Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

The father of Modern Hebrew.

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Soon after, Ben-Yehuda learned that Jewish communities were using Hebrew to communicate when other languages wouldn't suffice. (Historians now know that this phenomenon had existed since the middle ages in Europe and the Near East.) In Jerusalem, for example, Jews spoke Yiddish, French, or Arabic colloquially.

However, in the rare occurrences when inter-communal affairs required verbal communication, a modified form of medieval Hebrew was the common language. The Hebrew spoken in these contexts was far from what would be required for a national, modern language, but the news nevertheless inspired Ben-Yehuda to move to Palestine.

Undercover Brother

Arriving in Jerusalem in 1881, Ben-Yehuda immediately put his plan of Hebrew revival into action. He left behind his birth name and with his wife, Deborah Jonas, he created the first Modern Hebrew-speaking household. He also raised the first modern Hebrew-speaking child, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda.

In Jerusalem, the secular Ben-Yehuda tried to use Hebrew to attract religious Jews to the nationalist cause. He and his wife wore religious garb--he grew out his beard and payot (sidelocks), and his wife wore a wig--trying to pass as observant. But the ultra-Orthodox Jews living in Jerusalem, for whom Hebrew was only used for holy purposes such as studying Torah, saw through Ben-Yehuda's guise. Sensing his secular-nationalist intentions, they rejected him and his language. They went so far as to declare a herem, excommunicating Ben-Yehuda.

This setback did little to deter Ben-Yehuda from concentrating on his project. He continued to speak Hebrew at home and convinced other families--who were part of the growing community of secular Jewish nationalists in Palestine--to do the same.

At home, Ben-Yehuda used his son to test the viability of the Hebrew language project; if a child can be brought up speaking entirely Hebrew, then an entire nation should be able to adopt the language as well. This required extreme measures on the part of Ben-Yehuda, who tried to prevent his son from playing with other children and from hearing other languages spoken--so afraid was the father of failing in his endeavor.

On Paper, Out of Mouths

The other elements of Ben-Yehuda's revival project were the use of Hebrew as a language of instruction and study in schools, and the creation of a vocabulary that would make Hebrew a tenable language for national use. Ben-Yehuda gained the support of educators who were enthusiastic Jewish nationalists and identified with his project. Teaching Hebrew in schools was also a practical solution to the problem of immigrants from different countries speaking a variety of languages.

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David Saiger

David Saiger, who hails from West Los Angeles, California, is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Before starting at JTS, he studied philosophy at Emory University and Jewish texts at the Pardes Institute.