Modern Hebrew: The Epic Transformation of a Language

By | Jul 28, 2014
Modern Hebrew by Norman Berdichevsky

modernhebrewWhile teaching modern Hebrew in England and the United States, Norman Berdichevsky got a shock. Many of his students, he found, “were unable to utter a sentence in the modern language”—despite having attended Hebrew school at their synagogues for four or five years. “In modern Israel, they would be functionally illiterate,” Berdichevsky says. The experience led him to write a book on the topic, which came out last month: Modern Hebrew: The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language.

Stateside, many still equate Hebrew with its rabbinical counterpart, the purview of bar mitzvahs and synagogue prayer. In Israel, the story is different. In the 1880s, early Zionists sought to adopt a modernized version of the ancient biblical language. Most believed it couldn’t be done. Today, Israeli Hebrew has become the most successful language revitalization project in history. It is the language de facto, used in every realm of Israeli life, from education to business to picking up groceries.

How did Hebrew rise to precedence, despite opposition by the ultra-Orthodox and the scoffing of linguists who said it could never succeed? Berdichevsky spoke to Moment about the transformation of a biblical language and the rift between Hebrew-speaking Israelis and Jews living abroad. –Rachel E. Gross

Where does the term “Hebrew” come from?

The word Hebrew in Hebrew is “Ivrit.” It comes from the book of Jonah, when Jonah is asked where he’s from and he responds, “Ivrit, anochi”: I am a Hebrew. That term became intimately associated with the name of the language, and with the development of a distinct culture from what had previously been the vehicle of Jewish hallways, Yiddish.

How did the movement to establish Hebrew as the national language for a nation of Jews begin?

Even before 1880, there were attempts to mold Hebrew into a national language. One individual led the way in the late 19th century to combine the change of the language with the adoption of a new sense of nationhood in Palestine by immigrating there himself: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He slowly gathered a number of sympathizers, who began the epic transformation to modernize the language. This was vociferously objected to by the ultra-Orthodox, who had come to regard Hebrew as a sacred tongue and believed that using it for any secular purpose was heresy. This view persisted until basically 1900, when many of the new settlements established by Zionist pioneers had come to accept and utilize Hebrew as a secular language. It was given a huge shot in the arm when it was adopted by Technion, the technical college in Haifa, which replaced German with Hebrew in 1913. That was an initial step that made the world aware that Hebrew was a language fit for all the uses of the 20th century. By 1925, when Hebrew University was inaugurated, there was no debate that Hebrew would be the language of instruction in all fields.

What are a few obstacles modern Hebrew has had to overcome?

Linguists had denied that it was possible. There was no other example. Attempts to reintroduce Latin as spoken language, or the Irish struggle to revive their language—none succeeded. No other people was able to do this to the extent of Hebrew. It was not just a matter of vocabulary. A whole society had to be built involving every level of education, every occupation, every profession. In 1910, a number of visitors came to and visited the agricultural settlements. They asked the children, “What are those flowers?” The children answered, “Flowers don’t have names.” They had not created the names of those flowers.

What major updates did Zionists have to make to biblical Hebrew?

The language had to change radically. Biblical Hebrew has a vocabulary of about 7,000 words, of which maybe 1,000 or more are totally obscure. It was totally unfit even for the end of the 18th century, let alone the 20th century. An educated Israeli today has a vocabulary of at least ten times that. There are also significant differences in the structure and grammar of the language. For instance, if you look at biblical Hebrew the tenses are completely out of joint; the past and the future mix in the same sentence, for stylistic purposes. Modern Hebrew also established a standard pronunciation that didn’t exist before. Today there’s no more confusion over the tenses: There is a past tense, a present tense and a future tense just like in English. Hebrew has been molded into the format of an Indo-European language, even though it was originally a Semitic language.

Why should we care about modern Hebrew?

In world terms, it’s a minor language. There are only 7 million speakers in Israel, plus half a million ex-Israelis. But consider that, in 1880, not one individual in the world spoke Hebrew as a first language—as the language learned at home from infancy from their parents. There were zero. Today there are 7 million. In terms of growth, you could say that modern Hebrew is the fastest-growing language in the world from 1880.

Why is it considered a “dangerous” language?

First it was considered dangerous by the Orthodox, who feared that this language would eventually be used for every purpose, to write cheap novels, to put as tattoo slogans on your body, to advertise prostitutes, to write pornographic novels. All of these things they predicted have come to pass, because it is a language today like any other language.

In the Soviet Union it was actively persecuted for 70 years. No books, no magazines, because the Communist party condemned Zionism and with it Hebrew, which they said was artificial and could not represent the proletariat, the working class. They said that all Jews were being given the chance for a national existence through the Soviet nationalities policy, which recognized Jews as a nation only with Yiddish as their official language.

The refusenik movement in the Soviet Union began with the intense desire by many Russian Jews to learn Hebrew. They had to petition, they had to organize. It was not taught in any school. There were penalties for using any public facility for teaching it. Those who were suspected of teaching Hebrew, which was outlawed in all public institutions, were often regarded as suspicious and charges trumped up to imprison them on all kinds of other accusations. From 1922 or 23 until the 1970s, Hebrew culture was suppressed throughout the Soviet Union.

How has the lack of a common language separated Jews abroad from Israelis?

During my last term teaching Hebrew, the celebrated Israeli singer and song writer Arik Einstein died. This was an entertainer as successful as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash combined. His passing in Israel was a national occasion for mourning. Yet 90 percent of my students didn’t know who he was. So Jews are divided into two separate cultures, two separate societies by language. The Jews abroad in the diaspora, whether they’re sympathetic to Israel or not, don’t participate in the same culture as Israelis. Whereas Israeli Arabs, whatever their political views, share in the same national culture to a considerable degree.

How has Hebrew impacted the non-Jewish community in Israel?

Non-Jews in Israel, especially the Arab minority, have considerably absorbed Hebrew. Sixty percent or more are able to use Hebrew in their professions. As paradoxical as it may sound at the present moment, Hebrew is often preferred to Arabic because Arabic suffers from a number of severe problems: division into dialects and a lack of textbooks and a standard literary language. Many Israeli-Arabs prefer textbooks in Hebrew. Whatever you may hear about the difficulties in the Arab minority, I’m convinced the majority would not want to live in an Arabic-speaking Palestinian state, where their career opportunities would vanish overnight.

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