|“||Before Ben-Yehuda... Jews could speak Hebrew; after him they did.||”|
Childhood and Education
Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman was born on 7 January 1858 in the village of Luzhkiy in northern Byelarus, which at the time belonged to the Russian Empire. As a child he learned the classical Hebrew of the Bible and was such an excellent student that he was sent to a yeshiva, or Talmudic academy, to prepare for the rabbinate. There he met a heretical professor and under his influence forsook his religious traditions and became a free-thinker and a revolutionary.
At the age of nineteen, external events caused him to change his heart permanently and devote himself to the re-establishment of national Israel. In that year (1877), Russia declared war against the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey) to aid the Bulgar people in their struggle to re-establish themselves as an independent nation-state. Young Perelman decided that if the Bulgars had such a right of self-determination, then how much more so would his people, the Jews, who were an ancient and classical people, have that right. With this realization came another: that a self-determining people must have their own language, and that language could only be Hebrew, not the bastardized language called Yiddish that most Jews of Eastern Europe spoke at that time.
When Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman changed his name to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (literally, "Son of Judah") is not clear. In 1878 he left Byelarus and traveled to Paris, France to study medicine, but he contracted tuberculosis and was unable to continue. However, in Paris, on the Boulevard Montmartre, came an event that would shape his later campaign to revive the Hebrew language: he carried out a prolonged conversation, entirely in Hebrew, with a fellow Jew (whose name is given variously as Getzel Zelikovitz or Mordechai Adelman). His success in that endeavor would convince him to speak Hebrew exclusively and to encourage others to do the same.
His flourishing dates from 1879 when, at the age of twenty-one, he published his first essay, "A Burning Question", in the Hebrew periodical The Dawn. In that essay, he issued a ringing call for Jews everywhere to "make aliyah", i.e. emigrate to the ancient land of Israel, which at the time held few Jews. Two years later he was prepared to lead by his own example, by emigrating to Jerusalem. On his way, he stopped in Vienna, Austria (seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) to meet the publisher of The Dawn; there he met and married Deborah Jonas, a woman he had loved as a child. In 1882 his son Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda was born, and Ben-Yehuda determined to make him the first child since Biblical times to learn Hebrew as a primary, and even an exclusive, language.
Methods of language revival
When Ben-Yehuda was growing up, Hebrew was only a liturgical language, taught to Jews so that they could read their Bible (the Old Testament) in its original language, with understanding. Ben-Yehuda was determined to transform Hebrew into a language that could handle not only ancient concepts, but modern ones as well. To this end he employed several methods, but three would prove more important than the rest: "Hebrew in the Home," "Hebrew in the School," and "Words, Words, Words."
Hebrew in the Home
This concept referred to the total immersion of the home and everyone in it in Hebrew, and the decision by all members of the household, adult and child, to speak Hebrew only. Ben-Yehuda's first experience with using Hebrew exclusively in conversation taught him that using Hebrew in conversation was possible; he would make it habitual. When, after his arrival in the Land of Israel (then called Palestine), he encountered other Jews who knew enough Hebrew to converse with him, he was much encouraged. His son became a living experiment: the first child to speak Hebrew as a "native" language, after hearing it spoken almost exclusively for years.
Hebrew in the School
This referred to a total-immersion method of instruction in Hebrew: not by translating concepts into Hebrew from whatever other language a student spoke, but by commanding the student to speak and receive all his lessons in Hebrew, and to learn more complex concepts from simpler concepts, all in Hebrew. The headmaster of the École Alliance Israélite Universelle in Jerusalem, where Ben-Yehuda received his first teaching position, welcomed this method of instruction, for a simple reason: Hebrew was the only language that he could count on every student knowing how to speak, even if only a little. Though Ben-Yehuda could not teach for very long, on account of his failing health, other teachers followed his example.
Words, words, words
This concept, borrowed from the Ballad of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda by Yoram London and Matti Caspi referred to the need for new words, not present in classical Hebrew, to handle concepts with which men like Moses and Joshua and King David had never had to deal. Some kind of standard-setting organization was necessary to make sure that Hebrew would remain true to its Semitic roots while incorporating these new words. To this end, Ben-Yehuda and his followers established the Hebrew Language Council in 1890; this would later become known as the Academy of the Hebrew Language, to codify the invention of these new words. Ben-Yehuda also established his own newspaper, הצבי or HaTzvi (The Deer), in 1884 to popularize Hebrew further. Ultimately he composed his Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, a seventeen-volume work that his second wife and his son would complete after his death.
Within forty years, a core group of young Hebrew speakers would be formed that would perpetuate the language to their children and their children's children after them. On November 29, 1922, the officials of the British Mandate of Palestine officially recognized Hebrew as the language of the Jewish people living within the Mandate. One month later, Ben-Yehuda would die of complications of tuberculosis. As he lay dying, surrounded by multiple well-wishers who were carrying on conversations in various languages, he roused himself long enough to plead with them to speak Hebrew exclusively in his presence. The last words he heard were those of his eldest son, who offered him reassurance that he would carry on the dying man's mission.
The movement he began lived after him, and a language that had nearly died, returned to everyday life.
In 1993, lyricist Yaron London and songwriter Matti Caspi wrote the Ballad of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a song that expresses and pays tribute to his passion for words and his determination to promote Hebrew.
A one-minute summary of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's remarkable achievement.
The ballad of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, from the Israeli Oldies Channel. Performed by Matti Caspi, Chavva Alberstein, and company. In Hebrew with transliterated, English and Russian subtitles.
Original lyrics, with partial translations and illustrations, may be found here. Transliterated and fully translated lyrics may be found here. (Click here to hear the song in English. Sung by Sandra Johnson. RealAudio file courtesy Jewish National Fund of Canada.)
- Fellman J, "Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the Revival of Hebrew," <http://pravapis.org/>, 2001-2005. Accessed September 23, 2009.
- "Eliezer Ben-Yehuda," <http://www.wordiq.com/>, 2009. Accessed September 23, 2009.
- "Ben-Yehuda, Eliezer (1858-1922)," Department for Jewish Zionist Education, Jewish Agency for Israel, 2009. Accessed September 23, 2009.
- "Eliezer Ben-Yehuda," Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, 2002. Accessed September 23, 2009.
- Ballad of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda Lyrics by Yaron London; music by Matti Caspi; performed by Matti Caspi and Chava Alberstein; transliterated, translated, and annotated by Malka Tischler. From <http://www.hebrewsongs.com/>. Accessed September 24, 2009.
- Ben-Yehuda E, "Prologue: The Last Night," in Fulfillment of Prophecy: The Life Story of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (II), self-published by the author, 2009.
- Yudilovitch M, "UNESCO Honors Eliezer Ben Yehuda", Ynet News, 11 April 2007. Reproduced at <http://www.benyehuda.us/Foundation.htm>, the home of the Ben-Yehuda Foundation. Accessed September 24, 2009.
- Ancient and Modern Hebrew Dictionary explanatory site, Good News Media, accessed September 23, 2009.
- Fulfillment of Prophecy, by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda II (the subject's grandson). Contains introduction, summary, and link to an excerpt.
- Home page of Rabbi Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, grandson of the lexicographer.