12 Things You Need to Know About… Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

1.  He was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman in Lithuania on January 7, 1858.  He studied in a yeshiva and then a Russian gymnasium, completing his studies in 1877.  That same year, he was stirred by the Bulgarian struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire, and he began to contemplate the idea that Jews might claim their own land and language.

2.  He left Russia in 1878 to study medicine in Paris, with the idea of practicing this profession in Palestine. However, he soon had to abandon this plan, when he contracted tuberculosis.

3.  He arrived in Palestine in 1881 at the beginning of the waves of Jewish immigration to come, having already published a number of articles on renewing the Jewish people, their land and language.

4.  Though he knew French, German and Russian, he spoke only Hebrew to every Jew. His household was the first Hebrew-speaking home in Palestine, and his son, born in 1882, was to be the first child in modern history to hear and speak only Hebrew.

5.  He coined new Hebrew words for everyday objects: doll, jelly, towel, bicycle.

6.  He became involved in the first efforts in Palestine to use Hebrew as the standard language in school – despite the dearth of textbooks, materials, games, songs, vocabulary, and teachers who could follow his example.

7.  In 1884, he began his own weekly newspaper, Hatzvi (The Deer); it was not the first or only Hebrew newspaper, but certainly the most far-reaching, introducing new words into parlance and discussing not only Jewish topics, but (to the extent the Ottoman authority would allow) general political, social and cultural topics. He advocated for a plain, unadorned prose style without the inflated rhetoric that had been popular.

8.  To further the adoption of Hebrew, he became a lexicographer, defining the language along strict philological lines, eliminating Aramaic and other foreign words from ancient texts – though he did introduce transliterations from modern tongues. This resulted in his Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew. He worked on it day and night, publishing six volumes in his lifetime.  After his death, his wife and son continued to publish his manuscript, completing the seventeenth, and last, volume in 1959.

9.  In 1890, he founded the Hebrew Language Council to arbitrate matters of terminology, pronunciation, spelling and punctuation pertaining to the use of Hebrew.

10.  In November 1922, the British mandate authorities recognized Hebrew as the official language of the Jews of Palestine.  A month later, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda died.  His is buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

11.  His work did not go unopposed. The orthodox community bitterly resented his attempts to revitalize the holy tongue; they even managed to get him thrown in prison for a time.

12.  He is my hero.

Ben-Yehuda

 

“Before Ben-Yehuda…

Jews could speak Hebrew;

after him they did.”

            – Cecil Roth

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