Hebrew has existed for over 3,000 years, but if Moses were to walk along a Tel Aviv street, would he understand the conversation? According to Lewis Glinert, author of The Story of Hebrew, the answer is yes.
The first language of millions of Israelis today, the story of Hebrew’s origins and evolution is extraordinary. Over the millennia, it attracted Kabbalists and humanists who sought philosophical truth, and Colonial Americans on a quest to shape their own Israelite political identity. The Story of Hebrew explores the hold that Hebrew has had on Jews and non-Jews alike, who have invested it with a symbolic power far beyond that of any other language in history. Preserved by the Jews across two millennia, Hebrew endured long after it ceased to be a mother tongue, resulting in one of the most intense textual cultures ever known. Recently, Glinert answered some questions about his book, Hebrew’s rebirth, and the elemental force driving this unique language.
LG: Hebrew is certainly unique among languages in being reborn as a mother tongue after 2,000 years—reborn just a century ago, and spoken today by millions. I’ll leave the definition of miracles to philosophers. Even if we could be sure of the constellation of social, political and spiritual forces that made it happen—and we really aren’t—it was clearly an extraordinary event in human history. Could it be repeated? Perhaps. But it’s a tall order to recharge languages in decline even if they’re still spoken, let alone when all you have is written texts.
So how did the rebirth of Hebrew start? Was there a moment of conception?
LG: Yes, it was quite a romantic affair—at least as I heard it from a 91 year old lady, Dola Ben-Yehuda, when I interviewed her 25 years ago for a BBC documentary. She was the last living daughter of the man they called ‘the father of Modern Hebrew,’ Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He was a fiery young Jewish nationalist, but deeply pessimistic for the future of Jewish cultural identity. So one day he resolved that the Jews must speak their own ancient tongue in their ancient homeland—and in 1881 he made a tryst with his bride that they and any offspring they might have would sail to Israel and speak only Hebrew. And they did! Her father, she told me, wouldn’t even send them to parties in case they picked up Yiddish or Arabic. So there’s your moment of conception…
So one family revived Modern Hebrew?
LG: Far from it. They had to get tens of thousands of people on board—and make it economically viable. Playgroups, schools, workplaces, newspapers, public institutions. They also had to coin an entire modern vocabulary. Pre-State Israel attracted waves of Zionists who loathed Yiddish and other Diaspora languages and loved Hebrew. Some of them, in fact, had already acquired Modern Hebrew in Europe, from newspapers and novels. And then in 1917 came the British, who at first supported Jewish statehood and actually financed the entire school system in Hebrew (standard colonial policy!).
“Let There be Hebrew” is the intriguing name of your first chapter. Does Genesis portray Hebrew as the mother of all tongues?
LG: Not in so many words! But the opening chapters of Genesis explain several names of persons by what they mean in Hebrew. Thus Adam calls his wife Hava (Eve) because ‘she was the mother of all life’ (hay). So, yes, Genesis seems to imply that Hebrew was the first language. But there’s much more to it than that: Genesis has God say ‘Let there be light.’ Did language transcend Creation? How? Religious philosophers and mystics have variously viewed Hebrew as inherently sacred or as a regular human language, or somehow as both. As for the rest of the world’s languages, everyone knows the story of the Tower of Babel and the Lord’s linguistic retribution, but wait—here again, the Bible is unclear: Perhaps there were different languages from the start, and the World Hebrew lost at Babel had just been an acquired lingua franca, a kind of World English ahead of its time.
If Moses were to walk along a Tel Aviv street, would he understand the conversation?
LG: If you gave him a dictionary and a few minutes to adjust to the accent, then yes, Moses would be taking it all in. It’s the same basic vocabulary and word structure as 3,000 years ago, with a streamlined European-style syntax. Kudos to the men and women a century ago who grafted the new Hebrew onto its ancient roots. An Israeli adult can readily open the Bible and start reading.
What about Jesus and his disciples?
LG: Yes, they’d also understand today’s Hebrew! In truth, most of them were more comfortable in Aramaic, which had largely supplanted Hebrew (Aramaic was the main lingua franca in the Near East). But they must all have been versed in reading the Torah and the other Hebrew Scriptures.
You devote considerable space to “Hebrew in the Christian Imagination.” What has Hebrew meant for Christians?
LG: At times a great deal, at times nothing. For centuries, Christians learned the Bible in Latin or Greek or whatever, but suddenly a cry would arise: “Our translations are false. Let us revisit the Hebrew!” And so you have the 4th century hermit Jerome mastering Hebrew and producing what became the standard Latin translation. And again with the humanists—Erasmus, Tyndale, and the authors of the King James version. Hebrew also provided the combustion in religious break-outs: Reformation, Puritanism, Mormonism, and endless but fruitless attempts to use it to convert the Jews. And here and there, a quest for deeper dimensions (Christian Kabbalah) and a new society (Colonial America), which gave us all those American Hebrew place names and perhaps even contributed to our distinctive laws and values.
If a language can maintain its integrity and identity across 3,000 years, is there some elemental force driving it?
LG: A marvelous question. I tried to shake it off (Western academia is uncomfortable with the metaphysical!), but it kept coming back to haunt me. Up to our own times, for a Jewish person to use Hebrew, even just the Alef-Bet, was a statement, and often a struggle. It was about perpetuating a heritage or studying sacred texts, or just connecting with other Jews. The rebirth of Modern Hebrew was perhaps the most intense twist in this elemental vortex. But now, paradoxically, for many Israelis using Hebrew is often an act without meaning. It’s just in the air, taken for granted. For many other Jews, though, the elemental force is still with them—in their language use, their language community, and in the language itself.
What false beliefs have people held about Hebrew?
LG: To name just a few:
“Hebrew letters and sounds have magical powers”.
Esoteric, yes—in the right hands. Magical, no. But once widely believed by simple folk and by Renaissance scholars.
“Native Americans are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and spoke a garbled Hebrew.”
Wildly wrong, but some intelligent folk, especially millennialists, thought so—take Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress in 1782.
“Hebrew was dead for 2,000 years until it was reborn.”
OK, it has been reborn in a sense, but it never ‘died.’ It was no longer a mother tongue but it went on being written and read (often aloud), sometimes creatively, and far more widely and intensively than Medieval Latin ever was.
“During those 2000 years, it was just a language of religion.”
Nonsense. It was the written language for European Jewish science, medicine, trade, all serious writing—until the 19th century.
Of all the great works that Hebrew has produced, which would you say are the ‘must reads?’
LG: Where does one begin! Genesis, Isaiah 1 and 11, Ecclesiastes, Psalms 120-134, David’s lament for Saul (2 Samuel 1), Ruth, the Song of Songs, Job. So much of the Bible was once part of the English canon (sigh). Dip into the Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire (Hasidic wisdom), the short stories of Nobel laureate S.Y.Agnon, and a ‘must hear:’ the enchanting songs of Naomi Shemer.
What moved you to write this book? And where do you fit into the story of Hebrew?
LG: Like so many Jewish children down the centuries, I was raised in postwar London on the classic religious texts of ancient Hebrew—Torah, Rashi, Mishnah, Talmud—but when my parents brought me to Israel as a ten-year old, I was enthralled to see people speaking it. I remember thinking: gosh, they have a word for ‘already’ that I never saw, and my father wants me to buy a ‘bus ticket’ in Hebrew! I vowed I would never take it for granted. And behold, my Ph.D. dissertation and my first book were about the syntax of this amazing new Hebrew—then almost uncharted territory. But as I learned from my mentors in Oxford and Jerusalem, Roy Harris and Chaim Rabin, there’s another, richer and even more complex dimension of language: How we use it and what it means for us. And in writing The Story of Hebrew, I hope I can be a tiny part of this story.
Lewis Glinert is Professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, where he is also affiliated with the Program in Linguistics. He is the author of The Grammar of Modern Hebrew, The Joys of Hebrew, and The Story of Hebrew.