Recently, officials in the Republic of Belarus gave a fancy reception, complete with marching band, to Israeli chef Gil Hovav. He is the great grandson of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who was born in 1858 in the village of Luzhki in what is now Belarus and was then the Russian province of Vilnius. It’s hard to know what Ben Yehuda – born Eliezer Perlman – would have made of the fuss made by Belarusians eager to claim him as their own. He was, after all, a staunch Zionist and Hebrew nationalist. Even before he moved to eretz Yisrael at the age of 23 and embarked on his project to revive the Hebrew language, he had escaped from home, first to study in what is now Latvia, and then to Paris to study at the Sorbonne.
It’s easier to imagine, however, how Eliezer Ben Yehuda would have greeted today’s world of internet and smart phones. It is a world in which Hebrew, while not the largest and most popular of languages, coexists easily with English and Russian and Chinese and Spanish. You can download a Hebrew keyboard for your phone as easily as one in Cyrillic or Chinese. You can navigate seamlessly between a Wikipedia page in English and its Hebrew version – which, depending on the initiative of the editor of the Hebrew Wikipedia page, might have more information. (While the Hebrew entry for President Ulysses S. Grant, to take one random example, is considerably shorter than the English entry, the Hebrew entry for Knesset Member Ruth Calderon has extra, valuable information.)
That both President Grant and MK Calderon coexist within one encyclopedia is itself a sign of walls breaking down. Once you had to turn to the Jewish Encyclopedia or the Encyclopedia Judaica to research topics of Jewish but not “general” interest. But Wikipedia is some dozens of times larger than the Encyclopedia Britannica, so there is room for Jews amid the politicians. Hebrew ranks 39th among Wikipedia languages in terms of the number of articles – fewer than Arabic, Esperanto, and Lithuanian, but more than Croatian, Estonian, and Latin. Belorussian ranks only 57th on the list.
It’s easy to take this for granted. But a generation ago, the Hebrew language was banned in the Soviet Union. Today, Israelis and Arabs quietly cooperate on the committees that work out how the Internet displays right-to-left languages.
It’s not clear whether our local Jewish schools are taking proper advantage of the resource that is Hebrew Wikipedia. The Hebrew entry on Derek Jeter is only four paragraphs long – but those are four paragraphs that will be interesting to baseball-loving students. (They also present a challenge worthy of Eliezer Ben Yehuda: Apparently Hebrew does not yet have a word for “shortstop.”)
Of course, we must add the tired caveats that anyone can edit Wikipedia, that it may contain malicious errors, and so forth. A more “professional” encyclopedia might not have such thorough coverage of popular culture – but then it might not contain an entry on MK Calderon either.
And sometimes Wikipedia’s failures can provide an amusement of their own.
Take the entry for Eliezer Ben Yehuda, which begins: “Eliezer Ben Yehuda was a Litvak lexicographer and newspaper editor.”
At least, that’s how it begins as of this writing. By the time you read this, the Belarusians may have claimed him as their own.