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Story of Modern Hebrew: 22 Letters That Witnessed History

January 1, 2009 By:
Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg, JE Feature
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Ilán Stavans

Amherst College professor and prolific writer Ilán Stavans' most recent book, Resurrecting Hebrew, recounts the story of how, at the end of the 19th century, Lithuanian-born lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda reinvented the Hebrew language as the "centerpiece of Zionism" -- "the living tongue" of a new, modern nation to be known as Israel.

The author, 47, who teaches Latin American and Latino literature at the Massachusetts school, spoke about his book in late October at the Gershman Y as part of its ongoing "Get Lit" author-discussion series.

In an interview after the event, Stavans said that Ben-Yehuda's struggle spoke to him, and he simply wanted to "travel across Jewish history" accompanied by the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet -- letters, attested the writer, that were a witness to the events of the past few millennia. He considers his work a "travel book" in which he describes "how a language that had been dormant for centuries" made a comeback.

Stavans learned Hebrew as a youth, but "pushed [it] aside" for other languages. After a moment of reckoning, detailed in Resurrecting Hebrew, he began a quest to become reacquainted with the language he was taught when he was growing up in Mexico City.

Stavans said that before Israel's creation in 1948, about eight out of 10 Jews spoke Yiddish, not Hebrew. He added that Ben-Yehuda wasn't always advocating for Hebrew to be the chosen language, and pointed out that Zionist leader Theodor Herzl was rooting for German. But, eventually, Ben-Yehuda looked to modernize biblical Hebrew and turn it "into a usable, spoken language."

Without these efforts, added Stavans, Israel might have another official language today -- perhaps Yiddish, maybe English or something else.

While "Hebrew is the language of the Bible," continued Stavans, it's not the only language of the Jews. "There are many Jewish languages," he noted, such as Yiddish, Ladino and Judo-Italian, but Hebrew is now the "language of a nation."

'Most Monolingual Ever'
American Jews, according to Stavans, are "the most monolingual ever," whereas Jews of past generations used to speak three or four -- or more -- languages. He noted that his grandmother spoke six or seven languages. He said that American Jews should learn more than English, as that would to "expand" their "horizons" and make them "more connected to other Jewish communities around the world."

Stavans (who was recently named one of the "Forward 50" for 2008 by the Forward newspaper for his groundbreaking anthology of Latino culture and "theories of language" that are "hotly debated around the world") said he thinks that, if Ben-Yehuda were alive today, he would be "really surprised by what Hebrew is today." He would be happy, he explained, that it's widely spoken by millions of people, but perhaps sad that the language has been "contaminated" by English, Yiddish and other languages; "he wanted a pure Hebrew to be spoken."

As for the future of Hebrew, Stavans said that he thinks it's "going to continue to be a lively, evolving language that is likely to change in the next century or so," just as all "living languages" change and grow; he cited how English evolves, with words coming in and out of fashion, and new terms being added. He noted that this change will also come as Israelis leave the Jewish state and move around the world.

"Hebrew is becoming a language of the Diaspora," said Stavans, even though Ben-Yehuda wanted Hebrew kept in Israel.

"I love the way words shape us, and we shape them," said Stavans.

So where does he see Yiddish heading?

"There is a lot of nostalgia for Yiddish right now," he said. "People feel connected to what Yiddish means."

Stavans thinks that, although Yiddish is still spoken by the Orthodox, he imagines it "could die" or continue at "a low speed," and then "come back," similar to the way Hebrew did; but he was adamant that Yiddish "is not dead" as of now.

Added the writer: "It has not given us its last chapter."

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