One day in the late 19th century, a woman in labor opened the gate at the Jerusalem home of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Lying in the courtyard in front of his house, she screamed with every new pain: “Gevald!” (a Yiddish expression of anguish). Only after some time had passed did Ben-Yehuda poke his head out of a window. “You!” he shouted. “Scream in Hebrew!”
This is one of those stories that you hear so often and in so many variations that you begin to believe them. We heard it at a lecture in the Old City during a summer cultural program inside the New Gate. Giving the lecture was Ben Yehuda’s great-grandson, master storyteller/writer/chef/journalist Gil Hovav.
Whether this one is true or not — and it probably isn’t — it does say a lot about Ben-Yehuda, a fanatic who dedicated his heart, soul and mind to reviving Hebrew into a living language that would replace the Yiddish spoken by the Jews of the time. Nothing swayed Ben-Yehuda from his path, not a few nights in jail, and not even the Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl, who ridiculed the idea of Hebrew as a modern national language.
Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman in 1858 in Lithuania. In his early years, he studied the Bible and Jewish commentaries, but as a teenager, he became acquainted with Hebrew grammar and secular books. Near the end of his studies in a Jewish secondary school he began to realize the necessity for a Jewish homeland, and while studying in Paris was heavily infected with the Zionist bug. He became a Zionist activist and in 1879 changed his name to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.
Thus in 1881, full of Zionist fervor, he decided the time had come to move to the land of Israel. Before he left Paris, he was offered a job as assistant editor for the Jerusalem-based Hebrew-language newspaper Havatzelet. Although the proposed salary was meager, Ben-Yehuda accepted the position after the paper’s editor, Israel Dov Frumkin, promised that he and his fiancée Dvora would be provided with lodgings — which they were: a room in Frumkin’s home, for which they paid a fee.
A few weeks later they moved into a modest second-story apartment above the Old City’s raucous Cotton Market. Unfortunately, there was no staircase, so whenever they wanted to enter or leave their little dwelling, the couple had to climb up and down a ladder.
Their first child was born in 1882 on the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Av. To the delight of Ben-Yehuda, who strongly supported the idea of Jewish farming settlements in the land of Israel, the birth took place the very day on which Rishon Lezion was founded as the first moshava (agricultural settlement) in the Land of Israel. In one of his publications, Ben-Yehuda wrote of that glorious day when “we conquered both the land and the language.”
From day one, Ben-Yehuda and his wife spoke only Hebrew to their baby, with his father declaring that his son “would either speak Hebrew or won’t speak at all.” The child, a boy named Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda, was the first youngster in pre-state Israel whose first words were spoken in Hebrew. Some of the words were not in the Bible, and Ben-Yehuda had to make them up — words like bicycle, jam, and ice cream.
Ben-Zion was a solitary lad, for he was not allowed to mix with his non-Hebrew-speaking contemporaries. The nursemaid helping out his mother had to be let go, as she was unable to converse in Hebrew. Ben-Zion would later change his name to Itamar Ben-Avi and join his strong-willed father as a journalist and editor of the Ben-Yehuda publications.
The Ben-Yehudas were as poor as church mice, especially after Ben-Zion was born. Dvora was forced to sell the elegant garments and expensive jewelry she had brought with her from her well-to-do home in Russia, and began sewing for the ladies of Jerusalem to help with expenses. Ben-Yehuda taught Hebrew to anyone who could afford a tutor and got a job teaching Hebrew in a local school where he continued his campaign of having Hebrew become the language of study. But the pay was so trifling that there still wasn’t enough to live on.
That same year, a wealthy merchant from Belarus named Moshe Wittenberg arrived in the Holy Land, intent on doing something worthwhile with his money. His first project, soon after he arrived, was the purchase of a beautiful courtyard complex for indigent Jews, a former hotel that had at one time provided lodgings for Mark Twain. Although originally it belonged to a local Christian Arab man, the property was now in the hands of the well-heeled Latin Catholic Patriarchate in Jerusalem.
In his book “Unknown Jerusalem,” author Shabtai Zacharia writes that Wittenberg wanted to negotiate directly with the Latin Patriarch, who spoke only French. Ben-Yehuda — for whom French was only one of the languages in which he was fluent — was hired as a translator. When the purchase was complete, Wittenberg asked him to name his fee. Incredibly, considering his disastrous financial state, Ben-Yehuda refused, saying that it was payment enough that a Jew had been able to take property in the Holy City out of the hands of the wealthy patriarchate.
At heart a writer and journalist rather than a teacher, Ben-Yehuda founded his first newspaper on October 24, 1884. It was called “HaZvi” (The Gazelle). Due to a virtually non-existent budget, Ben-Yehuda did all of the work himself, writing the articles, printing — done manually — and proofreading the galleys. He rented a printing press from Yitzhak Hirschenzon, who owned a publishing company.
The press was located in the courtyard of the Hirschenzon home in the Old City, and known as a meeting ground for many of the city’s teachers, writers, and Zionists from abroad. It is said that among the people who enjoyed a drink there with his friends was Naphtali Hertz Imber, whose poem “Tikvateinu” would one day be slightly changed into “Hatikva” and become Israel’s national anthem.
Jerusalem’s Jewish religious extremists, who believed that Hebrew may be spoken only in prayer and service to God, were horrified at Ben-Yehuda’s insistence on turning the holy language in which their Bibles were written into everyday speech. At first, Ben-Yehuda and Dvora tried to fit in. Both wore head coverings and long garments. Ben-Yehuda grew a beard, and in the beginning, despite their secular leanings, the family led overtly religious lives. But nothing helped. They were persecuted, excommunicated, boycotted — and, on one occasion, Ben-Yehuda was even jailed for a time, after extremists tricked the authorities into believing that he wanted his readers to overthrow the government.
In 1890, Ben Yehuda founded the Hebrew Language Committee and acted as its first president. A multitude of words used in Hebrew today were coined by the Committee. It was succeeded in 1953 by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which continues to create new words suitable for contemporary Israeli society.
Ben-Yehuda also compiled the first modern Hebrew dictionary in the world, five volumes of which were published incrementally between 1908 and 1922, the year of Ben-Yehuda’s death.
Dvora died in 1891 and, honoring her request, Ben-Yehuda married her sister, Hemda, who had been at a Moscow University studying chemistry. After her marriage, Hemda became a writer, journalist and women’s rights activist. The mission to complete the Hebrew dictionary was as much Hemda’s as it was her husband’s, and she continued adding entries until her own death in 1951. The last volume of this pioneer achievement came out in 1958.
In 1909, the Ben-Yehuda family moved out of the Old City and rented the second floor of a lovely Arab-style villa on Ethiopia Street. So hated was Ben-Yehuda by the city’s Jewish extremists that the house has never ceased to be a target for vandalism and defacement, including in recent years. Today the building is the responsibility of the Society for the Preservation of Historic Sites and boasts a picture of Ben-Yehuda along with a sign about the great man who revived the Hebrew language.
One month after the British declared Hebrew to be one of the country’s official languages, Ben-Yehuda succumbed to the tuberculosis that had plagued him almost his entire life. He was buried in what would become a family plot on the Mount of Olives.
During his lifetime, Ben-Yehuda would often say that he had only two regrets: he was sorry that he wasn’t born in Jerusalem, and that he hadn’t spoken Hebrew from the very beginning. Imagine his joy if he had lived to see the establishment of the State of Israel, with Jerusalem as her capital.
Many thanks to Gil Hovav for his help in preparing this article.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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