One way of defining a people is that they share a language. Unfortunately only half the world’s Jewish population share a spoken language, that being the half that lives 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, making it once again a language spoken by the people, is one of the greatest achievements of the Zionist movements and is 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. 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 to be spoken on the streets, in the theaters, homes, soccer fields, army camps, and the Knesset.
When the Jews started returning to our land in 188′, they were received by the two local Jewish communities. The Ashkenazim spoke Yiddish and the Sephardim spoke Ladino (a Jewish dialect of Spanish) and Arabic. The two communities used Hebrew as the common language. Then came the immigrants from all over Europe — Romania, Russia, Hungary — all speaking their native languages. Jewish life in Palestine was divided according to country of origin and language. Ben Yehuda suggested that we all speak one language, so that we could communicate and interact as one nation. All the factions agreed — but they all thought it should be their language. And this is where Ben Yehuda’s genius shone. 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 Ivrit was the only 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 third century C.E. 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.
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 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.
6.5 million Israelis today speak modern Hebrew and many thousands around the world study it on a regular basis in Jewish day schools. Thousands of new immigrants study in a network of ulpans in Israel, as well as around the world.
Learning a language is difficult, time-consuming, and very demanding, but the benefits gained from learning Hebrew are vast. Ivrit is the key to a door, and once opened it reveals a beautiful and vibrant new culture — 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 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.
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 in which it was written. We can imagine the patriarchs, kings, and prophets conversing in Hebrew, knowing that if we were there with them, we could also speak to them and understand them.
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. For us Israelis, it is as easy to read these ancient parchments as reading the morning paper.
Join us, become a Hebrew speaker and it will be your best investment in yourself.
You are welcome to join one of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Hebrew classes. The ulpan has five levels and is open to everyone. Ulpan starts on Oct. 15, so hurry and enroll online at www.ujannj.org or call (’01) 488-6800, extension ’19. Lehitraot (see you soon) .