If these walls could speak: The legacy of the Hebrew pioneer Ben-Yehuda lives on in Jerusalem
One day in the late 19th century, a woman in labor opened the gate of Eliezer ben-Yehuda’s home in Jerusalem. She lay in the yard in front of his house and screamed with each new pain: “forest!‘ (a Yiddish term for fear). Only after some time did Ben-Yehuda stick his head out of a window. “You!” he cried. “Shout in Hebrew!”
This is one of those stories that you hear so many times and in so many variations that you start to believe it. We heard it at a lecture in the Old Town during a summer cultural program at New Gate. Presenting the talk was Ben Yehuda’s great-grandson, master storyteller/author/chef/journalist Gil Hovav.
Whether this is true or not – and it probably isn’t – it says a lot about Ben-Yehuda, a fanatic who devoted his heart, soul, and mind to reviving Hebrew into a living language that would stand the test of time Hebrew-spoken Yiddish would replace Jews of the time. Nothing turned Ben-Yehuda off his path, not a few nights in prison, not even the Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl who ridiculed the idea of Hebrew as the modern national language.
Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman in Lithuania in 1858. In his early years he studied the Bible and Jewish commentaries, but as a teenager he became acquainted with Hebrew grammar and secular books. Towards the end of his studies at a Jewish high school, he began to recognize the need for a Jewish homeland and became severely infected with the Zionist virus while studying in Paris. He became a Zionist activist and changed his name to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in 1879.
So in 1881, full of Zionist passion, he decided that the time had come to move to the Land of Israel. Before leaving Paris, he was offered a position as deputy editor for the Jerusalem-based Hebrew-language newspaper Havatzelet. Though the proposed salary was meager, Ben-Yehuda accepted the job after the newspaper’s editor, Israel Dov Frumkin, promised that he and his fiancée, Dvora, would be given accommodation – what they were: a room in Frumkin’s house, for that they paid a fee.
A few weeks later, they moved into a modest second-floor apartment above the noisy Old Town cotton market. Unfortunately, there were no stairs, so the couple had to climb up and down a ladder whenever they wanted to enter or leave their tiny abode.
Their first child was born in 1882 on the Jewish holiday Tu B’Av. To the delight of Ben-Yehuda, who strongly supported the idea of Jewish peasant settlements in the Land of Israel, the birth took place on the very day that Rishon Lezion was first established Moshava (agricultural settlement) in the land of Israel. In one of his publications, Ben-Yehuda wrote about 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 stating that his son “would either speak Hebrew or not speak at all.” The child, a boy named Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda, was the first youth in pre-state Israel to have his first words spoken in Hebrew. Some of the words weren’t in the Bible and Ben-Yehuda had to invent them—words like bicycle, jam, and ice cream.
Ben-Zion was a lonely boy, not allowed to meet with his non-Hebrew speaking contemporaries. The nanny who was helping his mother had to be fired because she could not communicate in Hebrew. Ben-Zion later changed his name to Itamar Ben-Avi and joined 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 the birth of Ben-Zion. Forced to sell the elegant garments and expensive jewelry she had brought from her wealthy home in Russia, Dvora began sewing for the ladies of Jerusalem to help with expenses. Ben-Yehuda taught Hebrew to anyone who could afford a private tutor and got a job teaching Hebrew at a local school, where he continued his campaign to make Hebrew the language of study. But the pay was so low that it was still not enough to live on.
That same year, a wealthy merchant from Belarus named Moshe Wittenberg came to the Holy Land to do something worthwhile with his money. His first project, shortly after his arrival, was the purchase of a beautiful courtyard complex for needy Jews, a former hotel that once served as Mark Twain’s lodgings. Although originally owned by a local Christian Arab, the property was now in the hands of the wealthy Latin Catholic Patriarchate in Jerusalem.
In his book The Unknown Jerusalem, author Shabtai Zacharia writes that Wittenberg wanted to deal directly with the Latin Patriarch, who only spoke French. Ben-Yehuda – for whom French was just one of the languages he was fluent in – was hired as a translator. When the purchase was complete, Wittenberg asked him to name his fee. Incredibly, Ben-Yehuda declined, given his disastrous financial situation, saying it was enough payment for a Jew to take property in the Holy City from the hands of the wealthy patriarchate.
More of a writer and journalist than a teacher at heart, Ben-Yehuda founded his first newspaper on October 24, 1884. Her name was “HaZvi” (The Gazelle). With a virtually non-existent budget, Ben-Yehuda did all the work himself, writing the articles, printing – manually – and proofreading the proofs. He rented a printing press from Yitzhak Hirschenzon, who owned a publishing house.
Located in the courtyard of Hirschenzon House in the Old City, the press was known as a meeting place for many of the city’s teachers, writers and Zionists from abroad. It is said that among the people enjoying drinks there with his friends was Naphtali Hertz Imber, whose poem “Tikvateinu” would one day be easily adapted into “Hatikva” and become Israel’s national anthem.
Jerusalem’s Jewish religious extremists, who believed that Hebrew should only be spoken in prayer and service to God, were appalled by Ben-Yehuda’s insistence on converting the sacred language in which their Bibles were written into everyday language. At first, Ben-Yehuda and Dvora tried to adjust. Both wore head coverings and long robes. Ben-Yehuda grew a beard, and in the beginning the family, despite their worldly leanings, led a decidedly religious life. But nothing helped. They have been persecuted, excommunicated, boycotted – and once Ben-Yehuda was even imprisoned for some time after extremists led authorities to believe he wanted his readers to overthrow the government.
In 1890 Ben Yehuda founded the Hebrew Language Committee and served as its first president. A variety of words used in Hebrew today were coined by the committee. It was followed by the Academy of the Hebrew Language in 1953, which continues to create new words appropriate to contemporary Israeli society.
Ben-Yehuda also compiled the world’s first modern Hebrew dictionary, of which five volumes were gradually published between 1908 and 1922, the year of Ben-Yehuda’s death.
Dvora died in 1891 and Ben-Yehuda complied with her wish and married her sisterhemda, who had studied chemistry at Moscow University. After her marriage,hemda became a writer, journalist and women’s rights activist. The mission of completing the Hebrew dictionary was as muchhemda’s as that of her husband, and she continued to add entries until her own death in 1951. The last volume of this pioneering work appeared in 1958.
In 1909, the Ben-Yehuda family moved out of the old town and rented the second floor of a beautiful Arabic-style mansion on Ethiopia Street. Ben-Yehuda was so hated by the city’s Jewish extremists that the house has never ceased to be a target for vandalism and defacement, even in recent years. Today the building is under the responsibility of the Society for the Preservation of Historic Sites and features an image of Ben-Yehuda and a plaque commemorating the great man who revived the Hebrew language.
A month after the British made Hebrew one of the country’s official languages, Ben-Yehuda succumbed to the tuberculosis that had plagued him for most of his life. He was buried in a family tomb on the Mount of Olives.
During his lifetime, Ben-Yehuda often said that he had only two regrets: he was sorry that he was not born in Jerusalem and that he did not speak Hebrew to begin with. Imagine his joy if he had lived to see the establishment of the State of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital.
Many thanks to Gil Hovav for his help in creating this article.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English speaking travel guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, tailor-made tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.