“To whom do I toil?” wondered poet Yehuda Leib Gordon (1830-1892) as he jotted rhyming Hebrew lines into Lithuania’s darkness, silence and chill. Having spent years writing in a language practically no one had used vernacularly for centuries, Gordon’s question spoke for an entire class of writers who set out to revive a tongue that had lost its vitality after the Jews lost their land.
It took more than 150 years, but as Israel marked its Hebrew Language Day on January 5 (coinciding with the Hebrew birthday of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew), the biblical tongue’s renewed vigor makes its restoration a landmark in cultural history. Hebrew, to be sure, had never died. Every Jewish child was taught to read, write and pray in Hebrew; teenagers were taught the Mishna’s Hebrew laws and rabbis corresponded on religious dilemmas in Hebrew. Similarly, while abroad the Jews created monumental Hebrew works, like 12th-century philosopher Moses Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, and 16th century jurist Joseph Karo’s Shulhan Aruch. Still, the secular Hebrew in which the ancient Jews farmed, traded, governed and wrote poems had been reduced to a language of liturgy, ritual and scholarship. Daily life came to be conducted in other languages, and Jewish scholars’ works reflected this transition. Philo the philosopher (20 BCE-50 CE) wrote Greek; Maimonides wrote the Guide for the Perplexed in Arabic; Benedict Spinoza, the pioneer of modern secularism, wrote Latin; Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the prophet of Jewish enlightenment, wrote German and Simon Dubnow (1860-1941), Eastern European Jewry’s greatest historian, wrote Russian. At the same time, the Jews developed new languages that mixed Hebrew with other languages. Such were Spanish Jewry’s Ladino, half-a-dozen types of Jewish Arabic, and European Jewry’s Yiddish, which mixed Hebrew, German, Aramaic and Slavic elements. Yiddish became so widespread that it was spoken from Czarist Russia’s shtetls to New York’s tenements. That is why it was also the dominant language of the Holocaust’s victims, and that is why one might say that just like Hebrew was resurrected, Yiddish was murdered. While unable to foresee these events, Jewish scholars in the 19th century began dreaming of Hebrew’s revival – some by writing Hebrew, others by actually speaking it. The literary effort fermented in Europe, where Hebrew periodicals sprouted in the Hapsburg, German and Russian empires. The oral effort was launched in the Land of Israel. It was met with skepticism, ridicule and hostility. THE SKEPTICISM was voiced by none other than Theodor Herzl, who wondered in his manifesto Der Judenstaat, “Who among us knows Hebrew well enough to ask in this language for a train ticket?” Ridicule and hostility were the lot of a Russian-born scholar who in 1881 moved to Jerusalem, where he established two Hebrew newspapers, raised his children in Hebrew and started writing the first-ever Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary. Bespectacled, short and frail, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) was seen by Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox rabbis as a political troublemaker and a secularizing enemy. Though isolated – and at one point also jailed by the Ottomans for preaching Jewish nationalism – he stuck to his goal. In his dictionary and newspapers, he created from biblical verbs and nouns hundreds of Hebrew words for novelties like electricity, locomotive and ice cream, and for abstractions like initiative, system and boredom. In a local high school where he worked as a teacher he started talking Hebrew with his students, making them use texts they knew from prayers in order to speak to him and to each other. Hebrew thus began echoing in Jerusalem for the first time since Roman troops leveled it. The experiment was so successful that in 1886 an all-Hebrew school was opened, in Rishon Lezion, south of Jaffa. It was the first such school since antiquity. By the eve of World War One it had been joined by Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya, Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Rehavia, and Haifa’s Hebrew Reali School, a threesome that in due course supplied many of the future Jewish state’s literati, politicians, and generals. Efforts to build Hebrew schools were initially frustrated by skeptical parents who feared they would condemn their children to ignorance if they taught them Hebrew instead of German or French. Such reluctance diminished fairly quickly. Hebrew activists’ belief that linguistic restoration was the key to the Jewish people’s redemption was fierce, and some of the schools they created earned reputation for their quality education. The spread of these schools in Ottoman Palestine soon expanded into Europe, where hundreds of Hebrew-only schools sprouted in Poland, Russia, the Baltics, Czechoslovakia and even in wartime Uzbekistan, under the Zionist umbrella organization Tarbut (“Culture”). In prewar Latvia alone there were 34 such schools. Hebrew’s revival was complex not only socially, but also culturally. As Hebrew University historian Israel Bartal notes in a sharp and insightful new book, Tangled Roots: The Emergence of Israeli Culture (Brown University, 2020), early efforts to “restore” ancient Hebrew culture often invented rather than restored. While at it, they deployed a chaotic set of multicultural inspirations, ranging from German romanticism to Russian populism, with features like Hanukkah songs sung to the tunes of Handel’s oratorio Judah Maccabaeus, or Russian-born musicologists placing Yemenite dances at the heart of Israeli culture. Yiddish remained so well rooted that in the 1930s Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue, while running its main sanctuary in Hebrew, hosted in its basement well-attended Yiddish sermons and Yiddish-accented services, thus creating what Bartal aptly described as an “upstairs downstairs” cultural coexistence. The struggle with Yiddish could at times become grotesque, and also violent. Activists from the Battalion for Hebrew’s Protection, a grassroots organization that promoted Hebrew’s imposition on the public sphere, occasionally planted stink bombs and even hurled rocks at theaters that staged Yiddish plays. Such hotheaded militancy was exceptional, but the struggle over Hebrew’s primacy in the public sphere had deep and broad roots, harking back to 1913, when German Jewish philanthropists’ plan to install German as the Haifa Technion’s language of instruction was derailed by a public campaign. Ottoman and British Palestine’s Hebrew schools and kindergartens proliferated so rapidly that by the 1930s thousands had already been raised speaking Hebrew from infancy. Today Hebrew is spoken by more than nine million Israeli Jews and Arabs, and possibly another million people outside the Jewish state, including American Jews, Israeli expatriates, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank. Hardly 120 years since Herzl wondered about buying a train ticket in Hebrew, a parliament deliberates and legislates in Hebrew, courts hear testimonies and issue verdicts in Hebrew, and myriad ministries, municipalities, and agencies are run in Hebrew; airplanes are flown in Hebrew, submarines are navigated in Hebrew, brain-surgeries are conducted in Hebrew, and scientific research in practically any field is conducted in Hebrew; playgrounds resonate with children’s Hebrew cheers, soccer stadiums roar with Hebrew shouts, and new Hebrew novels, travelogues, cook books, films, plays, and cabarets emerge annually, feeding countless bookstores, cinemas and theaters while Hebrew rock bands fill concert halls and open-air parks where thousands’ joint singing thunders contemporary Hebrew tunes. So smoothly has Hebrew returned to its homeland that if Moses, David or Ruth had walked into an Israeli family’s living room tonight and started talking – the kids would understand them. Hebrew is what ties Israelis to their ancient past and to each other, just like Hebrew glued the immigrants and refugees who arrived last century in a small and embattled Jewish state speaking 70 tongues. A three-minute walk from where Ben-Yehuda spent his nights writing his voluminous dictionary before dying of tuberculosis at 64, a bustling pedestrian mall now carries his name, while his Hebrew birthday (which this year falls on January 5th) is marked as Hebrew Language Day. Back in 1890 Ben-Yehuda established The Clear Language Committee, a forum that strove to standardize and spread the usage of Hebrew. Now that forum’s reincarnation, the Jerusalem-based and state funded Hebrew Language Academy’s 35 linguists and literary experts continue that work, routinely coining new words and issuing rulings about dilemmas of spelling, vocabulary, and syntax. At a time when, according to UNESCO, half the world’s 6,000 languages face extinction, and with efforts to revive languages like Celtic, Basque and Welsh remaining woefully elusive, Hebrew is spoken by nearly 10 million people worldwide, and the figure keeps growing, hardly a century after it was still nobody’s mother tongue. Arguably Zionism’s most unsung accomplishment, Hebrew’s resurgence was possibly Zionism’s most pretentious goal, and is its most improbable achievement. The speed, intensity, and scope of Hebrew’s revival mock the occasional charge that the Jewish state fell from out of nowhere in someone else’s land. One need not understand Hebrew to listen to its buzz and realize that rather than descend on its land from the heavens, it resurfaced from under its rocks. Having been preserved by Jewish worship and scholarship, Hebrew proved to have been like an ember that just needed some air blown on it to blaze a flame – the flame that millions of Hebrew speakers now carry daily, unaware they are collectively answering poet Yehuda Leib Gordon’s question: It was for us that you toiled. ■