It Couldn’t Happen — But It Did

Resurrecting Hebrew

by Ilan Stavans. New York: Nextbook/Schocken, 2008, 223 pp., $21.

Try to imagine it. You decide to revive Latin by speaking it to your spouse and isolating your children so that they won’t hear other languages. Your children grow up speaking Latin, and soon enough, everybody else is doing so as well.

That never happened. It couldn’t have. Nevertheless, that’s what happened with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Hebrew.

Hebrew, like Latin, was a language of prayer and scholarship, and to a certain extent a lingua franca. Jews from different parts of the world speaking different languages might be able to communicate with each other in Hebrew. Something analogous to that happened with Primo Levi, who wrote that after he was liberated from Auschwitz, he was able to communicate with a Polish priest in Latin.

Ilan Stavans has written a readable, interesting, and extremely personal book about how Eliezer Ben-Yehuda resurrected Hebrew. After reading the book and enjoying it, I have no better idea of how this happened than I did before. To a large extent, the book is a series of conversations, each one going off in a different direction. One such conversation was with Bernard Spolsky, a professor emeritus in the humanities faculty at Bar-Ilan University, who expresses his admiration for those who participated in the revival of Hebrew: “To have embraced a strange, incomplete tongue, one signaling their biblical heritage but still in the process of formation as a vehicle of modern communication, when the hardship of daily life (building nascent communes, working an arid soil, battling an unwelcoming environment) begged for relaxation, seems like a season in Dante’s Purgatory” (p. 81). But how did Ben-Yehuda get anybody to embrace this purgatory?

Stavans has written a book about the dream of Ben-Yehuda, and so, appropriately, he talks about his own dreams in this very introspective book. He tells us of a dream about an imaginary creature with an imaginary name: Liverant. The dream inspires him to ask himself why we should call a car automobile instead of sugar or a nonsensical word like kraspurgis (pp. 167-68). Stavans is correct that the relationship of sounds to meaning is generally arbitrary, as is shown by the fact that different languages have different words. In the case of automobile, however, we are dealing with a logical combination of auto (self) and mobile (moveable). Stavans has chosen an example that is not at all arbitrary. Nevertheless, has had a dream which led him to explore the dream of Ben-Yehuda.

At the same time, Ben-Yehuda, who dreamed of reviving Hebrew as a native language, is portrayed as somebody who is not a dreamer at all. Another conversation in the book is with a tour guide named Naim. Naim thinks the real founder of the Hebrew language was Bialik, who was a poet. Naim dismissed Ben-Yehuda’s abilities, saying, “He didn’t have any talents. What talent do you need to browse through books and make lists?” (p. 188). Naim also stated, “Bialik himself said that knowledge of the Torah ranks higher than priesthood or kingship. … Bialik made poetry out of this view. Ben-Yehuda did nothing close” (p. 189).

Perhaps it was because Naim had convinced Stavans that Ben-Yehuda did not understand poetry and had no interest in the Torah that Stavans chose to translate the name of a magazine put out by Ben-Yehuda, Mevasseret Tziyyon, as The Zion News (p. 37). That is, to be sure, a possible way to translate it. Another way would be “good tidings to Zion,” which is what we find in the Soncino translation of this phrase in the Book of Isaiah, 40:9. In fact, in Handel’s Messiah, we hear the words, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up unto the high mountain; O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid.” The words are heard every year in the synagogue on the Sabbath after the 9th of Av, the Sabbath of Consolation (Shabbat Nachamu).

Since Stavans’ book is quite personal, I too shall be personal at this point. I first heard Handel’s Messiah in Carnegie Hall when I was14 or 15, when I went with a high school friend. I was overwhelmed by the music, bought a recording, and eventually learned most of the words. Later I learned that they came from the Book of Isaiah and were part of the reading from the Prophets on a very special Sabbath, which led to my learning some of the words in the Hebrew original. Many years later, I was on a bus to Jerusalem. There was an exit ramp and a sign for the town “Mevasseret Tziyyon,” pointing to a road leading up unto a high mountain. A few miles later, there was another exit and a sign saying “Mevasseret Yerushalayim,” good tidings to Jerusalem. I was overwhelmed to learn that Handel, Isaiah, and towns in Israel were all linked together. When Ben-Yehuda chose the name Mevasseret Tziyyon for his magazine, he certainly must have known that he was citing Isaiah. The translation of the magazine’s name as The Zion News is a real letdown.

Another of the conversations Stavans reports is with Eliezer Nowodworski, a translator and interpreter from Argentina who lives in Tel Aviv. Stavans and Nowodworski talk casually about a variety of subjects, one of which is alphabets. This leads to a discussion of other writing systems, such as pictographs, which we are told are used for Mandarin and Korean (p. 49). The comment is not quite accurate, since Korean writing is basically syllabic. We then wander on to minority languages, described as “spoken by small bastions of people, such as Welsh and Cantonese” (p. 51). Again, the comment is not quite accurate, since Cantonese is spoken by about 66 million people. Nowodworski then refers to a poem about Ben-Yehuda, which is cited, but states that he doesn’t know how many young Israelis are able to recognize the fathers of Zionism. This inspires Stavans to test the next person they met. He asks a shop clerk why there is a Ben-Yehuda Street (p. 58). “How should I know? Am I an encyclopedia?” she answers. All this wandering conversation is interesting, but the issue of how Hebrew was revived never came up.

Stavans writes that Ben-Yehuda was “born Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman into a Hasidic family in the Jewish Quarter in the small village of Luzhky” (p. 26). Luzhky is in Belarus today, an area where Jews spoke Northeastern Yiddish and were known as “Litvaks,” an Anglicization of the Yiddish word litvakes. In Yiddish, Belarus is part of Lite, usually translated as “Lithuania,” reflecting the fact that before 1386, Belarus was part of the Kingdom of Lithuania. After that year, when King Jagiello of Lithuania married Queen Jadwiga of Poland, it became part of the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania. Later, it became part of the Russian Empire. It is therefore a bit anachronistic to refer to the entire area where Northeastern Yiddish is spoken as Lithuania, although it makes sense in terms of Yiddish dialects. Yet when Stavans writes about Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto, born in Bialystok, he says he was born to “parents of Lithuanian Jewish descent” (p. 54). This simply means that they were Litvaks, that is, Jews who spoke Northeastern Yiddish. Jews in Bialystok spoke Northeastern Yiddish and were therefore Litvaks, although they didn’t come from what is now Lithuania. Stavans even tells us that Ben-Yehuda “enrolled in a yeshiva in Plotzk, which at the time was a center of Hasidic learning in Lithuania” (p. 29). Plotzk, spelled Płock in Polish, is in Poland. Centers of Hasidic learning did not exist in Lithuania unless they were part of the Lubavitcher movement.

The fact that Jews from Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, and Northeastern Poland were all identified as Lithuanians reflects not only pre-1386 history but linguistics. Perhaps it is significant that Jews, who had no country of their own, identified their regional pronunciation with national identification. The variety of Yiddish that people speak or spoke is what determines the way that Jews from Eastern Europe define themselves. Identity is complex, involving politics, culture, geography, and history. Language, however, seems to be the most noticeable of these factors, and is often thought of as the most important. For Ben-Yehuda it became the meaning of being Jewish. A major incident in his life was discovering that The Adventures of Robin Hood had been translated into Hebrew. “Ben-Yehuda understood then what Hebrew was capable of” (p. 31). Another incident was learning about the novel Daniel Deronda.

The idea of turning Hebrew into a native language is implicit in Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans). This work of fiction, written by a Christian, helped to inspire Ben-Yehuda. George Eliot’s novel appeared in 1876, before the word “Zionism” existed, and before Theodore Herzl, generally considered the founder of the movement, had completed his famous manifesto, Der Judenstaat, in 1895. Herzl’s book was written in German, not in Hebrew.

Returning to the Holy Land and speaking Hebrew are part of the subplot of Daniel Deronda. The main plot is about a complex character named Gwendolen, who is not Jewish and is the real heroine of the book. If Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was inspired by the brief mention of Hebrew in George Eliot’s novel, it was probably because he was looking for inspiration. The novel doesn’t ever get into the question of turning Hebrew into a native language.

George Eliot was knowledgeable about Jews and Judaism. She wrote about Zionism before the word existed. She also apparently knew about klezmer music, a type of folk music found among East European Jews, long before it became known in Western Europe and America in about 1980. There is a character in the novel, a Herr Klesmer, who is a musician and a voice teacher. His name is clearly from Yiddish klezmer ‘musician’, which in turn is from Hebrew kley zemer ‘instruments of song’. Eliot also made her character Mordecai a follower of Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, and a believer in its theory of reincarnation. Kabbalah, to be sure, goes back to the 12th century, but in Eliot’s time, it was an esoteric movement, known only to scholars and to a few adherents, many of whom were Hasidic Jews. It was popularized in the 21st century and attracted famous figures, most notably the pop star Madonna.

How did the rebirth of Hebrew happen? George Eliot can’t tell us, despite her knowledge about klezmer and kabbalah. She wrote her book in 1876, before people were speaking Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda and his wife did not arrive in Jaffa until 1881. At that time, the Jewish population of the area that later became the British Mandate of Palestine was about 24,000, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica. There were Ladino-speaking Jews, descendants of those who had been expelled from Spain in 1492; there were Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe; there were even Arabic-speaking Jews descended from those who had escaped the massacres at the time of the arrival of the Crusaders in 1099, in addition to immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere. 1881 was the year when a series of pogroms took place in the Russian Empire, but Ben Yehuda had made his decision to move there four years earlier.

Yael Reshev explored the question in an article written in Italian called “La rinascita della lingua ebraica” (The Rebirth of the Hebrew Language). She informs us that there was no obligatory education in the Ottoman Empire and no state schools (Reshev p. 589). The Ben-Yehudas spoke only Hebrew at home, and their first son, Ben-Zion, became the first native speaker of Modern Hebrew in history. Language is linked to the idea of nationalism. Since Hebrew is the only language that Jews have in common, it was the only possible choice for a national language. Furthermore, Ben-Yehuda felt that a Hebrew-speaking state was the only means by which the contradiction between the Enlightenment and Jewish identity could be bridged (Reshev p. 575). He decided he would revive Hebrew as a spoken language.

Benjamin Harshav is another author who explored the how-did-it-happen question. He tells us that since there were no public schools in the Ottoman Empire, Ben-Yehuda was free to establish schools in which the language of instruction was Hebrew. Such schools came into existence in the 1880s. How they functioned when there were no existing textbooks and no native speakers is something of a mystery. The textbook Hebrew in Hebrew was not published until 1901, and in Warsaw, not in Palestine. The author of the book, Yitzhak Epstein, wrote that the child should be taught a small vocabulary of 200-300 words. A student named Yehudit Harari wrote about her education in the year 1896, “We first began learning Hebrew in Hebrew in the Ashkenazi accent; at first, our teachers too had difficulties speaking Hebrew and very often used foreign words” (Harshav p.103). An immigrant named Ze’ev Smilanski, who arrived in 1891, wrote, “Even the few fanatics, who devoted themselves with excitement to the revival of speech in the new Yishuv [permanent settlement], were stammering and speaking with utmost effort” (Harshav p. 108). Ben Yehuda himself admitted that he occasionally caught himself thinking in Yiddish or Russian or French (Harshav p. 87).

In the 1890s, nursery schools were established where Hebrew was used by the teachers. This was a turning point. The toddlers and pre-schoolers began to converse with each other in Hebrew. When they entered elementary school, they already had a decent knowledge of the language of instruction (Reshev p. 590). Despite this major change, the number of Jewish children who attended such schools was perhaps 5% of the Jewish population. As for secondary schools in Hebrew, they simply did not exist (Reshev p. 591).

In 1903 there was another wave of pogroms in Russia, and between 1904 and 1914, immigration increased. This period was known as the Second Aliya [immigration]. It is at this time that we can speak of a degree of Jewish autonomy. The real government remained the Ottoman Empire. Some of the immigrants from Russia, however, were socialists, and established their own communities. The first kibbutz, Deganya, came into existence in 1909. The city of Tel Aviv, at first a suburb of Jaffa but today the biggest metropolitan area in Israel, was founded the same year. In addition to an independent, albeit small, Hebrew-language school system, there were now towns and rural communities committed to speaking Hebrew. The Hebrew-language movement became popular. When a charitable movement based in Germany, the Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden, decided to establish a technical college in Haifa in which German would be the language of instruction, there were protests. The Turkish police had to be called in to allow classes to be taught. The protests spread, and the Jewish population all over Palestine supported them. The Jewish community of Ottoman Palestine had in effect passed a law saying that higher education had to be in Hebrew (see Reshev p. 593). Texts, teachers, and technical terminology had to follow.

Chaim Weizmann, in his autobiography, informs us:

By 1914 we had increased the Jewish population from eighty thousand to one hundred thousand, our agricultural workers from five hundred to two thousand…. The Hebrew language, thanks in part to the magnificent work of Eliezer ben Yehudah, had been revived, and was the natural medium of converse for the majority of Palestinian Jews, and wholly so for the young…. (p. 128)

After World War I, the Ottoman Empire fell and the British Mandate of Palestine was created. Ben-Yehuda somehow persuaded the first British High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel, to declare that Hebrew was one of the three official languages of the country, together with Arabic and English.

Hebrew had become an official language, but was it really Hebrew? It had lots of new words, many of which were created by Ben-Yehuda himself, such as milon, meaning “dictionary,” based on milah, meaning “word” (p. 101). As Stavans tells us about Ben-Yehuda, “His talent wasn’t in defining old words but in inventing new ones that were etymologically sound” (p. 108). But are words enough? What about pronunciation?

Stavans includes an anecdote told by to him Ghil’ad Zuckermann and originally told by the linguist Haim Blanc. His personal story coincides with mine. I too heard the anecdote, from Blanc himself. After a performance in Hebrew of My Fair Lady, in which Eliza is taught to pronounce the r-sound as an apical flap or trill (as in Italian) as opposed to a uvular fricative (as in most varieties of German or Modern Hebrew), Blanc’s daughter asked him why Eliza was being taught a low-class pronunciation. The apical consonant is almost certainly the one used in ancient times; the modern one, from Europe, has become the de facto standard. Stavans describes the apical trill as Sephardic and the uvular fricative as Ashkenazic, which is not quite correct. Many Ashkenazic Jews pronounced their Hebrew (and their Yiddish) with an apical r, in particular, Jews from Hungary, Romania, and Belarus. Some Sephardim, especially those from France, use a uvular or a velar r. Ben-Yehuda wanted the Hebrew language he was reviving to sound like Sephardic Hebrew. To an extent he succeeded; Israelis say barukh, stressed on the final syllable, and not borukh or burekh, stressed on the first syllable. But in many other ways, Israeli Hebrew is not traditional. It doesn’t have the th-sound (unvoiced interdental fricative) in bayith (house) that is found among Jews from Arabic-speaking countries or among the Romaniote Jews of Western Greece. It has, to a large extent, lost the h-sound; most Israelis say olekh (walk) rather than holekh. The book could have used an editor who knew more about Hebrew and Yiddish linguistics, who could have helped with this discussion, and who would have known about the boundaries of modern Lithuania.

It is not only Modern Hebrew pronunciation that has been strongly influenced by European languages; so have Modern Hebrew tenses, which reflect European categories. In fact Ghil’ad Zuckermann believes the language should be called “Israeli,” which he describes as “the name I use for so-called ‘Modern Hebrew’” (Zuckermann p. 30). Does it matter? Nobody much cares whether we call the language in which Beowulf was written “Old English” or “Anglo-Saxon.” Languages change. It is probably easier for an Israeli to read Book of Isaiah in its original language than it is for an English speaker to read Chaucer or for a Chinese to read Confucius. The problem with calling the language “Israeli” is that it ignores the fact that its existence is miraculous. It couldn’t have happened, but it did.


Harshav, Benjamin (1993). Language in Time of Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press. (My review of this book may be found in the AJS Review, Vol. 21, No. 1, 1996).

Reshev, Yael (1998). “La rinascita della lingua ebraica.” Clio, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp.573-597.

Weizmann, Chaim (1949). Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Zuckermann, Ghil’ad (2004). “The Genesis of the Israeli Language: mosaic or Mosaic?” Midstream Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 30-32).

This review appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Midstream.