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Ben-Yehuda at 150

Although every language is unique, there is something especially intriguing about Hebrew. Part of it is the lingual leverage: It is a compact tongue in which prepositions become one-letter prefixes, possessives become one-letter suffixes, and the word “is” does not exist. As a result, you can say in just a few words things that in English may take long sentences. The words of the prophets are both more powerful and more intimate when read in the original. And modern Israelis are constantly referring back to Old-Testament idioms and ideas.

But what is especially beguiling is the story of the language. When the founder of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, was born (150 years ago this week!), the language was essentially an ecclesiastical one, like Latin: Restricted to the Bible, the synagogue, and scholarly texts, used in conversation only when Jews of distant lands had to communicate. Of all the achievements of the Zionist movement, the re-establishment of modern Hebrew is one of the most impressive and enduring. Today, an entire country thrives on an ancient tongue, which has modernized and developed to cover every aspect of life, from sex to sports to politics to art.

Today, Israeli journalist and author Meir Shalev offers a poignant discussion of the literary and cultural tsunami Ben-Yehuda unleashed:

I wonder whether he [Ben-Yehuda] predicted his grand victory. Did he understand what kind of sleeping beauty he was kissing? What sort of wonderful genie he was releasing from the books and prayers? In a relatively short time we got to have a living and dynamic language, to the point where parents find it difficult to understand what their children are saying, yet at the same time, they can read verses written thousands of years ago with those same children.

Every language holds the keys to a culture, and Hebrew is no exception. The inner vibrancy of Israelis—their loves, their ideals, their familiarity and their impatience for Western flourishes—are all wrapped up in a cutting-edge language in which a conversation with God is still, to quote an old joke about Menachem Begin, “a local call.” Read Shalev’s whole piece here.


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