Once upon a time, after a lecture I delivered in the United States, a woman came over and asked that I sign one of my books, which was published there. “It’s for my son,” she said in very good Hebrew. “What’s his name?” I asked. “Sagi,” she replied, “but please write it in English.”
I wrote “To Sagi,” and just to be on the safe side signed my own name in English as well. Someone who can’t read his own name in Hebrew will probably have a hard time reading other names. The woman was embarrassed. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said, “but this is how it is with the kids. After a generation or two in America, their Israeliness disappears, and along with it so does their Hebrew.”
A day later, in another town, I encountered the opposite scenario. A former Israeli in the audience stood up and angrily said: “Every time I visit Israel, I can’t understand what they’re saying on the street. I don’t understand all that new slang. What kind of Hebrew is that?”
This time, I couldn’t hold back. “While you sit in America, we, in Israel, are working. We speak our Hebrew, write in Hebrew, and invent new expressions and new words. We won’t keep our Hebrew refrigerated for you while we wait for you to visit.”
I recalled those stories because at this time the Hebrew Language Academy marks the 150th birthday of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who “revived the Hebrew language.” First, I must say that this important title must be amended. Ben-Yehuda did not revive Hebrew for the simple reason that it never died. It was kept alive. Indeed, it was not used in daily life, but religious and literary pieces were written in Hebrew, it was used for communication between Jewish communities that could not correspond in other languages, and it was even spoken, although mostly with God.
The workings of a language
I do not intend to undermine the work or stature of Ben-Yehuda. He was among the greatest figures in the history of the Jewish people. It would be appropriate not only for the Hebrew Language Academy but also for the Knesset to convene a special meeting in his honor. The dictionary he composed was a giant one-man enterprise that nobody has unfortunately been able to replace to this day, despite the need for it.
Every sheet of paper and conversation in Hebrew are a Ben-Yehuda memorial. I especially hold dear the sight of ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem speaking with each other in good, modern Hebrew. Their forefathers persecuted him, falsely accused him, informed on him, and led to his detainment in a Turkish prison, yet here he is, celebrating his victory with the words of their descendents.
I wonder whether he 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.
Yet Hebrew is also a battlefield of words and expressions, existence and survival. It rapidly goes through painful processes that other languages underwent slowly. Without intending to do so, Ben-Yehuda embarked on a process that in the future will see Hebrew split into a modern language and a classic language. At this point already, many Biblical allusions are not being understood by readers, while ancient idioms are forgotten. We also use others idioms without recognizing their origin. Should we be sorry about this ignorance? Not necessarily. When an idiom becomes detached from its origin, we know it has achieved an independent and strong status.
As we celebrate Ben-Yehuda’s 150th birthday, Hebrew is an existing fact. Yet it is being threatened by a few more dangers. One of them is diminishment and shallowness. Another one is foreign languages. Not the productive kind of exchange between languages, but rather, imitation and self-depreciation. The third one is a true existential danger. Hebrew would not continue to exist without Israel. Without a Jewish state it would die within two generations, just like Sagi’s mother knows.