Israel prize winner dedicates award to fellow SA olim
Ruth Berman was born in Cape Town in 1935, and grew up in Sea Point in a Lithuanian immigrant family. Her mother’s father was the famous Rabbi Moshe Chaim Mervish, the first fully qualified rabbi in the Cape Colony, who has a street named after him in the Mother City. She attended Habonim and Talmud Torah, which influenced her love of Hebrew and her decision to make aliya in 1954. Incredibly, although she wasn’t born Israeli, her immersion in the Hebrew language is so extensive, she was awarded the Israel Prize last week for her trailblazing work in linguistics.
Making time to speak to the SA Jewish Report amidst numerous media interviews, Berman (nee Aronson) says she dedicates the award to “my fellow South Africans who came to Israel in the 1940s and 1950s, who haven’t always received acknowledgement for their tremendous contribution to building Israel. This is especially in regard to those who came from the Zionist youth movements and went on to become leaders in their fields, from medicine to academia to the arts. This award isn’t only mine, but theirs.”
Berman is Professor Emerita at Tel Aviv University, where she held the chair in Language across the Lifespan. She is a recipient of The EMET Prize for Art, Science and Culture in linguistics (2012) and received an honorary doctorate from Haifa University (2013). She has been a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities since 2013.
Surrounded by books that fill her apartment in central Tel Aviv, Berman quips that “being a celebrity isn’t easy because I can’t do my normal work!” However, she’s delighted, proud, and grateful to receive the award. She’s not the first Israel Prize winner in her household: her partner, Ya’akov Ya’ar, won it in 2007 for his work in architecture. At the age of 92, he still goes into his office in Jaffa every day. “When I called to tell him he let out such a yell that people thought something was wrong! And when I called my daughter who lives in Los Angeles, she said, ‘What are you going to wear?’” Berman will be presented with the award at the closing ceremony of Yom Ha’atzmaut.
In dedicating her prize to fellow South African olim, she says, “This includes the many volunteers among them, including my sister, Adele Rubin, who has been active in Ezra since its inception and who set up the Ethiopian Women’s Embroidery Centre in Sderot.”
Looking back, she remembers their carefree childhood in Sea Point, “going barefoot down to the sea every day”. Their home was particularly Orthodox, and her parents were strictly kosher and shomrei Shabbos. “We were raised very Zionist and us three siblings and my parents all settled in Israel. My parents are buried here.”
She was also “extremely active in Habonim [now Habonim Dror]. I learnt a lot about Israel and Zionism, and also social values that I still hold dear and can trace back to my time in Habonim.” Habonim alumni from around the world have celebrated her award.
“I remember Ruth as a lovely madricha from Cape Town, and already a fine Hebrew-language scholar,” says fellow academic and South African oleh, Professor Gideon Shimoni. They followed a similar path from their days in Habonim to excelling in Israel.
Berman feels that both her upbringing and her time in Habonim were driving factors in her decision to make aliya. In addition, her rejection of apartheid was a deciding factor in choosing to leave South Africa. She and her American-born husband, Yitzchak (Isadore) Berman, lived on Moshav Beit Hevrut for 30 years, of which he was a founding member. They had one daughter. After he passed away, she took a sabbatical in France and then returned to settle in Tel Aviv. She says she’s a true Tel Avivian, and loves living in the centre of it all.
Asked how she came to be so immersed in Hebrew, she says her teachers at Talmud Torah – she remembers them as Adon Blesvosky and Adon Bitnun – were Israelis who were very forward-thinking, excellent Hebrew educators. Then, when she arrived and studied at Hebrew University, there were few English speakers, so she had no choice but to learn. She and her husband also spoke Hebrew at home. “I love the Hebrew language, reading it, and analysing it,” she says.
Berman received a BA degree summa cum laude from the University of Cape Town in languages and literature (1954); an MA degree from Columbia University, New York, in general and applied linguistics (1964); and a PhD from Hebrew University, Jerusalem, in Hebrew language and linguistics (1973).
She began her career teaching English, but her interest in linguistics was sparked when she studied at the University of Edinburgh on a grant from the British Council, from 1958 to 1959. It was there that she was taught by some of the world’s leading linguists.
“At the time, linguistics in Israel was very Anglo-centric, and there was almost nothing on modern linguistic work in Hebrew,” she recalls. “I was always a bit of a maverick and I wanted to do something different.” So she blazed a trail in the burgeoning field of modern Hebrew linguistics, switching her research focus every 10 years.
Though the average person may not think of linguistics as important, Berman says “language is one of humankind’s most valuable and unique possessions, which sets us apart from other species. It’s deserving of deep analysis and research.”
“Hebrew is quite unique,” she says. “It has a special history in that it’s both 2 000 years old and 150 years old. Its roots are in Biblical, Mishnaic, and medieval Hebrew, and it’s fascinating to see how it has evolved into an everyday language.” Berman has particularly led the way in understanding how children acquire Hebrew as a first language, “and I’m proud to say that my students and their students have done abundant research on this”.
Though she has been in Israel since the age of 19, Berman’s South African accent remains strong. She thanked the community for its support, and hopes that fellow South African olim to early Israel will feel like they are standing on the stage beside her when she receives her award.