The Battle Against Modern Hebrew
Picture of seven ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi (European descent) men in Jerusalem, taken in 1876. Since Eliezer Ben Yehuda and his bride Devora arrived to live in Jerusalem in 1881, these men were most probably among those mobs of religious Jews who fought Ben Yehuda as he worked to revive the ancient Hebrew language for a future modern Israeli nation.
By Shira Sorko-Ram
Part IV of a series —
Down through the ages the Hebrew Bible has been preserved in its original beautiful lyrical language.
But as far as a 19th-century Jew trying to speak that same language of the prophets in a modern setting, it was a clumsy and awkward struggle. The Hebrew Bible has a total of 6259 unique words. (To give some perspective, the English language today has over 170,000 words in current use; Hebrew, about 80,000.) That’s why no one tried to speak Hebrew as an everyday language. No one, that is, but Eliezer Ben Yehuda. Not only were he and his family speaking in “everyday Hebrew” at home, he was teaching Hebrew at a Jewish school in Jerusalem. It took no time at all for him to understand that thousands more new words were needed for a modern language version.
Despite his abject poverty, Ben Yehuda’s personal example and his passion and skill in teaching had already made a great impression on others, many of whom themselves became teachers.
Though young Jewish pioneers had struggled mightily to start learning to read, write and speak Hebrew, not a single Hebrew dictionary existed anywhere in the world. In the 1880’s, you still needed new words like post office, ice cream, jelly, omelet, towel, bicycle, camera, light bulb, jump rope and dolly.
With so few people pioneering the language, it was crucial they would all be on the same page—literally. The new words being added to the modern Hebrew language must all come from the same source. Ben Yehuda understood there was no one else of his generation who could tackle such a project. But even he didn’t envision a Hebrew dictionary would take 50 years.
And so he began by writing on little pieces of paper every new word he found in some ancient document, or from the mouth of his “first Hebrew child” Ben Zion, or simply from his own creative mind. He was determined that each word would have its root based on a Biblical source and he wanted no foreign words in his dictionary. Soon he had boxes of bits of paper—each with a word as priceless to Eliezer as gold. But there was no food on the table.
Eliezer Ben Yehuda at work on his weekly Hebrew language newspaper The Deer.
LOOKING FOR FINANCIAL HELP IN RUSSIA
At his wife’s encouragement, he left for Russia to the home of Devora’s parents who were well-to-do entrepreneurs. Since his main source of income was from subscriptions to his weekly newspaper, The Deer,he hoped to add subscribers at the meetings his father-in-law had arranged. Solomon Jonas was ready to help his rather unusual son-in-law, although he was surprised to see Eliezer now dressed in Turkish apparel as an Orthodox Jew who ate only kosher food!
There was no doubt that Ben Yehuda was an inspiring speaker. He began with his mantra: “The day is short, and the task is great!” This was a motto he had put in his office, purposely in front of his eyes.
His message to Russian Jews was both urgent and electrifying: “We, the Jews, have for too long, put all our faith in a miraculous national recovery, in the ‘coming of the Messiah.’ The people who continue to follow that expectation will be lost forever. God will not help any who will not help themselves. He created Adam to toil in His garden. We must learn from Adam. The time has come to help ourselves. We must act, and act now.”
He then went to Paris and was surprised to see how enthusiastically he was received. A shift had taken place. Instead of a dreamer, they were accepting him as a voice of a nationalist movement.
CHAOS WITH HIS NEWSPAPER
He headed home, not knowing his friend, Michael Pines, who had been substituting for Eliezer as editor of his newspaper, had written a super controversial pro-religious article about letting the land rest from crops for a whole year every seven years, as in Bible days. This article had the settlers up in arms.
Because the settlements of farmers were just trying to get the first crops out of the infertile soil that had lain barren for 2,000 years, Eliezer knew that letting the land lay barren again for a year would spell disaster for the new farmers.
He immediately wrote an article negating Pine’s article, telling the farmers to stay steady and keep farming through this initial step. At this time, Eliezer and his wife were both practicing ultra-Orthodox Jews, but he felt God would consider it more important for his people to stay alive than to observe the “Shmitah,” the seventh year of rest. And that was the end of his friendship with Pines, one of his very few good friends.
BLACK CANDLE CURSE FROM THE RELIGIOUS
For the Ashkenazi (European) Orthodox Jews, Eliezer’s article was the final straw. They called him a heretic of heretics, a great deceiver, and they proceeded to ban the building where his newspaper, The Deer,was printed. Again, they performed a ceremony of lighting black candles in their synagogue and a bill of excommunication was read. Rabbis spoke of the heresy of thinking that the land could be redeemed without the help of God.
A snapshot of his newspaper with its headline The Deer.
Ben Yehuda’s response was instant. He told Devora, “The Orthodox have broken with me—and I am going to break with them. They will never accept us. We will always be outsiders.” For seven years he and his wife had kept every detail of the rabbinical law, believing their observance would help unify the Holy Land’s Jews. But at that moment, he took off the robe, removed his red fez, threw them on the floor, stomped on them, and cut off his beard. (He trimmed it to a goatee.)
Because the Sephardic Jews of Jerusalem (those who came from Arab countries) were not nearly as fanatical, he was still able to buy paper from them, use the same print shop and continue with his newspaper.
THE ORTHODOX SHOULD WORK
And with that newspaper, he tore into the Ashkenazi Jews. He blamed them for holding back the progress of Israel. He hit them where it hurt. He demanded that the large sums of donations the rabbis received be accounted for. He wanted the books opened to see how much the rabbis took for themselves, and how much their close friends were getting.
He recommended the rabbis buy land and give it to their yeshiva students to settle on, to build homes and establish small farms for their families—to work—instead of living off the dole.
The response of the Orthodox was yet another ban. Ben Yehuda’s home was now a no-go zone. No religious Jew could enter either his office or house on pain of severe punishment.
Those in the town of Jaffa and the settlements were completely on Ben Yehuda’s side. They knew if they didn’t plant that year, they would starve. But as far as personal friends from Jerusalem, only Nissim Behar, the Allianceschool director, publicly came to his defense.
DEVORA TEACHES HEBREW UNTIL BANNED
Devora was now friendless, as all her acquaintances were afraid to defy the elders of Jerusalem. Then a unique opportunity was presented to Devora. Nissim Behar’s sister opened an Allianceschool for girls under the patronage of Baron Edmond Rothschild. Devora was asked to teach Hebrew, which allowed Eliezer to give all his time to his newspaper and the dictionary. Even this reprieve, however, was short-lived, as the Orthodox threatened a ban on the Allianceschool if Devora continued to teach there, so she was forced to leave.
The rage of the Orthodox didn’t stop there. Eliezer was warned by a young friendly Sephardic rabbi that there was a plot to kill him. But Eliezer refused to change his daily routine. The next day as he and his son Ben Zion entered the walls of the Old City riding a donkey, a mob of youths with sticks and rocks came at the two of them.
If it weren’t for some storekeepers, and then the police, they would have beaten them to death. Upon hearing of this, a “cavalry” of young settlers came up on horseback from the coastal plain to guard the Ben Yehudas—which temporarily put an end to the murderous attempts.
AN AMAZING FINANCIAL BREAKTHROUGH
Nissim Behar finally wrote Baron Rothschild, describing the incessant and endless persecution against Ben Yehuda and his family. And wonder of wonders! Who should come to his rescue but Rothschild himself! Though Rothschild did not believe Hebrew would ever become a widely-spoken language again, he admired Ben Yehuda’s work.
In a letter he wrote: “Have no fear, Ben Yehuda; I shall personally support you in your fight, both spiritually and with money. From now on you will receive a regular salary from my agent for your literary work.”
For a little while, life was kinder. The Deerprospered, increasing in size and importance. It was the first Hebrew newspaper to be published as a news journal in the style of the best European papers. Devora even had a maid to help with the kids, including a newborn. Her oldest was nine, and he was now helping teach his siblings beautiful Hebrew. The Allianceschool had Hebrew teachers giving studies in geography, history and math—all in Hebrew.
And then she began to cough.
PREPARING FOR THE WORST
Eliezer was running full steam ahead with his newspaper, his dictionary and his family life when Devora’s tuberculosis intensified. Eliezer knew that her condition was now fatal. He had five children, and he needed to prepare them for their mother’s death.
In desperation he appealed to his own mother, Feyga, to come from Russia to help his family. He had her smuggled in as a sack of potatoes. However, he would not allow her to speak a single word to his five children because she couldn’t speak Hebrew!
Devora begged for her own mother to also come, and Eliezer managed to smuggle Mother Jonas in, too. But when she arrived, Devora was already in the hospital—and was almost unrecognizable to her mother.
Mrs. Jonas wanted her daughter out of the hospital. She quickly searched Jerusalem for a nice comfortable home with a lovely garden, rented it and moved the whole family in. Devora spent the summer basking in the garden with her children, mother and mother-in-law. In the evening, she would sit with her husband in his study and read until she went to bed. Though she seemed to be better, she knew her time was short, evidenced by her letter on September 10, 1891 to her sister Paula, whom she had not seen for ten years.
HER LAST LETTER
In it, she begged Paula to take her place and marry Eliezer! She wrote that she thanked God for every minute she had shared with her husband. But now her time was quickly coming to an end. It would not be easy, Devora wrote Paula, as “Eliezer is a man with a mission and there are five children” she would have to take on. But it would be worth it, and “you shall establish a place for yourself in history.”
Fifteen days later, Devora let out a shrill cry as she coughed up blood. Eliezer rushed to find more blankets to cover her shivering body. While he was gone, her last words were to her mother: “Promise me, mother! Promise me now, mother. Paula for a wife…Promise me—or I shall leave this world the most miserable of women.”
Mother Jonas answered, “Yes, my darling Devora. If she is willing, I will allow it. If that is what you want, I promise.”
And then she was gone.
Eliezer spoke to his two oldest children, “It is fitting that we cry. But don’t be sorry. She has done her task, she fulfilled her duty. We, too, must fulfill our duty…she was the first Hebrew mother in two thousand years. She was the Matriarch of all Hebrew children yet to be born.”
The Gravestone of Devora Ben Yehuda on top of the Mount of Olives. Insert: one of very few pictures of Ben Yehuda’s first wife.
YOU MAY NOT BURY HER HERE!
The Ashkenazi undertakers placed the body of his wife on a stretcher and began to walk in the direction of the Mount of Olives. Following behind, Eliezer had only two people with him—his oldest son, Ben Zion, and his friend, Nissim Behar.
As they walked towards the cemetery, a stranger joined them. He was a tall, thin man wearing a black robe and a black, wide-brimmed hat. This stranger was singing from the book of Lamentations. To Eliezer and his son, his voice was so soft and deep that it seemed to come from another world.
Halfway up the Mount of Olives, a group of Orthodox awaited them. They blocked the carriers, waving their fists at Ben Yehuda. They shrieked that since Ben Yehuda was under a rabbinical ban, his wife could not be buried on the Mount of Olives.
NO RABBI INVITED
Furious, Ben Yehuda rushed alone back down to the Old City, and quickly returned with Sephardic undertakers. A fist fight broke out while the nine-year-old boy stood by his mother’s body, wondering where she could be buried. All the while, the stranger was chanting Lamentations.
Finally the Ashkenazi mob relented and allowed the body to be carried to the top of the Mount for burial. But Ben Yehuda did not bring a rabbi or a prayer book to the grave site. As the two men and one boy stood silently, the man in black sang Proverbs 31: An excellent wife, who can find?
As they walked back to Jerusalem, Eliezer turned to invite the stranger for a cup of tea in his home. The stranger was gone. His identity remains a mystery to this day to the Ben Yehuda family.
BEN YEHUDA’S TRIBUTE
Subscribers of The Deer waited impatiently to read what Ben Yehuda would write about his beloved Devora. But after the seven days of mourning (Shiva) the next issue of his newspaper made no reference to her passing, or the controversy with the Orthodox over her burial. Instead, Eliezer placed in a black border the verse in Jeremiah 2:2:
I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine betrothals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.
After the mourning period, Mother Jonas packed her bags to return to Moscow. She could not bring herself to tell Eliezer about Devora’s last wish for him to marry her sister, and left for home.
Eliezer’s mother, Feyga, stayed on. But she was not allowed to speak to her grandchildren because of her lack of ability to speak Hebrew.
Within two months, a terrible epidemic of flu hit Jerusalem and three of his five children died. They were buried next to their mother on the Mount of Olives. Eliezer began to cough and bleed again. The Orthodox community heard the news of Eliezer’s failing health with joy and satisfaction. God had vindicated them of their enemy. “Soon,” they said, “we will be rid of this man and his heretical ideas forever!” Indeed, their struggle against him had just begun.
To go the Part III, click here.
Fulfillment of Prophecy, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, by Eliezer Ben Yehuda (grandson) 2008; Tongue of the Prophets, The Life Story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda by Robert St. John 1952; https://goo.gl/MVmMUK; https://goo.gl/8r29uN
Correction: in Part 3, Moshe Sertok (Sharett) was Israel’s second Prime Minister, not President.