The annoying red-headed man who revived Hebrew
“He was a short, annoying, red-headed person, lacking any sense of humour, who was very sensitive about his dignity,” said Hovav about Ben-Yehuda while addressing a Zoom audience at eLimmud on Sunday, 31 May.
“Even 100 years after he died, ultra-Orthodox people find the time to get up in the middle of the night, go up the Mount of Olives, break into my family’s burial plot, and desecrate his grave. On the other hand, UNESCO [the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation] declared him one of Western civilization’s greatest cultural figures,” Hovav said.
“What is it that keeps him alive almost a century since he passed away?”
Ben-Yehuda was born Lazer Perlman in Lithuania in 1858 to a poor traditional Jewish family. Raised with four other siblings by his mother after his father died, he was sent away to live with a distant uncle with better means to raise him. Perlman was enrolled in the local cheder, and it was here that the future lexicographer was first exposed to the beauty of Hebrew.
“This is the middle of the 19th century,” said Hovav. “Hebrew is totally dead. For 2 000 years, not a single person has spoken it as a mother tongue. Some scholars toy with it, and Jews pray in Hebrew but often don’t understand it. It was like Latin is today.”
Young Perlman clandestinely learned the language under the tutelage of a rabbi, his first Hebrew text being a loose translation of the classic, Robinson Crusoe. He falls quickly in love with language and tries to get hold of any other Hebrew books he can find. Unfortunately, his passion is discovered, and he is booted from his adoptive home by an enraged uncle who finds the use of Hebrew for anything other than religious study abominable.
“It’s winter in Eastern Europe,” said Hovav. “This young boy has no family, no home. He walks east, hoping to get to Moscow. He depends on the hospitality of kind people as he goes, and here starts a chain of miracles that follow this 17-year-old on his journey.”
Discovered resting in a shul pew, Perlman is offered the job of tutor to the children of Shlomo Yonas, a wealthy vodka manufacturer for the tsar. A year later, the young tutor reveals to his employer that he has been having an affair with the man’s eldest daughter, Devora, and intends to marry her. Moreover, the couple intend to relocate to Palestine, then ruled by a failing Ottoman empire. Their goal? To teach the locals Hebrew.
“In today’s terms, it’s as if someone would come to you and say, ‘I’m having a forbidden romance with your daughter,’” he said. “’I’m going to marry her; I’m going with her to Rwanda where we will teach everybody to speak Latin.’ Very logical, right?”
Yonas actually approves of the plan, but offers first to send Perlman (at his own expense) to Paris to study medicine. Perlman accepts the offer, but in spite of travelling to Paris, never sets a foot in medical school, ends up contracting tuberculosis, and is sent to recover in Alegria.
Here he meets a Sephardi Jew from Jerusalem, hearing Hebrew for the first time spoken in a Sephardi accent. “Perlman believes that this is what Hebrew should sound like, and determines to pursue the revival of the Hebrew language in its own country,” said Hovav.
In spite of letting his fiancé know that he has no expectation that she will follow him, she promptly joins him in Paris and the couple set off for Palestine, getting married along the way in Alexandria, Egypt. Immediately upon arrival in Jaffa in 1881, Perlman changes his name to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, arranges a carriage to convey him and his wife to Jerusalem, and the couple take a vow: from now on, they will never utter another foreign word again. Hovav said that if they lacked a word, they’d find a way to describe it, and if either of them used a foreign word, the other had the right to pinch them.
He promoted this vision across the country. To foster the use of Hebrew, Ben-Yehuda founded two rival newspapers; encouraged the inclusion of Hebrew instruction in playschools (creating all the material himself); and even urged children to prick their parents in the backside with needles if they spoke in any language but Hebrew. He insisted his children speak only Hebrew, and his eldest son, Itamar, became the first child to speak Hebrew as a mother tongue in 2 000 years. He would go on to become Hovav’s grandfather.
“In some ways, Ben-Yehuda was a prophet,” Hovav said. “I never met Eliezer – he died forty years before I was born – but I met other kids of his. They all admired him, but told me that his wife always thanked G-d for the privilege she had to share her life with such a great man.
“We owe him.”