One way of defining a people is that they share a common language. Unfortunately only half of the world’s Jewish population share a common spoken language, that being the half that live in Israel, and the language of course is Hebrew. For us Israelis, Hebrew is not just the language of the Torah, of the prayer book and the language of the sages, but it is the essence of our Israeli existence, our entity and our self definition.
The miracle of the revival of the Hebrew language, and making it once again a language spoken by the people is one of the greatest achievements of the Zionist movements and all credited to one extraordinary individual – Eliezer Ben Yehuda.
Everyone in Israel, including the many tourists who visit Jerusalem enjoy parading up and down Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. It is so much fun to sit at the coffee shops and restaurants, eat a Shwarma on the street, or shop for souvenirs. However, many people do not know that Eliezer Ben Yehuda, he, and he alone, is to be thanked for taking the Hebrew language out of the shul and the cheder, and reviving it for it to be spoken on the streets, in the theaters, homes, soccer fields, army camps and the Israeli parliament.
When the Jews started returning to our land in 1882 they were received by the two local Jewish communities. The Ashkenazim spoke Yiddish, and the Sepharadim spoke Ladino(a Jewish dialect of Spanish and Arabic). The two communities used Hebrew as the common language to communicate. Then came the immigrants from all over Europe – Romania, Russia, Hungary, all speaking their native languages. The Jewish life in Palestine was divided according to country of origin and language. Eliezer Ben Yehuda had a wonderful idea and suggested that we all speak one language so that we could communicate and interact as one nation. Everyone agreed but they all thought it should be their language. And this is where Ben Yehuda’s genius shined and he said, “let us all speak Ivrit, it is after all our ancient common language!!!!”
Ben Yehuda’s family were the first Ivrit speaking family in Palestine, and only Ivrit was allowed as the language spoken in his home. His wife and children invented many words that were missing from the ancient Hebrew vocabulary. Hebrew had not been used as a spoken language since the 3rd century AD. Many modern words did not have a Hebrew equivalent. Ben Yehuda created the first Hebrew dictionary by compiling all the words from the Bible, from the sages and from the commentaries. By adding and inventing words he turned out a dictionary of 16 volumes. He was also responsible for publishing the first Hebrew newspaper in what now had become ‘modern Hebrew’.
Ben Yehuda stood alone with his project for many years. He was considered a heretic by the orthodox, a nuisance by the scholars and a madman by the common people of Palestine. But his dream was to become reality, and as more and more local Jews fell in love with his idea, his followers grew and became enthusiastic. The first school to teach in Hebrew was founded in Rishon-le-Zion, and the idea spread with the settlers of the first and second immigration waves.
The final battle for the acceptance of Ivrit as an everyday spoken language happened in 1914. Two universities were established in Israel – the Technion in Haifa and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A terrible struggle went on for a long time about the language to be used. All the professors and faculties proposed using German as the official teaching language. However, Ben Yehuda and his followers put up a struggle and insisted that although many words were still missing, and the language did not have a full scientific vocabulary, Hebrew should be the language used in these universities.
We all know the results of these actions in that 6.5 million Israelis now speak modern Hebrew and many thousands around the world study it on a regular basis in Jewish Day Schools. Thousands of new words were created. Israeli toddlers chatter fluently in Hebrew and thousands of new immigrants study in a network of Ulpans in Israel, as well as around the world.
Learning a language is a difficult endeavor, it being time consuming and very demanding, but the benefits gained from learning Hebrew are more than from learning just any other language. Ivrit is a key to a door, and once opened it reveals a beautiful and vibrant new culture – the modern contemporary Israeli culture. You can enjoy an Israeli book by the finest authors, watch Israeli movies, go to the Israeli theatre, listen to an Israeli CD or concert, read the paper, chat with the Israelis on the street, and feel part of the Hebrew speaking community. Don’t worry about your accent. Everyone has an accent in Israel, and only half of the Israeli people can claim that Ivrit is their mother tongue. Russian, French, Ethiopian, American, Argentinean accents all blend together on the streets and in the cafes.
I can’t fully express the pride and honor I feel as a Hebrew speaker; we are the only people who can read and understand the bible in the language it was written. We can imagine the patriarchs, the kings and prophets conversing in Hebrew, knowing that if we were there with them, we could also speak to them and understand them. We are able to read and understand a Hebrew inscription placed on a mosaic floor of a synagogue that was in use 1500 year ago. When the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, dozens of non–Israeli scholars studied Hebrew for years so they could read and understand the scrolls in the original language.
Join us, become a Hebrew speaker and it will be your best investment in yourself. You are welcome to join one of UJANNJ’s Hebrew classes. The Ulpan has five levels and is open for everyone. Ulpan starts on October 15th so hurry and enroll online at www.ujannj.org or call 201-488-6800 extension 219