Family paints personal portrait of Ben-Yehuda

‘My great-grandfather was an unbearable man, but he was a true Zionist 20 years before Herzl,’ says Gil Hovav.

Gil Hovav 370 (photo credit: Daniel K. Eisenbud)
Gil Hovav 370
(photo credit: Daniel K. Eisenbud)
MOSCOW – The great-grandson of Eliezir Ben-Yehuda, Gil Hovav, revealed fascinating personal facts about one of Zionism’s most prescient and revered leaders at the Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union) Conference in Moscow Friday.
Hovav, a well-known Israeli television personality, chef, author, publisher and journalist, attended the Jewish-education conference to lecture on the history of Hebrew, “heavily spiced with dirty little secrets of our family, of which we have many,” he said with a smile.
Ben-Yehuda was a champion of reviving Hebrew as a modern and unifying language in the State of Israel. He helped establish the Committee of the Hebrew language, still in existence today, as the Academy of the Hebrew language. Ben-Yehuda died of tuberculosis in 1922.
“My great-grandfather was an unbearable man, but he was a true Zionist 20 years before Herzl,” Hovav said.
“He was extremely difficult, like every prophet and revolutionary is,” he said. “The same way you wouldn’t want to share your life with Mao, Che Guevara, or any biblical prophet you can name. They, like my great-grandfather, all only had one thing on their minds – and it’s not you. It’s their vocation.”
Hovav, who has lectured at numerous Limmud conferences around the world about his great-grandfather, said Ben-Yehuda’s prickly nature was largely the result of a troubled childhood.
“He came from a very poor family in Russia, his father died shortly after he was born, and he was forced to live with an uncle who didn’t like him,” he said. “He was very quick to snap and become angry. He was always aware of his own greatness and never backed down from an [intellectual] fight.”
He described his great-grandfather as “poor, short, red-headed, self-mutilated and sickly.”
Ben-Yehuda cut off part of one of his fingers to avoid Russian military service and long battled tuberculosis, said Hovav, and added that he appeared to be anything but special.
“For many years, I wondered why his first wife [Devorah Yonass] married him because he was all these terrible things, and she came from a very rich Russian family,” he said. “Yet she married him and followed him to Palestine, which is like moving to Rwanda today from New York City or Paris and saying, ‘I want all of you to start speaking Latin.’”
Yonass ended up contracting tuberculosis from her husband and died shortly after. Ben-Yehuda then married her younger sister, Bella, who changed her name to Hemda and also left a life of privilege in Russia to live with him in Palestine.
Despite being a demanding man and “absentee father,” Hovav said Ben-Yehuda’s wives and children still “worshiped and loved him,” referring to him as their “great father.”
“But he was really the opposite of what you would think of as a hero,” he said.
Hovav couldn’t reconcile the man he knew with the image he was known for. He asked his great-aunt Dolla, Hemda’s daughter, why his great-grandfather was so beloved and respected. Dolla told him, for her part, she was also stumped by Ben-Yehuda’s appeal and asked her mothers’ sister, Pnina, to explain.
“She said, ‘To tell you the truth, I always prayed for the health and well-being of your mother, but if she died too, I secretly hoped he would marry me!” Hovav recounted.
With a wry grin, Hovav offered his final analysis of Ben-Yehuda’s improbable charm.
“So, I guess the answer is that he was outrageously sexy, which you can see runs in the family,” he said, with a laugh.
In terms of “dirty family secrets,” Hovav said the family’s biggest secret is their propensity to judge Israeli cities based on the size and number of Ben-Yehuda Streets they have.
“Any city in Israel that I go to, the first thing I do is check the size of the Ben-Yehuda Street... then I know if it’s a decent place,” he said.
In fact, in the 1970s the Jerusalem Municipality entertained the idea of changing the name of Ben-Yehuda Street. The family was so outraged they considered leaving the country, Hovav said.
“Jerusalem has three main streets – Jaffa, King George and Ben-Yehuda – that form the triangle in the center of the city, so when there were discussions to change the name of Ben-Yehuda, our family was deeply insulted.
“We said, ‘If they even think about changing the name of the street the next day they’ll find us living in Australia!’”
But the name change never took effect and Hovav and his family stayed in Israel.
Despite his celebrated great-grandfather’s famously difficult nature, Hovav said he takes tremendous pride in being his descendant.
“It’s a great legacy,” he said. “I don’t think the fact that he was a great man says something about me, but of course I look up to him and am very proud.”
Still, Hovav said he does not rely on his family name to make his own.
“The most important thing is proving yourself and being a good man without relying on anyone else’s name or legend,” he said. “Although it is very nice to be part of this family.”