Israel: Confessions of a polyglot

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Nov 24 17:52:22 UTC 2008

Hebrew language

Confessions of a polyglot

By Benjamin Balint

Tags: Ben Yehuda, Israel News

At his best, Ilan Stavans offers a casual, personal report of what he
calls a 'journey of discovery,' of both the roots of modern Hebrew and
the sources of his own fascination with the language  Even if it were
merely the language of the Bible, and nothing more, Hebrew would be a
miracle. Without Hebrew, there could be no Bible, and deprived of its
biblical bedrock, Western culture would be unimaginable. Even apart
from its ubiquitous influence, biblical Hebrew is in itself a marvel
of terse concreteness. In the King James Version, Job curses the day
he was born in 22 words. In the original, eight words suffice. But of
course the language by no means died with the close of the Bible. As
it wended its way from Genesis to Daniel, from Mishna to Midrash to
Maimonides, to its revival a century ago as an everyday vernacular,
Hebrew all along acted as a rich repository of cultural meanings and

Modern Hebrew, which took hold in the decade or so before World War I,
is about as distant from the Bible's idiom as today's sabra is from
the ancient Israelite. But the resurrection of this dispersed and
stateless language is no less astonishing. That rebirth, and its
midwife, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, are the subject of a new book by Ilan
Stavans, a professor at Amherst College. Though the book is fronted by
a portrait of the bespectacled man who more than anyone else guided
Hebrew from the synagogue into the home, it is not a biography or
critical study. Readers wishing to learn about Ben Yehuda would more
profitably look to his autobiography, "A Dream Come True," to "Tongue
of the Prophets," by the journalist Robert St. John, or to Yosef
Lang's recent comprehensive biography, "Speak Hebrew!" (in Hebrew, and
reviewed in the September edition of Books?.)

Stavans' book is rather a casual, personal report of what its author
calls a "journey of discovery," in which, like an avid student, he
seeks out a series of experts to help him locate both the roots of
modern Hebrew and the sources of his own fascination with the
language. His interlocutors, who supply the substance of the book,
include the Spanish Hebrew scholar Angel Saenz-Badillos; Eliezer
Nowodorski, a translator living in Tel Aviv; Bernard Spolsky, adviser
to the Israeli government on language policy; writer and translator
Hillel Halkin; Reuven "Ruvik" Rosenthal, editor of a dictionary of
Israeli slang; novelist David Grossman; and Faruq Mawasi, vice
president of the Writers Union in Israel and head of Israel's branch
of the Arabic Language Academy.

Along the way, as Stavans reports on his conversations, we get to know
Ben Yehuda (ne Perelman), and his tireless efforts to bring about the
unprecedented renaissance of an ancient language. Ben Yehuda appears
first as a Litvak yeshiva student in Plotzk, then as a Sorbonne
student and Francophile. Then he becomes a quixotic Zionist, and
fervent supporter of the Jewish settlement of Uganda. Finally, after
his arrival in Jerusalem in 1881, where he found a job teaching at the
Alliance Israelite Universelle school, he becomes a journalist,
newspaper publisher, lexicographer, word coiner (he invented the very
word for dictionary - milon - and compiled the first modern Hebrew
dictionary), and a devoted Hebrew revivalist.

As Stavans notes, Ben Yehuda wasn't the only language utopian of the
day. His almost exact contemporary, L. L. Zamenhof, invented
Esperanto. But Ben Yehuda was unique in so tightly yoking linguistic
and political rebirth. Theodor Herzl didn't mention Hebrew in "The
Jewish State." For Ben Yehuda, however, Hebrew and Zionism enjoyed
symbiotic unity. "The Hebrew language can live," he said, "only if we
revive the nation and return it to its fatherland."

A different kind of symbiosis paired Ben Yehuda with the object of his
labors. "All my life," he wrote, in his autobiography, "I have been
inconsolably grieved about two things. I was not born in Jerusalem,
not even the Land of Israel. And my speech from the moment I was able
to utter words was not in Hebrew."

Remarkably, one would not guess from this mention of grief that Ben
Yehuda lost three children to diphtheria in 10 days. Nor was personal
tragedy the only reason his Herculean labors did not always go
smoothly. He was aware that from the beginning, this strange Semitic
language was both primordial - Dante called it "the language which the
lips of the first speaker formed" - and pedestrian. Yet for the sin of
turning the sacred tongue to mundane purpose, the rabbis of Jerusalem
excommunicated him, and got him in trouble with the Turkish

And while some of the words Ben Yehuda invented are now taken for
granted - like ofanayim for bicycle - 2,000 of his words were
stillborn. His word for tomato, for instance, which Hebrew speakers
now universally call agvania, was badura. And his word for democracy:

Still, Ben Yehuda's achievement in midwifing a modern language that so
keenly feels the press of its ancestors is immense. When he died in
1922, at age 64, his funeral was attended by 30,000.

Stavans closes his book - and the personal journey it traces - with a
pilgrimage to Ben Yehuda's grave on the Mount of Olives. When he finds
the gravestone, he notices that it has been spray-painted. A friend
tells him that when a member of the Ben Yehuda family was informed
about the desecration, apparently at the hands of ultra-Orthodox Jews,
she asked, "In what language was the graffiti splashed on?"

"In Hebrew."

"Ah, then Ben Yehuda won."

Distractingly self-indulgent

For all of this book's pleasing informality and lightness of touch, it
is marred by several flaws.

To begin with, it seems undigested. Some of this shows in the book's
mistakes in matters of Jewish literacy. Stavans writes that Gershom
Scholem devoted a chapter of "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism" to the
golem, when in fact the eminent scholar of kabbalah devoted but a
single en passant paragraph of his book to that legendary creature.
Stavans conflates the Great Sanhedrin of 71 judges with the local
Sanhedrin councils of 23 that existed in ancient times. And he gets
the great Italian-Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto's name wrong.

Where it is not hasty, the book's tone can be distractingly
self-indulgent. "During lunch in a fancy Tel Aviv shopping center, I
ordered a leafy salad with multigrain bread and a carrot juice,"
Stavans writes. Or, "I took a hot bath and opened one of the Ben
Yehuda biographies I had brought with me. In a nearby room, a party
was going on. For a second, I thought of dialing the hotel's reception
desk to complain."

Most glaringly, however, Stavans, a professor of Latin American
culture at Amherst, imparts to his book a detrimental ambivalence
about his subject. In one sense, his long fascination with languages
and lexicons - he calls a chapter of his 2005 memoir "Dictionary Days"
"Sleeping With My OED" - lends itself to a fruitful encounter with Ben

But in another sense, Stavans, who studied Hebrew at a Bundist school
in Mexico City and lived in Israel for a year in the late 1970s, lets
his own concerns get in the way of a clear view. This is for the
simple reason that while Stavans has devoted his career to linguistic
borrowings and cross-overs, to the blurred boundaries of Spanglish and
Franglais, to skipping from Spanish to English to Yiddish, Ben Yehuda
pulled in the contrary direction. "Having been a polyglot," Stavans
writes of Ben Yehuda, "he wants to become monolingual. The implication
of this switch irks me."

Calling himself "a full-fledged Diaspora Jew," Stavans has elsewhere
said, "I enjoy being an interloper, an outsider." To one of his
essays, he gave the title "Life in the Hyphen." "I have to be a
minority," Stavans has said. "If I am not a minority, I would cease to

Eliezer Ben Yehuda yielded his soul to the abiding impulse that
urgently sought an escape from minority status - for his people and
its language alike. For this quality, which is the very opposite of
irksome, he goes unfathomed by his latest chronicler.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, has reviewed books for
the American Scholar, Commentary and the Wall Street Journal.

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