Homage to Hebrew in Honor of Israel Independence Day
I admit that as a child I despised attending Hebrew school after a day of going to school all day. I was no different than a lot of Jewish kids growing up in America. Many of us swore that after Bar or Bat Mitzvah we would never go back and never wanted to learn more Hebrew. The truth be told was that I did continue to pursue my studies at the congregation on Sunday mornings until 10th grade and then Confirmation. But I never learned more Hebrew. And I was just fine with that.
Years later my life’s purpose took me to Jerusalem and in Rabbinical School I was in the middle of a classroom learning four kinds of Hebrew from modern, rashi script, biblical Hebrew and Talmudic Hebrew. How else would I learn to read our ancient texts if not in the original language? There was no question that it was the holy work as compared to the torture I experienced as a middle school kid. Now I was studying four or five hours after classes. Then I was going out into the Jerusalem streets trying out my burgeoning Hebrew skills making mistakes but each day learning a little more how to communicate with Israelis. Soon I could start to read newspapers and have light conversations with people. What a liberating feeling! I started to love Hebrew and feel that the language was the portal into the world not only of the Jewish past but also into the future of our destiny.
I was amazed to learn about the story of Eliezer Ben Yehudah the founder of Modern Hebrew. Most people hear ben yehudah and they think of the street in downtown Jerusalem where everyone finds the tourist shops in the center of Jerusalem. Indeed, many cities in Israel have streets named after Eliezer ben Yehuda. Eliezer ben Yehuda grew up in eastern Europe with a traditional yeshivah education. His life took him to the beauty of Hebrew and in the midst of the early years of immigration to Palestine he started his quest to adapt the classical languages of Hebrew to the street and into the mouths of Zionists of all stripes who came to settle this holy land.
Stories abound how he made his children speak Hebrew in the house at the beginning of the 20th century without having anyone else to speak with in the school yard. But at the end of the day it all paid off and his scholarly genius reached into rabbinical and biblical texts and created the first modern Hebrew dictionary. By 1919 when the Institute for Technology (later to be named The Technion) adopted Hebrew as the official language of the school and instruction (1924), the Hebrew language took off and gained nation wide acceptance. There are dramatic stories of fights in the faculty many of whom were from Germany and who insisted on German as the language of instruction. The the majority of faculty and staff prevailed with Hebrew as the language of instruction. Other moments occurred when the British took over Palestine after World War One, the military administration recognized Hebrew as the official language of the Jewish people. Then Eliezer ben Yehuda formed an academic institute that would study Hebrew and introduce new Hebrew words into the language to keep up with the times.
Most American Jews can make their ways through the prayerbook with varying degrees of comfort. Younger generations who have visited Israel can incorporate more Hebrew into their vocabulary than their forbearers. Hebrew is an amazing language when we think that a hundred years ago Jewish intellectuals were struggling how to reinvigorate Hebrew from the scholarly language into one that the popular culture of Jews around the world could embrace as part of a new image of national pride for Jews around the world.
Today Hebrew has matured and has so many distinctive features like any language. Its sounds and nuances differ based upon where the historic backgrounds of Israelis. Jews from Arab countries speak in an accent that sounds distinctive in the same way as those who come from Ashkenazi cultures speak the language. The expressions and uses of American English have certainly crept into the language as it has influenced all the languages of the world.
When we speak Hebrew not just in worship services but also in modern Hebrew we are blending our history from the Bible and Talmudic times through the Middle Ages into the world today. We may not know it but the words of Hebrew are truly a tapestry of Jewish history. In honor of Israel’s Independence Day let us celebrate the beauty of the Hebrew language and the miracle of resurrecting it. It is just one more example of the miracle of Israel that arose out of the dust to a new life that we celebrate on the 63rd anniversary of its declaration of Independence.
For all my local low country readers, don’t forget to attend the low country celebration this Thursday beginning at 5pm at the Temple.