As someone on this site who has talked a lot about language revitalization, I finally got around to writing about one of the most important figures in this field of linguistics.
This follows the life and the legacy of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who restored the Hebrew language to the Jewish population in Israel.
He was born to a Rabbi and would eventually change his surname to be renamed after his father as the “son of Yehuda.” Originally, he wanted to become a physician, but that dream did not become a reality when he was expelled for his pro-Hebrew views.
Throughout his life, he would struggle with health problems, specifically with tuberculosis which his father died from. He would nonetheless continue his advocacy of the Hebrew language in spite of it, even as his own first wife and children died from illnesses.
Ben-Yehuda was quite a well-traveled man, since he has been to many countries, all in the pursuit of restoring the Hebrew Language. With his first wife, he would travel from Lithuania to Algeria to Palestine, where he would live there and attempt to publish the Hebrew language in a newspaper. When World War I happened, he and his family were sent into exile to the United States of America, where the Jewish identity was heavily and favorably represented. After the Balfour Declaration, he would return to Israel and live there for the rest of his life.
Since Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is Jewish, religion is one of the major themes of this biography. Throughout his early life, he became very devout in Judaism, which eventually led him to learn about Hebrew. This knowledge and the dissemination of Hebrew would lead to a never-ending conflict with everyone around him for the rest of his life.
Since language is another theme, it also serves to illustrate the life-long goal of Ben-Yehuda, which was to restore the Hebrew-speaking community in the very land of Israel. Since there were a lot of words that needed to be coined, such as dictionary, he had assistance from his son Ben-Zion in doing this. Near the end of his life, he helped to coin new words for the local Jews.
Conflict is a major theme, because his life-long goal to revive the Hebrew language was met with fierce opposition by the conservative Jews and Rabbis who were opposed to their liturgical language being used outside of the religious setting. The fact that Ben-Yehuda published this ambition on his newspaper was enough for the Orthodox community to ostracize him and his family for heresy. He had to fight both the religious authority and his own family in his pursuit to bring back the Hebrew language. Even one hundred years after his death, the ultra-orthodox community still regarded Ben-Yehuda as a heretic.
Not only was there conflict between Jews and non-Jews, but between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews which went past the dialect differences. ben-Yehuda himself greatly admired the Sephardic pronunciations, since they sounded more real in Hebrew. It would later involve conflict between the Jews and the Arabs.
There is a lot of historical context, specifically in the beginnings of the chapters. This is done to provide explanations to any readers who are unaware of Jewish history.
At the time before Israel became its own country, and around the time Eliezer immigrated there, it was a part of the Ottoman Empire and it was considered unsuitable for any Jews outside of it. It was rife with corruption both on the part of the religious and administrative authorities.
Also, what really motivated the migrations from Eastern Europe were the pogroms that were taking place that forced the Jewish populations to leave. As such, there were waves of immigration until the Ottoman government decided to halt Jewish immigration into the Levantine.
Another part of the history of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was World War I which ultimately shaped the relationship between Turkey and Europe. By that point, Turkey had become weakened and ultimately the British decided to partition Israel according to the Balfour Declaration, which was overlooked when anti-Semitic violence kept springing up as a result.
Many historical figures play a role in this autobiography, since they help to shape the struggles that Ben-Yehuda had to go through in order to restore Hebrew. Figures such as Sir Moses Montefiore and Baron Edmond de Rothschild would help to finance many Israeli projects, though were reluctant to accept Hebrew being spoken as a first language. However, Theodore Herzl would become an incredibly important figure in advocating for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland after years of persecution and pogroms.
Although this is a biography presumably written by one of his grandchildren, it is written like a non-fiction narrative, since the individuals throughout the book interact in-depth, including their dialogue and their thoughts. I would have to be cautious about this information since they do not seem to be verified by the author.
Since his Hebrew language revival project was the source of conflict throughout his life, he always went into lengthy speeches, trying to persuade the other person why what he was doing was important to the Jewish nation. Again, I do not know if any of this is substantiated, though I can see how much arguments Ben-Yehuda had to be embroiled in to fight for his cause.
There are frequent quotes from the Torah, such as from Proverbs or Jeremiah, in order to show the devotion of Ben-Yehuda throughout his life. There are also a lot of Hebrew phrases being used in the dialogue, which was followed up with by the English translations.
Real World Application
What it does teach people when it comes to projects and social experiments as revolutionary as reviving the Hebrew-speaking community is to always stand your ground. Ben-Yehuda proved that even as he was excommunicated and threatened with violence, he continued to teach his own children Hebrew. This is an important life lesson because being assimilated and complying with Russian mores did not prevent the Jews from rampant murder, rape, and pillage during the pogroms. Ben-Yehuda himself did not want to take criticisms seriously, and he was rewarded with this action at the end of his life when more people started using Hebrew in their daily lives in Israel.
Suggest This To…
- Normally, I would suggest this book to anyone interested in linguistics or language revitalization, though I am too wary when it comes to this book. I do not know much about the publisher of this book, or even who the author is. There is no clarification of who actually wrote this biography. The credited name on the cover is Eliezer Ben-Yehuda himself, however, the entire book is written in 3rd person, rather than 1st person, and a part of the book focuses only on his son which was a bit diverting. If this book is to be used for any academic research, then I would be cautious and skeptical.
- However, if you are looking for a narrative work, then I can definitely see how this book could be made into a film. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a good story.
Ben-Yehuda, Eliezer. “Fulfillment Of Prophecy: The Life Story Of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922).” Book-Surge. 2008.