded a new Hebrew daily, called Do’ar Hayom (The Daily Mail), in which he attempted to fashion a popular journal that would combine serious reporting and opinion with more sensational stories and serialized fiction.

He ran the paper until 1929, when he turned over its editing to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and it remained a Revisionist organ until closing, in 1936.

In 1914, Ben-Avi married Leah Abushedid, the scion of an old Moroccan-Jewish family in Jerusalem, and this too was accompanied by drama. As he was a decade older than the 16-year-old Leah when they met, and came from an impoverished Ashkenazi family, Itamar was not considered an acceptable groom by her family. Hoping her parents would come around, he poured out his love for her – in poems he published in Ha’or. After three years, however, he lost heart and published a poem about suicide.

At that point, Leah’s parents reluctantly granted permission for them to marry – although it took another two years for the terms of the marriage contract to be thrashed out.

Ben-Avi’s second career was as a Zionist activist and officer, with both the Bnei Binyamin organization and the Jewish National Fund. In 1939, in need of a steady income, Ben-Avi left his family and traveled to New York to serve as the JNF’s representative there. It was there that he died on this day in 1943. Only in 1947 was his body brought back to the Land of Israel for burial.

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