The story of Hebrew

The story of Hebrew

A look at Lewis Glinert’s wonderful new book

Writer, teacher, and Yiddishist Curt Leviant’s new novel, “King of Yiddish,” will be published this month.

Let’s say it at the outset. This book is a gem.

Every page of “The Story of Hebrew” is packed with information about the language, from its beginnings through post-1948 Israel. In addition to this longitudinal approach, Lewis Glinert, a professor of Hebrew and linguistics at Dartmouth, also approaches his subject laterally, focusing on various lands where Jewish or Hebrew life and culture thrived, including early Palestine, Babylonia, North Africa, Spain, Europe, Russia, the United States, and Israel.

The author shows us how living under Greek and Roman domination affected Hebrew, and how vocabulary from those occupiers seeped into the language. Two examples, the first mine, the second Glinert’s: the simple word for shoemaker in Hebrew, “sandlar,” which comes from the Latin “sandalrius”; and “Sanhedrin,” the Jewish High Court, which stems from the Greek “synedrion.”

Jews did not shy away from these foreign influences; their Hebrew language embraced them.

Glinert also traces the changes in the use of the language from biblical times through the mishnaic period, before and after 200 CE. The Hebrew of that period was more direct and seemingly more colloquial, as can be seen by comparing a text from the Mishna with any chapter in the Bible. During the next two or three hundred years, written Hebrew moved on from the Hebrew-only Mishna to the two-language Talmud, with its mix of mostly Aramaic and much less Hebrew. (In all of this, of course, we have only written texts to go by.)

With sacred books passing from generation to generation orally, correct pronunciation might be lost or distorted. Along came the Masoretes (from the Hebrew word, masorah, tradition), who by the year 1000 CE had created the above-and-below-the-letters signs that ingeniously indicated pronunciation, melody, accent, and phrasing.

Jews also contributed to scientific learning by writing about medicine in Hebrew. I am sure it will surprise many readers, as it did me, that in Italy’s first medical school, in Salerno, founded in the 9th century CE, the languages of instruction were Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Arabic. And official language of instruction in the medical schools in southern France — in Arles, Narbonne and Montpelier — was Hebrew.

Religious attitudes also influenced how Hebrew was used. Glinert delves into this divide by showing that during the 11th and 12th century in Ashkenaz (in northern France and the Rhineland) the accent was on liturgy and Torah scholarship — the works of Rashi, for instance. In Sepharad (Spain) and Italy, secular Hebrew poetry flourished, influenced by Arabic poetry and exemplified by Yehuda Halevi and other poets.

The author devotes two remarkable chapters to Christians’ interaction with Hebrew. In one of these unholy splits, two of the noted translators of the Bible from Hebrew, the forth century church father Jerome and the sixteenth century German Martin Luther both respected Hebrew — but both disparaged Jews and Judaism. In his notorious 1542 book, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” Luther asserts that “Jews should be expelled before they poison more wells and ritually abuse more children.”

A better relationship ensued with English translators. William Tyndale was the first to render the Five Books of Moses (1530) into English directly from the Hebrew; and in so doing he defied a bishop’s ban on a translation other than the Latin Vulgate. Tyndale’s translation led to the classic 1611 King James version of the complete Bible, whose English rhythms, cadences, and even sentence structure affected English enormously.

As Glinert elegantly puts it: those two translations would “inject a Hebraic quality into the syntax and phraseology of English literary usage without parallel in any other European culture.” The author further adds that echoes of this biblical English can be heard from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Hebrew also made its mark in the early history of the United States. The Pilgrims saw themselves as the New Israelites, giving their towns name like New Canaan and Salem. Even their Thanksgiving was a belated Sukkot to celebrate a bountiful harvest. And Hebrew at one time was ensconced as a mandatory subject in the Ivy League colleges. I recently read that at graduation ceremonies students would deliver orations in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and university presidents, like Ezra Stiles of Yale, also would occasionally give their commencement talks in Hebrew.

Glinert writes that the door to modernity in Europe was opened in 1780 by two books published on different sides of Europe. One, in Germany, was Moses Mendelssohn’s Biur, the first volume of his translation of the Torah into German; the other, in a small town in the Ukraine, was a book in Hebrew about chasidic thought.

Slowly, from the advent of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement, through newspapers, magazines, and books, modern Hebrew was being reshaped. That process culminated with Jews resettling Palestine in the late 19th century. Next came Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s call, at the turn of the 20th century, for Jews to speak only Hebrew. Glinert shows us how the thrust for Hebraization continued once the British got the Mandate for Palestine in 1922 from the League of Nations. They recognized Hebrew as the language of instructions for public schools, broadcasting, the courts, and civil regulations. With the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and the mass immigration that followed, Hebrew — which throughout the centuries had always been read, studied, and written, but only occasionally spoken — reached its efflorescence.

“The Story of Hebrew” is a superb book, meticulously researched and beautifully written. Two of my favorites among the many text-enhancing illustrations and photographs are a photo of a page from one of Sir Isaac Newton’s notebooks; there is a Hebrew phrase visible, written in his neat printed script, and a page from Kafka’s Hebrew notebook with two columns of nicely calligraphed Hebrew words on one side with their German translation in longhand on the other.

Read this marvelous study. Perhaps, if you don’t know Hebrew, it will inspire you to learn it and become part of a more than 3,000 year tradition of transmission.

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